Ernest Hemingway is without a doubt one of the most influential and renowned novelists of the last century. His distinctive minimalist writing style brought him widespread fame and his novels served as an inspiration for generations of writers.
The man commonly known as Papa Hemingway penned some of the greatest novels and short stories of the 20th century, from The Sun Also Rises to A Moveable Feast, many of them adapted into films.
Hemingway lived a life as distinctive as his prose style and his adventures served as material for many of his books. An overtly macho personality, Hemingway was preoccupied with guns, booze, war, bullfighting, hunting, and fishing.
He famously took part in several wars, including World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II, as a participant or journalist. He spent some time in Paris in the 1920s, becoming an integral part of a world of glamorous artists, writers, and socialites. The great author rarely spent time without a female companion, with countless love affairs and four marriages. As Hemingway himself wrote, “Funny how it should take one war to start a woman in your damn heart and another to finish her. Bad luck.”
Nonetheless, the American literary giant was found dead from a shotgun wound to the head on July 2, 1961. His wife, Mary Hemingway, issued the following statement: “Mr. Hemingway accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun this morning at 7:30 A.M. No time has been set for the funeral services, which will be private.”
It took some time before Mrs. Hemingway finally admitted that her husband had committed suicide, using his double-barreled shotgun. In the years since, Hemingway’s wrecked health, alcoholism, and depression have emerged as probable reasons for his action.
However, a genetic factor cannot be ruled out. This was not the first nor the last time that a member of the Hemingway family had taken their own life. The list is long and over four generations there have been at least five suicides, including Hemingway’s father, Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway; siblings Ernest, Ursula, and Leicester; and Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux.
The tormented family was analyzed in a 2006 paper titled “Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide,” written by Christopher D. Martin, an instructor and staff psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston. In 1928 Dr. Clarence Hemingway killed himself with his own father’s .32 Smith and Wesson revolver in his home in Oak Park, Illinois. His 13-year-old son, Leicester, was in the house at the time. Dr. Martin wrote: “Ernest’s father, a physician, suffered from unpredictable and dramatic mood swings characterized by episodes of depression and irritability.” Of late he was upset about his health and his money worries.
Hemingway, then living in Key West, Florida, with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, was shocked to receive a telegram with the news and immediately traveled to Oak Park. Just like his younger sibling Leicester, Ernest was devastated by his father’s death, but he tried to keep going with his work.
In a letter addressed to his editor Max Perkins, Hemingway wrote: “My father shot himself – Don’t know whether it was in N.Y. papers. I didn’t see any of the papers. I was very fond of him and felt like hell about it… Realize of course that thing for me to do is not worry but get to work – finish my book properly so I can help them out with the proceeds. What makes me feel the worst is my father is the one I cared about.”
In a letter to his mother in law, Mary Pfeiffer, Hemingway took a darker tone with the comment, “I’ll probably go the same way.” After his father’s death, Hemingway began to drink more and was preoccupied with violence. Some of his biographers are convinced that he was self-destructive with a level of accident prone behavior that seems too high to be coincidental. He was in a series of plane crashes and other accidents that left him with serious head injuries.
To say that Hemingway had a narcissistic personality and alcohol dependence is nothing new, but there is significant evidence that suggests the author suffered from bipolar disorder, which was called “manic depression” in his lifetime. (One of Hemingway’s sons, Gregory, is believed to have been bipolar. He died in a Florida jail cell in 2001; he was being held for indecent exposure and resisting arrest.)
“In 1960 Hemingway began to lose his battle with depression and suicide,” Dr. Martin wrote. He suffered from “paranoid delusions” that were “due to a psychotic depression related to his bipolar illness, complicated as it likely was by chronic alcoholism and multiple traumatic brain injuries.”
His article concludes that given all of the tragedy in his life, and Hemingway’s mental suffering, his literary achievements were even more of a triumph. “Clearly he possessed enormous strength and resiliency.”
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“We were, sort of, the other American family that had this horrible curse,” actress Mariel Hemingway, the sister of Margaux, told CNN in 2013, comparing her family to the Kennedys and stating that the Hemingway curse was mental illness. The actress has made a documentary film about her family and last year published a memoir called Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family.
Mariel Hemingway told CNN that she believes people need to talk about mental illness more. “Making it OK that it’s in your family,” she added, “it doesn’t shame anyone, and it doesn’t make anybody’s family an ugly, bad family.“