My Years With the Hemingways

By Valerie Hemingway

Ballantine. 313 pp. $24.95

Valerie Danby-Smith entered Ernest Hemingway's life in the summer of 1959 when she was 19 years old and he was approaching his 60th birthday, an occasion he viewed with dread. He was in Spain for the first time since the Spanish Civil War and was traveling with a small retinue to which he added the young Irishwoman soon after meeting her, paying her $250 a month plus virtually all living costs to work as his secretary. "Her creamy complexion, pink cheeks and tangled dark hair," Bernice Kert wrote in "The Hemingway Women," "reminded some people of Goya's Duchess of Alba." Whatever the precise reason for it, Hemingway was smitten by her.

Carlos Baker probably got it right in his pioneering if lumbering biography of Hemingway: "Evidently believing . . . that a miraculous renewal of youth could be achieved by association with a 19-year-old girl, he adopted Valerie Danby-Smith as his secretary, insisting on having her at his elbow during meals, at the bullfights, and in the car." As the Spanish summer ended and the Hemingways prepared to return to their finca in Cuba (Mary Hemingway, his fourth wife, had accompanied him to Spain), he asked Valerie to join them there -- more than asked, pleaded, with "his declaration of love, his neediness, and his intended suicide if I did not comply." Confused and unsettled, she turned to "a wise Irish friend" for counsel, and he was wise indeed:

"You're young. What have you got to lose? You're enjoying life and have a unique opportunity, which you will look back on with gratitude and pleasure. 'Tis an old story that men of a certain age become infatuated with the young girls on their horizon. As sure as anything, in due course Hemingway's affection for you will wane, and you can go on your way, nothing lost, everything gained. God go with you, girl."

He was right in general, though not in specifics he could not hope to have forecast. Valerie went to Cuba; she did typing and other secretarial chores, she established a friendly relationship with Mary, and she enjoyed herself immensely: "Life at the finca was a luxurious sojourn with no worries, tasty meals, good company, and lots of leisurely time to read and think. I was charmed by the warm climate, the lively and rhythmic music, the lush tropical foliage and colorful fruit, the genial people, the lazy Cuban Spanish dialect interspersed with expressive African words. . . ."

This soothing ointment had two flies in it. The first was the rapidly changing political climate in Cuba as emissaries from the Soviet Union began to horn in on Fidel Castro's revolution and as Castro's rhetoric blared endlessly from the radio: "Even the most illiterate person, and there were many, could not avoid the admonitions, the promises, the threats, the cajoling, the ever-present propaganda." The second was that, although Hemingway's occasional declarations of affection could be brushed off, his talk of suicide could not.

His writing career was over, and no one understood that more clearly than he did. "No matter how hard he tried, the writing was cumbersome and, just as he was convinced his eyesight was failing, Ernest was also losing his sharp and unerring editing faculty." It is no small irony that even as he bewailed his failing powers he was doing the best writing of his last two decades -- the reminiscences of Paris in the 1920s that would be posthumously published as "A Moveable Feast" -- but he was convinced that it was over: "He was truly finished. There was no future for him. There was no future for us." When Hemingway told her that, Valerie "felt strangely relieved," but when she responded "rather lightheartedly" he was firm:

"It was clear he thought I didn't understand. He meant that it was time for me to make my own life. When he had asked me to come to Cuba, he told me he was on the verge of suicide and the only thing that would make his life worth living was having me at his side. I had agreed to come. My presence saved him for a time, and he was grateful for that. But life is a bitch, and his luck had run out. He knew what he had to do. It was inevitable. But he would not do it as long as I was around. And he could not do it until he knew that I was settled."

Assuming that this is an accurate representation of Hemingway's thoughts, one is left to wonder what he really had in mind. Someone who talks about suicide as much as he did may have a lot more on his agenda than making declarations of intent: pleading for words or deeds that will prevent the suicide (i.e., returning his protestations of love in kind, perhaps physically as well as verbally), or spreading the guilt around, or simple self-dramatization. For her part, as Hemingway went on and on "in that confidential half-whisper of his," Valerie thought that he was "completely irrational," spouting "a nightmare of gibberish." It never occurred to her, as surely was the case, "that the sickness he suffered from might be a mental one."

More than a year passed before he finally did it, in Idaho on July 2, 1961. For most of that time Valerie was elsewhere, mostly in New York, where she struck up a friendship with the Irish playwright Brendan Behan that eventually turned into a lot more, leaving her pregnant. She named the boy Brendan and raised him herself, after Beatrice Behan reneged on her initial promise to bring the child up in her own household. For most of his boyhood, though, her son did have a man in the house, for five years after Hemingway's death she married his youngest son, Gregory, "who was charming, intelligent, and excellent company."

That this suggests an excessive attachment to the Hemingway family, or the Hemingway name, is a conclusion some are likely to draw, and perhaps some did at the time; but the evidence indicates that Valerie was as independent-minded as she claims and that each opportunity to attach herself to the Hemingways caused her considerable uncertainty and, in fact, grief. The suicide of the father pained her deeply and apparently does so to this day; the marriage to the son ended unhappily. Gregory Hemingway was a smart, talented man who never pulled himself together and ultimately succumbed to the "detestable habit" of cross-dressing that eventually led him to have a sex change. He and Valerie had some happy times and raised a family of their own, but ultimately his self-destructiveness was their undoing:

"I never had it in my heart to be angry with Greg, except momentarily, for he suffered far more than anyone I have known. So much of life passed him by because he was wallowing in despair, soaring with destructive mania, or discontented with the essence of his being. I remember back to that moment when he first left: the sadness, my feeling of abject failure, augmented by relief. . . . What an unbelievable luxury it was not to worry, not to fear, not to be threatened. In our final year together, life around Greg had become a prolonged nightmare. Now I could savor the simplest of pleasures. The ticking of a clock for comfort, the singing of a bird for joy, the taste of a raspberry fresh from the garden still bathed in dew. It was sheer happiness and it was infinite."

They divorced in the mid-1980s, and in 2001 Gregory Hemingway died. Valerie Hemingway now lives in Montana, where she does freelance writing and editing, having worked previously in journalism and book-publishing in various capacities. She writes lucidly and without affectation, and if ever a note of self-pity is struck in "Running With the Bulls," I didn't hear it. In what it tells us about Ernest Hemingway her book may be little more than a footnote to the vast literature under which he is now smothered, but it's a far better book than many of the unreadable big ones.