The old man and the secretary 

Valerie Hemingway on Papa’s last years and life with his son

When 19-year-old Valerie Danby-Smith met Ernest Hemingway in Spain in 1959, she had no idea that the rest of her life, intimately and professionally, would be indelibly connected to the Hemingway family. On her first meeting with Hemingway, the young reporter from Ireland quickly charmed the much-decorated writer. Soon after, he invited Danby-Smith to travel with him, his wife and a festive group of friends. Thus began a journey for the young girl from Ireland, who had spent 14 years of her life in convent school, that would change the course of her life.

At the time, the Hemingways were on the trail of two of Spain’s greatest bullfighters. Hemingway had originally intended to add an appendix to his definitive 1932 work on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, but Life magazine eventually contracted him to write an exclusive 10,000-word account of the rivalry between the two men. The piece, entitled A Dangerous Summer, would eventually grow to more than 100,000 words. At the same time, Hemingway was also writing what he called his “Paris Sketches.” The sketches would become Hemingway’s memoir of his youth in Paris during the 1920s, A Moveable Feast.

Two years before ending his life, Hemingway found a kindred and comforting spirit in Danby-Smith. As personal assistant and secretary, she rarely left Hemingway’s side. She lived with the Hemingways at their home in Cuba; she wrote out his correspondence; she typed out the chapters to A Moveable Feast; she stayed up late with him, trying to ease his insomnia; she was a receptive student to his natural and eager teaching. And she became his confidante in the growing malaise and paranoia that shrouded the end of his life. In a letter from autumn 1959, he writes: “My Dearest Val…I depend on you in so many ways and the letters that we do with fun are almost impossible for me to do alone…I’ll try to get in good shape fast and write a non sad letter. But triste and hollow and non existent is what it is when you’re not there and starting off this day I don’t know how to make it.”

Five years after Ernest Hemingway’s death, Valerie Danby-Smith became Valerie Hemingway when she married the writer’s son, Gregory. Though father and son hadn’t spoken in nearly 12 years, Valerie met and befriended Gregory at Hemingway’s invitation-only funeral in Ketchum, Idaho. There, ex-assistant and estranged son fell together as outsiders.

“A bond was formed then that led to marriage sometime later,” she writes in her memoir, Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways. “For nearly twenty years Gregory and I lived a turbulent, wonderful, dreadful, exciting life.”

The couple settled in Bozeman, where Valerie tried to balance her own life with those of her four children, and with the specter of her husband’s mental unraveling. The demons that had plagued him since childhood would end his marriage, compel him to undergo a sex change operation and, in a tragic series of events, end his life. By turns devastating, illuminating and poignant, Running with the Bulls reflects on life with two generations of troubled Hemingways. The story of her travels with the writer near the end of his life and her marriage to the writer’s youngest son “[i]s the saddest story and it is, in part, my own.”

She never thought she would write this story. In addition to the complications of writing a memoir while her children were young and while Gregory Hemingway wrote his own, she admits that Ernest Hemingway would have detested the idea.

“If I were brutally honest, I would have to say that Papa Hemingway would abhor my memoir. He would not reach for his mouse and click to to order a copy. I expect I would be persona non grata. Banished. Ernest had this great taboo about his friends writing about him. That was not something he encouraged. Generally he didn’t want personal pieces. Obviously, he wanted his literature to be discussed, but he didn’t want his personal life discussed.”

In her defense, though, Valerie Hemingway insists that “no one else could have authored this particular book.”

“Millions of words have been written about Hemingway and continue to be written about him with each passing year,” she explains, “and the original template becomes distorted. This eyewitness account may well be the final one. There aren’t many people who were close to him that are still alive.”

There is also the question of distorting Ms. Danby-Smith’s image. Bernice Kert wrote in her book, The Hemingway Women, that the 19-year-old Valerie’s “creamy complexion, pink cheeks, and tangled dark hair reminded some people of Goya’s Duchess of Alba.” When she reads this quote, Ms. Hemingway chuckles.

“‘Some people,’” she says, “were actually Ernest. I don’t think it reminded anyone else of that…it’s funny to have that suddenly thrown out at you 40 years later because, yes, Ernest had said on maybe one or more occasions that I resembled this portrait, which he happened to like. But you know, there are those who are sort of Hemingway lovers who have this image of me and maybe I’ve shattered that, I don’t know. I began to realize that I had become a character and I thought, you know, it’s time to say it in my own words.”

She never thought she would write the memoir, and he never would have wanted her to, but Hemingway is still the teacher. In his own memoir, for which Valerie typed the opening chapters, Ernest Hemingway wrote that he “always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence, and then go from there.’”

These are lessons his receptive student still takes to heart: “When I think of Hemingway and writing, what he taught me was it doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do—you start with one true sentence and then you write what you know. [While writing this book], I used two of Ernest’s principles: You never stop when you’re stuck. When you’re stuck you keep going on, so that you finish. And then when you start going well, that’s when you stop. When you start going well, you want to keep on writing through the night, but he always said, when you start going well, that’s when you stop. Then, when you get through the day and night, you get up in the morning fresh and you’re at a position where you can really go. And I think that’s awfully good advice, though it does require a little practice.

“Doing the book has made me come to terms with things I was sort of avoiding,” she continues. “When I was approached about doing the memoir, I thought I would just write about the time with Ernest…and that would make a nice book.” But publishers asked her to write about her marriage as well. “If people ever mentioned Greg in recent years, I just sort of ignored it and pretended not to hear, turn away or something.”

In some ways, the avoidance extended to Missoula as well. Gregory Hemingway spent much of his time here after their marriage crumbled. Valerie Hemingway regularly received calls from the Thunderbird Motel, where her husband had gotten into some sort of trouble.

“I must say, I did avoid Missoula for a long time. Often in life we’re trying to hide things or not to face them, and in a funny way I think it’s much better when you do face them because when you’re hiding something, you’re always sort of slipping up or thinking of how to avoid it.”

Sometime during 1959, she recalls, Ernest Hemingway read her palm. What he read there made him somber and silent. He never would reveal what he saw.

“I thought, later when I was married to Greg and when things went haywire, not that Ernest could have ever imagined…I don’t think he could have seen his son in the hand, but I wonder if he saw a sort of life, I don’t know, a sort of chaotic life. Although, I feel my life has been quite coherent.”

She chuckles again. “Maybe just because it’s my life.”

Valerie Hemingway will read from Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways on Thursday, Nov. 18, at Fact & Fiction. 7 PM.

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