Like Father, Like Son

Paul Hendrickson explores Ernest Hemingway’s softer side.
November 19, 2011

If you could meet one person, past or present, who would it be? For those so literarily inclined, Ernest Hemingway would likely be a common choice. Paul Hendrickson did the next best thing: he met with each of Hemingway’s sons, a batch of interviews that would resonate with him for nearly three decades until finally coalescing into Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, an ambitious biography that charts the author by way of his infamous boat, Pilar, but also searches for answers to more intimate questions in surprising places.

Hendrickson, a senior lecturer in the Department of English, was a veteran journalist for The Washington Post in 1987 when he conducted the interviews for a series of articles deemed “Papa’s Boys.” Jack, Ernest Hemingway’s oldest son, was residing in Ketchum, Idaho, the same place where nearly a half century earlier his father had taken his life by way of the shotgun. Hendrickson found Patrick, the middle son, in eastern Idaho, far from Ketchum.

“We spent the night trout fishing on the famous Henry’s Fork of the Snake River,” says Hendrickson. “It’s called fishing off the mirror; you use the moon’s reflection off the water to guide your hand. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Scoring an interview with Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, affectionately known by his father as Gigi, would prove to be the biggest challenge. “I was getting ready to leave Idaho when he called from Coconut Grove in Florida. He said, if you can get here tomorrow night, I’d be willing to talk to you. I expressed doubt, given the distance, but he was adamant about his time frame. So I drove straightaway to Salt Lake and then flew to Miami where I spent a surreal five hours with him.”

“I was getting ready to leave Idaho when [Gregory Hemingway] called from Coconut Grove in Florida. He said, if you can get here tomorrow night, I’d be willing to talk to you… . So I drove straightaway to Salt Lake and then flew to Miami where I spent a surreal five hours with him.”
– Paul Hendrickson

In Hemingway’s Boat, Gregory plays a pivotal role. His is a life surrounded by intrigue: an accomplished physician, Gregory was also a lifelong transvestite who eventually underwent gender reassignment surgery, ultimately dying in a women’s jail after charges of indecent exposure. From Gregory’s own mouth: “I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying not to be a transvestite. It’s a combination of things. First you’ve got this father who’s supermasculine, but who’s somehow protesting it all the time, he’s worried to death about it, never mind that he actually is very masculine, more masculine than anyone else around, in fact” [pg. 383].

In a revelatory passage, Gregory speaks of his father’s counseling on the subject: “He was trying to help me, I knew it, no matter how it was killing him, he said, ‘Listen Mr. Gig, I can remember a long time ago seeing a girl on a street in Paris and wanting to go over and kiss her just because she had so much damn red lipstick caked on. I wanted to get that lipstick smeared all over my lips, just so I could see what that felt like’” [pg. 384].

Hendrickson was fascinated with the pairing of father and son, a dynamic he’s explored before in the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Sons of Mississippi, a work of non-fiction that examines the legacy left to the children and grandchildren of seven white Mississippi lawmen who were famously photographed threatening violence in opposition to the integration of the University of Mississippi. In Gregory, Hendrickson sought clues about Ernest Hemingway’s own representations of gender, in particular, the ways in which he saw the father’s symbology played out in the son’s exterior. This inevitably resurrects the oft-debated relationship Ernest Hemingway had with women in his writing.

“It was very fashionable after Hemingway killed himself to claim that he had this hate for women—that he wanted to exclude them or make them one dimensional,” says Hendrickson. “Now scholarship has turned on its head. If you burrow into the work, you find a sly, deceptive understanding of women. So it took 40 or 50 years, but opinion is starting to veer from the claim that his female characters were merely doormats.”

Hendrickson cites characters like Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms, who through the course of the novel carefully balances love and her duty to the war wounded. Similarly, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hendrickson says Maria, though she has endured rape and the murder of her parents, remains stoic and stands up for what she believes in. And to delve into murkier territory, Hemingway’s posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, plays out gender reversal in an overtly sexual manner.

It’s all too easy, Hendrickson says, especially in the case of The Garden of Eden, to try to frame Ernest Hemingway as a sort of fraud, who after years of playing the masculinity card both on the page and in life—an obsession with drinking, hunting and other escapades that ironically enough, Gregory shared—was in reality a much more sensitive, complex creature.

Whether he was struggling with gender identity issues of his own—the wife in the book convinces her husband to dress androgynously with her, a scene that some critics say references Ernest Hemingway’s own mother’s “twinning” of him with his sister—or whether he was merely exploring, in writing, the intricacies of sexuality, Ernest Hemingway’s complexities surrounding gender seem to Hendrickson to be manifested in Gregory’s tendencies in life. And the fact that Hemingway knew The Garden of Eden would eventually be scrutinized shows a willingness to expose himself to his vulnerabilities.

“Here is a man who went to his writing desk every day despite a mountain of both mental and physical ills—the drinking, the depression. Hemingway and his son were bonded through these challenges. They were both far braver human beings than we ever understood. The father had an outlet in his writing—therapy if you will. Sadly, Gregory did not have that same release.”