There’s a question that Patrick Hemingway has been asked repeatedly by family and strangers alike: Did he truly know his famous father, Ernest Hemingway?
“I knew him as a person, quite different than how he is often portrayed,” said Patrick, 93, in an exclusive interview with the Star. While Hemingway is so often portrayed as macho, “a man’s man,” in “Dear Papa,” a new book of letters between Patrick and his legendary father, readers get the genuine dirt — the “gen,” as his father would have called it.
By the time Patrick was born in June 1928, his father was an established writer, having published three collections of short stories and two novels, with a third, “A Farewell to Arms,” well underway.
The 120 letters collected in “Dear Papa” are organized chronologically, from the first letter Patrick received from Wyoming when he was four years old, about Ernest’s desire to get a good hunting dog, through to May 1961, when Patrick was a besotted young father himself. The letters reveal — 61 years after Ernest’s suicide — an animated and candid relationship that is rife with humour, vulnerability and affection.
Each letter is titled with an evocative phrase pulled from its contents, like “Blame it on the Dictaphone,” “Lonesomer than Limbo” and “What a Bum Rubens is.”
As we spoke from his home in Bozeman, Montana, Patrick explained that he wrote the book with the help of his nephew, Brendan Hemingway, and grandson, Stephen Adams, both of whom serve as editors.
The letters capture a relationship, but also a time and place — the editors caution that “language and stereotyping that was commonplace” when the letters were written are “recognized as harmful now.” Likewise, there are “graphic depictions of fishing and hunting that some readers may find unsavory.” However, “none of the problematic words or phrases” that he or his father used in their letters are left out, Patrick said, because he wants this to stand as a historical document.
Nicknames were important to Hemingway. In his personal papers, he and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, addressed each other affectionately as Bongie, Scroob or Mook, among others. That trait carried on with Ernest’s children: first-born son Jack was Bumby; Patrick was Mouse, then sometimes Moose; and the youngest, Gregory, was Gigi or Gig.
“That was something that went on in Daddy’s family when he was a boy,” Patrick said.
We get a sense of Hemingway’s personal life, but also his writing life. In a 1939 letter, Ernest wrote, “got back to Key West all right but it is certainly lonesome with no family,” plus his legs ached from steering his boat all night from Cuba, but he was cheered by the progress on his novel: “74,000 words done on the book.”
“Dearest Mousie” was only 11 then, but already his father made note of his mental and physical health and his writing progress, aspects on which he focused for the next 20 years. Unlike his brothers, Patrick explained, he was interested in their father as a writer: “I don’t know why this clicked for me. I knew what he was trying to do. I was very sympathetic to him.
“I think that people are unaware that creative writing, I mean fiction, is very hard work,” he continued. “It’s dangerous work. If you’re making up things, one of the components of making things up is excavating your dream life.”
During his boarding school years (1942-46), which coincided with the Second World War, Patrick wrote entertaining, cheering letters to Ernest. He missed outdoor life in Cuba and the excitement of going fishing on the Pilar, his father’s boat crewed by ragtag locals, which was used to hunt German submarines that had been busy sinking U.S. Navy supply ships in the Caribbean during fall 1942.
“Greg and myself were never taken out when they were doing patrol work, though,” Patrick said. “We were left on a little island.” To avoid the war censor’s black marker, Ernest coded the sub-hunting activity in his correspondence, since Patrick knew that’s what “collecting for the museum” meant.
Playing football in his senior year, Patrick confessed in a letter, “not a reflex king. Catch football like red hot champagne bottle.” Ernest doled out paternal advice in return: “Try always to fall sideways to protect your balls as in boxing. Wear a jockstrap when you play.”
In spring 1945, when Ernest returned from the European front, 16-year-old Mouse met him in New York, telling me, “he was in very bad shape. He was coughing blood.” A month later Ernest wrote from Cuba, “I am sleeping good, spit no blood, chest and kidneys o.k. Head better all the time.”
After a bicycle accident in Key West, Patrick sustained a head trauma and decided to take a gap year before pursuing biology at Stanford. He suffered a psychotic break that, he says, “presented like schizophrenia” and was cared for in Cuba by his father and a psychiatrist.
“Instead of putting me in an institution, which I think a lot of parents would have done then, Daddy set up care for me at home. I really owe my life to that,” Patrick said.
There would be more heartache ahead: the sudden death of Patrick’s mother, Pauline Pfeiffer, in 1951, which he learned about while in Spain from a telegram Ernest wired (“will send flowers for you … nothing for you to do except not worry about anything Mouse and keep on working well”); his young wife Henny’s miscarriage; his father’s plane crash in Uganda in January 1954, which “really damaged him both physically and mentally. When he left Africa, I thought he was a goner,” Patrick admitted.
But there would also be joy: Patrick transferred to Harvard to study Italian Renaissance art and history, graduating magna cum laude, and temporarily devoted himself to painting; Ernest won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Old Man and the Sea” and then the Nobel Prize for Literature; Patrick became a father to a daughter and delighted in a letter, “We are a happy family … and blow before a fine West wind.”
Patrick’s letters buoyed Ernest: “Every time I hear from you it makes me happy because you write so clearly and well,” and he, in turn, pledged to “try to write funnier letters. Yest was birthday and laid off work today to write you in my fifty-sixth year … But we have good fun and that is more than most people have.”
And Ernest often assured as he signed off, “I love you always and am very proud of you.”
For Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s only living son, creating “Dear Papa” “gave me the chance to reclaim my own life. It’s my swan song.”
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‘Dear Papa’: Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s son, on the loving, funny father he knew