By Karen Ott Mayer. Photography courtesy of remezcla.com
When Valerie Hemingway was a 19-year old woman in Dublin, Ireland she wanted to be a journalist. A local professional told her, “then go out in the world and get some experience.”
Over 50 years later, sitting with a group of writers at the Hemingway- Pfeiffer museum in Piggott, Arkansas, the young Hemingway could never have imagined the road her life would take when she left Ireland.
Author of the recently-released “Running of the Bulls”, she served as Ernest Hemingway’s personal secretary during the last years of his life, eventually also marrying his youngest son Gregory. More importantly, Hemingway worked closely with Ernest Hemingway’s wife Mary after the famous writer’s death, sorting through his private papers and unpublished manuscripts at the Finca in Cuba. She is truly one of the last living links to the real Ernest Hemingway and her decision to write her own memoir came only after years of careful consideration.
“I decided it was time to put my side of the story down. Truth is so much more benign and biographers started to really just invent stories,” she said. Reserved, yet charming, she holds privacy dear in a world that has often helped create a mythical Hemingway. Her memoir is a fascinating, first-person glimpse into the daily life, struggles, joys and confusion that characterized her entire time with the Hemingway family.
“People create their own personal Hemingway and they tell me with great conviction who Hemingway was,” she said. She has witnessed countless movies, books, and other media created about Hemingway and unfaltering beliefs most of them to be near fiction.
Looking back, her personal friendship and professional working relationship with Hemingway came about in the most serendipitous circumstances. “I left Ireland and went to Spain to work in 1959. I met a couple in Madrid from a Belgian news service who needed an English writer to interview famous people. I learned Hemingway was in town and went to interview him.”
Her accounts are both poignant and humorous. She recalls with humiliation her first interaction with Hemingway,”My first question was a total gaff.” Instead of dismissing her, however, she said Hemingway asked her what she wanted to do. “I told him I wanted to be a journalist and he told me to forget about Ireland and get to know the country I was in.”
Hemingway invited the young Irish girl along for a summer of raucous, crazy fun and frenetic travel across Spain and France. The group spent the next four months following the bullfighters, and she, at the center of a rather exotic pace, living a lifestyle she never even imagined back home. “My primary job requirement was to be able to sleep little and drink and eat copious amounts,” she said with a laugh. And she said this was a very Hemingway trait to include a young person. “He loved showing young people new things and teaching, especially if they were interested in his work.”
By the end of the summer, however, she began to weigh her career options. When Hemingway approached her about a formal working relationship as his assistant, she didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. “Why would I want to go to Cuba? Frankly, I knew nothing about Hemingway’s life. Prior to meeting him, I was unfamiliar with his writing because his books were banned.”
She eventually decided to accept the position, and for the next two years, worked in Cuba, living at the Finca with Mary and Ernest. In Cuba, her primary duties consisted of reading manuscripts, helping with correspondence and letters, and fitting into the family’s schedule. Despite the romantic view of grand parties and endless guests, Hemingway reports, life in fact was private and only close friends were invited to the Finca.
“He really had a joie de vivre and loved reading, eating and drinking. Remember, by the time I met him, he was an old man. He was fiercely competitive but his lifelong ambition was to be the best writer he possibly could be. But he was also shy in social situations, too.”
And yes, his affection for cats held no bounds.
“Being a cat was the ultimate sign of acceptance to Ernest.”
They eventually parted, and at the time of Hemingway’s death, she had a tepid relationship with Mary—yet had developed a relationship with Gregory Hemingway, her future husband. When Hemingway died, Mary asked Valerie to return to Cuba with her and begin sorting out the massive amount of papers. Her memoir details those months the two spent, burning certain material, sorting others and even meeting Castro to arrange for the collection to return to the United States.
Eventually, Valerie would sit in a 5th Avenue New York office for four years, sorting through the documents and helping Mary decide their fate.