In early December of 1928, when Ernest Hemingway was 29 years old and already a famous writer, his father Clarence, beset by years of anxiety and depression, could no longer go on.
But as a new three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick makes clear, Hemingway’s less-heralded relationship with his mother probably shaped the writer’s life in ways well beyond the one with his father — especially concerning the women with whom Hemingway was constantly falling in love.
Grace Hall Hemingway was an opera singer, though she abandoned her career to marry Clarence and raise a family — a sacrifice she constantly reminded everyone she’d made. She taught music and gave voice lessons in their Oak Park, Ill., home and was so popular that she earned more money than her husband, a family doctor. (She often reminded of him that, too.)
Grace was a big personality. Carol, her youngest daughter, would later compare living with her mother to living with someone who was constantly onstage.
“Grace exposed all of her children to the arts,” the narrator in the documentary says, “but she never let them forget that she had sacrificed a concert career to raise them. If they loved her, she said, they would do whatever she told them to do.”
This included subjecting her children, especially Ernest, who was born July 21, 1899, to some unorthodox notions of gender for that time.
Grace would frequently “twin” Ernest with his sister Marcelline. She would dress both of them as boys. She would also dress both of them as girls. Both children played with dolls. Both children also played with air rifles. It is unclear what prompted Grace to do this.
Hemingway’s mother also could be stifling. Clarence had to leave town several times to be treated for his anxiety and depression.
“By the time Ernest was a teenager,” the documentary’s narrator says, “his admiration for his father had begun to turn to pity. He came to see him as weak and submissive and blamed his mother for his father’s unhappiness.”
But again and again, Grace’s influence turns up.
She had taught Hemingway to love Bach, whose musical repetitions would inspire the sort of melodic repetition that colored his prose. She had instilled in him not just a love of the arts but a stern discipline about making art.
And she undoubtedly loomed over his relationships with women.
Hemingway, the documentary reveals, asked his wives — he had four — to cut their hair short like a boy. He liked to role play as a woman and for his wives to role play as men.
Above all, Hemingway loved falling in love, which he did about as often as he published novels. The breakups went poorly, just as they had with his own mother, and he often treated them similarly.
Though Hemingway supported his mother financially for the rest of her life, he never stopped holding her responsible for his father’s suicide. In a letter after his dad killed himself, he wrote, “My mother is an all-time American bitch. She would make a pack mule shoot himself.”
Hemingway lived the rest of his life in fear, according to Paul Hendrickson, one of his many biographers.
“Will that happen to me?” Hendrickson says in the documentary, stepping into the great writer’s psyche. “Will I become my father?”
An earlier photo at the top of this story was scanned in reverse by a wire service so the photograph appeared to be flipped.
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