The writer's former secretary and daughter-in-law writes an int

Friday, December 3, 2004

NEW YORK -- In the heavy, moist heat of the tropics, Valerie Dandby-Smith pecked relentlessly on a Royal typewriter, working from notes scribbled on cocktail napkins and scraps of paper. Her boss, a craggy Ernest Hemingway, was handing her rewritten chapters for what would become "A Moveable Feast."

While author and secretary toiled away at Hemingway's San Franciso de Paula farm, the Cuban revolution raged outside the walls of his island retreat.

The 19-year-old Irish lass had gone to Cuba partly because she enjoyed working as Hemingway's secretary, but also because the author had threatened suicide if she didn't. After traveling with him for months in Spain, she had become a muse to the aging writer. In turn, Hemingway was mentor to the young Catholic girl with wiry black hair and green eyes.

The months spent with Hemingway and his wife, Mary, in Cuba were comfortable, even decadent. But it was the last time she saw her friend and employer alive: Shortly after leaving the island, Hemingway killed himself.

"He was always guiding other people," she says. "We never thought of him as needing guidance. He was always the commander in chief."

More than 40 years later, Dandby-Smith -- now Valerie Hemingway, a name she acquired upon her rocky marriage to the author's son, Greg -- has written an autobiography. "Running With the Bulls: My Years With the Hemingways" offers an intimate, unique perspective on the name she now carries.

It was composed with care -- but not kid gloves -- and even reflects a bit of Hemingway's famous style.

"I waited for this. The timing had to be right for this book," she says. "I'm not sure how anyone would think of it, if they'd be upset. I doubt they would like it, though."

Valerie Hemingway sits in a cozy Irish pub on New York's Upper East Side. It is the kind of place where you go to feel at home. Clearly, Hemingway does: She sits back, relaxed, sipping her beer, as if she's at dinner with a dear friend. She is 64, three years older than Ernest Hemingway was when he died.

"I realized this afterward, and I realize this the longer and longer I live, that you simply cannot be responsible for other people. I think you can help them, aid them, but that is it," she says, reflecting on the Ernest Hemingway's suicide. "I think he made up his mind about it and there was nothing I could do. There is no point in dwelling."

Despite the turbulent end, Valerie Hemingway fondly recounts her days as a member of the Hemingway clan. As she speaks, it is as though a curtain is drawn back on the author's life.

"He was always embellishing people," she says. "He'd make them out to be so much more interesting than they really were. I don't know how he'd describe me, but he made me feel a much more important person than I felt myself to be. It was a gift, really."

Valerie Dandby-Smith was traveling in Spain, working as a freelancer for The Irish Times, when she was assigned a story on Hemingway. She tracked him down in a cafe and set up an interview.

During the conversation, she says, Hemingway immediately started offering her career advice: "I was going about my work the wrong way, he said. I should forget Ireland and see and learn as much about Spain as I could," she writes. He insisted she come along with him to Pamplona for the festival of San Fernin. She took him up on the offer. Shortly after, she had a job as his secretary, though it seems she spent more time having fun.

What is striking about Valerie Hemingway's story is how she was folded into the writer's ribald group, anointed as "one of guys" -- even more so than his wife, Mary. Valerie and the boys spent languid hours drinking, laughing and watching bull fights. She questions why she was chosen, especially because there was no official romance with Hemingway, who was notorious for his affairs.

"I wanted to be a fly on the wall, but he made me in that entourage the main character," she says. "I was so small in magnitude; everybody around him had an agenda, and I literally had no agenda. I had no idea how famous he was. I think he found that charming."

Her relationship with Ernest Hemingway grew closer. Mary Hemingway was quite mistrusting at first, and perhaps rightfully so. Hemingway had strayed many times since their marriage.

"If I had thought there was going to be a romance, I'd have been out of there," Valerie Hemingway says. "It wasn't what I was looking for. I wasn't drawn into their marital problems."

Ernest Hemingway, however, clearly felt an affinity with his secretary. "'But I can't get along without you. I knew it before. But now I know it for keeps,"' he wrote in a letter, published in Valerie Hemingway's book. "'I always love you as much in the morning when I wake as I do at night when I got to sleep -- could see you very clearly in the white part of the night and the dark part too."'

He made it clear he was desperate to have Valerie back in Cuba, threatening suicide. "I was horrified by that," she says. And so after time spent at home in Ireland, she arrived on the island, in time for the revolution. She later returned with Mary Hemingway to collect Hemingway's papers.

Her status also gave her a pass to a world of literary heavyweights. She met James Joyce, befriended Norman Mailer and heard firsthand tales of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Having the Hemingway name attached to a book, can help it along.

Mailer was kind in his assessment of Valerie Hemingway's memoir: "It is one of the best books on Hemingway that I have read, and it has material to be found nowhere else," he said in a blurb on the book's jacket.

Beth Bingham, spokeswoman for Borders bookstores, said the Hemingway name is helping sales.

"Hemingway books traditionally sell well, but this one is particularly intriguing and people are hearing about it," she said. "People are still interested in his life and story."

Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State University, is the editor of pending volume of Hemingway's letters. She said Valerie Hemingway's book is a valuable contribution to the canon of information about the writer.

"There are not very many people left that can give us a firsthand view of Hemingway. She was very young when she knew him and her relationship was very important to him, and I think she told her story with dignity and insight," Spanier said.

She said Valerie Hemingway's inside information on how Ernest Hemingway felt about the Cuban revolution was paramount.

"What comes out in the book is the extent to which the political situation kept him from his home and his friends, and how it affected him," she said. "That is something we don't know much about; he didn't speak much of it."

Hemingway never spoke of his son, Greg. There was bad blood, but Valerie Hemingway didn't know why. She met him at his father's funeral and the two struck up a friendship and eventually married, raising four children.

"It seemed to me I'd already lived one life before that," Valerie Hemingway says. "Greg was very different from Ernest. He was a wonderfully charming, erudite, interesting person."

But Greg Hemingway also had a violent, malicious side. The reason for the estrangement between father and son, Valerie Hemingway discovered, was because Greg Hemingway liked to dress in women's clothing. They fought, and he would steal her clothing and disappear. He eventually requested a divorce and got a sex change operation, referring to himself as Gloria, and then later died of heart disease.

"My children thought I'd gone mad when I told them," Valerie Hemingway says. "He was that good at hiding it."

As she finishes her drink, she glances out the door. Quietly, she says she always wonders what happened to the suitcase that Hemingway's wife lost many years ago and that he wrote about in "Feast."

"What we lose always seems to be more important than what we have," she says. "As he got older, and writing became harder, because he wanted each book to be better, he missed it more. It irked him forever. But it was the past he wanted back, I think."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: