In late September 1951, Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, known as Gigi, was arrested after entering the ladies room of a Los Angeles cinema in drag.
We don’t know the name of the movie theatre he entered. We don’t know the day it happened (although Saturday night, September 29, seems probable). We don’t know who called the cops, or what police substation they took Gigi to, and whether they carted the kid in drag directly downtown to the central jail.
We do know they held him through the rest of that weekend, while his distressed mother flew in from San Francisco, and while he awaited a scheduled hearing on Monday afternoon, October 1. But records of that hearing, if there was one, as well as any record of the arrest itself, have disappeared. What may have happened is that, once word had come that his mother had died on an operating table overnight, the authorities let him go. And records eventually got tossed.
Gigi and his wife of five months were living in a one-bedroom concrete-and-stucco apartment two blocks in from the Lincoln Highway, in the seaside community of Venice. The unit was part of a complex of two-storey, look-alike post-war pastel housing spreading itself over eight or 10 LA acres. Their flat was about a half-mile walk to the beach. But neither Gigi nor his wife, the former Shirley Jane Rhodes – who was even younger than he was, who was descended from Cherokee Indians on her mother’s side (which gave her stunning high cheekbones), who’d worked a bit as a Powers agency model, who is said to have held a recent job taking tickets at an LA movie house – would have much free time to go to the ocean. They were both holding down $65-a-week jobs at Douglas Aircraft in nearby Santa Monica, and in addition Gigi was enrolled in a night class or two at UCLA Extension. (The two are said to have met on campus.) There had to have been pressures beyond the pressures of a new marriage between teenagers.
He was six weeks shy of 20 and an expectant father. He’d quit college back East at the end of his freshman year, just one more hard-headed and ill-advised and impulsive thing he’d done.
What else to say of him? He was getting a hundred bucks in the mail every month from his father as part of Hemingway’s divorce agreement with his mother. He’d become a semi-disillusioned believer in the gospel of L. Ron Hubbard and the pseudo-psychiatry of Dianetics. The year before, he’d been so certain that Hubbard’s claims about “auditing” your unconscious were going to rid him of the compulsion he despised and yet curiously craved. (All his life he would talk about the cross-dressing having this strange calming effect on his nerves, even as it was thrilling him.) At about the time Gigi had come to swallow Dianetics whole, Hubbard had come up with this crazed idea about Benzedrine, vitamins, and glutamic acid: the “Guk” treatment. It was a chemical way of auditing yourself, without the need of a partner. You self-administered huge amounts of vitamins every two hours for 24 hours. Might Gigi have been high on the Guk on the night he entered the unknown movie house? It’s only one more of the unknowns.
From Papa [Gregory’s memoir of his relationship with his father, published in 1976]: “In 1951, when my father was 52 and I was 19, I got into some trouble on the West Coast for taking a mind-stimulating drug before such things had become fashionable.” This is how he speaks of it (three times) in that beautiful, slender, distorting, omitting book – “the trouble.” The troubles. In relating the story of his mother’s death, he never mentions the movie theatre, or the cross-dressing, or the arrest.
Some 15 months before, in the early summer of 1950, right after quitting school, Gigi had enrolled as a student-researcher at the Hubbard Dianetics Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. There were six Hubbard foundations in America, and the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners was trying hard to shut down that branch first, perhaps as a lead for the rest of the country. In early January 1951, right after Gigi had come back from a Christmas visit to the finca with his New Jersey girlfriend (to whom Hemingway took an instant dislike), Hubbard had summoned him and another student-researcher in Elizabeth and told them to pack all his personal possessions – Hubbard’s, that is – into Hubbard’s black limousine and to leave for LA as soon as possible. The New Jersey authorities had begun proceedings against the Elizabeth office for practising medicine without a license. Gigi and his partner flew across the country in the overstuffed car.
He soon broke up with his Hubbard girlfriend, got classified 1-A for the draft, enrolled in night classes, began dating Shirley Jane Rhodes, impregnated her, married her before a JP (on April 29), and informed his father of the news after the fact. It was just the “logical thing to do if we are going to have a child,” Gigi wrote in a letter on the day following the marriage. She was such a beautiful girl, “one of the most beautiful women I have ever met (really!). Mother was crazy about her and so was Aunt Jinny, although I am afraid that this may not be of much comfort to you.” The same day, April 30 1951, Hemingway had wired from Havana: HAVE RECEIVED NO LETTERS FROM YOU SINCE YOU LEFT HERE IN JANUARY STOP GIVE ABSOLUTELY NO CONSENT NOR APPROVAL TO YOUR MARRIAGE WITHOUT FULL DETAILS AND OPPORTUNITY TO CHECK STOP LOVE PAPA. But it was too late.
He and Jane, working at Douglas, living at 1056 Doreen Place, unit 4, with a high-walled patio off the front of their unit, drove an old beater. Sometimes he’d put on his wife’s girdle, ruby his nails with her polish, strut behind that high wall. Was it “her” movie theatre he walked into on that Saturday night? Gigi’s first wife, who had a tragic history, is dead; we’ll never know.
Pauline [Gigi’s mother; Hemingway’s second wife] had recently returned to California from a quick trip to Key West, which was still her principal place of residence. For years she’d been coming to California, both Northern and Southern. She preferred San Francisco and just before she got the news about Gigi, had been staying with Jay McEvoy, a wealthy art dealer, and his sister in their big house on Russian Hill. She was planning a trip to New York. She thought she might go down to Los Angeles first to see her sister, Jinny, with whom she’d been staying on and off for the past two months. She seemed in high spirits, although it’s true she’d been complaining of headaches and poundings of the heart and a general feeling of anxiety. Soon she intended to go for a full check-up at the Mayo Clinic.
Jinny Pfeiffer and her long-time lover, Laura Archera, lived in a beautiful home high in the Hollywood Hills, on a hairpin curve, practically beneath the famous Hollywood sign. (To yank the story out of time: not quite five years from this tragic 1951 moment, Archera would marry widower and novelist Aldous Huxley at a drive-up wedding chapel in Yuma, Arizona. From the mid-fifties on, Jinny and Laura and Aldous would all more or less live together, each caring for the one as much as the other.)
Sometime on that Sunday, September 30, probably before noon, Pauline received a call telling her that her son was in jail, and the basic reason why. Was it Gigi himself who put in the call to his mom? It seems so, but again there is so much in his memoir that’s either elliptical or false. From Papa: “My mother … did not seem at all alarmed by my predicament but thought my father should be notified. When I said that it would be simpler if papa were not brought in she said, yes … a lot of things would be simpler if you had only one parent. But she wasn’t really at all upset. I can remember this as clearly as if it were yesterday.” Predicament. Put it in code.
Pauline apparently sent Hemingway a cable sometime that Sunday (I’ve never been able to find it) to the effect that their son had been arrested, and that the circumstances were messy, and that she was flying down to gather more of the facts and to try to get him out of jail and to keep the story from the papers. She’d be in touch from Jinny’s house at nine that evening, her time.
Despite what Gigi writes in his memoir, Pauline was very upset as she flew south. Jinny met her at the airport that Sunday afternoon. Pauline told her she wasn’t feeling well, that she had a sharp pain in her stomach. They drove to Deronda. Pauline made phone calls to lawyers and others. Laura came home from a swim at the house of one of her film producers. Laura and Jinny fixed a dinner for Pauline, but she couldn’t eat. She went upstairs to bed. The pain in her abdomen grew worse. Jinny and Laura called a doctor who said she might have to be taken to the hospital. Did Pauline force herself from bed at nine to make the call to Havana that she had promised in the earlier wire? Many years later, when she was almost 87, Laura Huxley would remember some of these details in an interview with Professor Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University, a Pfeiffer family scholar to whom I am much indebted. Laura would say there were several Hemingway calls that night. He was the one who placed the calls. Whether that’s true seems far less important than the fact that Pauline felt sick even before she got on the phone. And what did Hemingway, in full lashing-out mode, say to his weakened wife? To repeat Gigi’s words: “My aunt, who hated my father’s guts and who certainly couldn’t be considered an unbiased witness, said the conversation had started out calmly enough. But soon Mother was shouting into the phone and sobbing uncontrollably.”
A year later, Hemingway would write in a letter to Archie and Ada MacLeish: “It was a terrible thing having Pauline die that suddenly. I had talked with her, both very lovingly, an hour before she died on the coast.” (It wasn’t an hour before she died.)
Sometime after midnight, the house came awake with Pauline’s screaming. Jinny and Laura got her dressed and into the car. St. Vincent’s Hospital, at Third and Alvarado Streets, on the edge of downtown LA, was a good half hour away – in daylight. Tearing down those hairpin curves from the Hollywood Hills in the dark must have been terrifying. St Vincent’s was run by the Daughters of Charity, and the sisters themselves worked as RNs on the floors. The Catholicity of the place had to have given comfort.
Once they’d got her into the hands of the emergency room staff, Jinny and Laura decided not to stay. Jinny wasn’t feeling well herself. So Laura drove her back to the house on Deronda, and they went to bed.
Henry Randall Thomas was an attending surgeon at St. Vincent’s. In four days he’d turn 36 – so he was 20 years younger than Pauline. He was lean and soft-spoken, with residues of a calming southern accent. He was a man who enjoyed literature. He’d grown up in an Alabama family of nine and had studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship and had surgical training at Mayo. He was a native of Montgomery, and had graduated from Sidney Lanier High School, which is where Zelda Fitzgerald had graduated 14 years ahead of him. Did the name “Hemingway” on the medical chart register in any way that night as he and his surgical team worked furiously to stanch a haemorrhage from an unknown origin?
From Papa: “I can imagine the wild frustration of the surgeons as they searched for a bleeding point in the abdomen, where Mother had originally felt the pain.”
It was apparently Dr Thomas himself, at four o’clock, who awoke Jinny and Laura to tell them Pauline had died of shock on the operating-room table. They’d tried everything. (Virtually every Hemingway account lists 4am as the time of death. She died at three. It’s on the certificate.)
The body was taken to Pierce Brothers Funeral Home on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The mortuary was across the street from Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. In daylight, Jinny put in the calls to family members. (To repeat: she cabled Hemingway at 9am, her time.)
From Papa: “But Aunt Jinny told me nothing of the details of the phone conversation the next morning [he is referring to the Sunday night call at 9pm with Hemingway], just that Mother was dead ... My mother’s face looked unbelievably white at the funeral, and I remember thinking through sobs what a barbarous ritual Anglo-Saxon burial is.” But there wasn’t a funeral per se. Gigi has to be referring to the viewing, which was private, in the parlour of Pierce Brothers.
The next day, October 2, on page 20, the Los Angeles Times ran a small story under this headline: “Hemingway’s Second Wife Dies In Hospital.”
The Wednesday funeral was a brief graveside ceremony, casket closed. There were five mourners – Gigi, his aunt, his aunt’s partner, Jay McEvoy, and Garfield Merner, who was a first cousin of Pauline and Jinny’s. Patrick Hemingway [Gregory’s older brother] was in Africa and it wasn’t possible for him to get home fast enough. Did a priest say prayers? A burial Mass in a local Catholic church was out of the question: Pauline was a divorced Catholic. Jinny badly wanted to rest Pauline in a Catholic cemetery, but there was no chance of that, either, and so the path of least resistance was chosen: the non-denominational cemetery across the street. The plot cost the family $350. And a stone? It’s a hard and strange fact that, all these years later, there is still no marker of any kind at Pauline Hemingway’s grave. She’s there, anonymously, at what is now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, two rows in from the pavement, down from Nelson Eddy Way, under a spongy piece of ground, alongside the modest markers of Lydia Bemmels and Leiland Irish, in almost the literal shade of Paramount Studio’s main lot, not far from the tombs and stones and marble mausoleums of Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks (both junior and senior) and Bugsy Siegel and Rudolph Valentino and Fay Wray and Peter Lorre and Cecil B. DeMille and Jayne Mansfield and Johnny Ramone of the Ramones – to cite only 10.
I’ve deliberately held back the medical specifics of Pauline’s death, so that I could go into them in more detail here.
Gigi’s mother died of a rare and undiagnosed tumour in the core of her adrenal gland called a pheochromocytoma. If you have an undetected pheochromocytoma, your adrenal glands can produce too much of certain hormones, raising your blood pressure and heart rate. Such a sleeping tumour can explode in times of emotional stress.
As Gigi explains in Papa, a tumour like this doesn’t kill by attacking vital organs, but by secreting huge amounts of adrenaline – “which then make the blood pressure rise to incredible heights, often causing a rupture of an artery.” Gigi explains that there are generally two types of the tumour – “the intermittent and the constantly secreting types.” After reading the autopsy report (more on that in a moment), he was pretty sure she’d died of the intermittent type. Something as slight as standing up, or being jostled in a crowd, or a bad dream, could make the tumour “fire off”.
From Papa: “The tumour had become necrotic or rotten and when it fired off that night, it sent her blood pressure skyrocketing; a medium-sized blood vessel, within or adjacent to the rotten area, had ruptured. Then the tumour stopped discharging adrenaline, her blood pressure dropped from about 300 to 0, and she died of shock on the operating table.”
But Gigi didn’t know this for almost a decade. He’d thought his mother had died of a heart attack and ruptured artery of an unknown origin. In 1960, after many false starts, Gigi began medical school at the University of Miami. One of the first things he says he did was “to write the hospital where Mother had died and ask them for an autopsy report.” The report showed there was “no blood in the abdominal cavity and the autopsy showed only 500cc of blood in the space around her right kidney.” It was as if the patient, dying of shock, had bled out invisibly before the attending surgeon with the calming attitude and residues of Alabama speech.
Why, nine years after the fact, had Gigi sent for a copy of the autopsy? Well, he was a medical student and would have been medically curious. But it was much more than that; in a way it was everything more than that. About a month and a half after Pauline’s death, no longer a wage-earning aircraft mechanic, but rather an inheritor of $50,000 (it was true he didn’t actually have his mother’s inheritance in his pocket yet, but he had advances on it from the estate lawyers), Gigi and his much-pregnant wife flew to Havana to meet his father. There was wary distance between father and son, but Jane helped bridge it. Toward the end, Gigi let down his guard.
From Papa: “Referring to the trouble I’d gotten into on the Coast, I said, ‘It wasn’t so bad, really, papa.’
“‘No? Well, it killed mother.’”
That paragraph goes on: “Whatever his motives were, the yellow-green filter came back down over my eyes and this time it didn’t go away for seven years. I didn’t say anything back to him. He’d almost always been right about things, he was so sound, I knew he loved me, it must have been something he just had to say, and I believed him.”
He claims that the yellow-green filter didn’t go away until after he’d done many unconscionable things – such as going to Africa and slaughtering 18 elephants in a single month. The yellow-green filter didn’t go away until after a 28-year-old first-year med student at the University of Miami had written to a Los Angeles hospital and gotten an autopsy and read the specifics of his mother’s case and then done his own research on a ghost of a disease called pheochromocytoma.
Gigi says in his book that a year before his father committed suicide, he wrote him a letter (I’ve never been able to locate it), confronting him with the facts of the autopsy, as he interpreted them. It wasn’t what he’d done that weekend that had brought about his mother’s death; no, far more likely, it was the brutal conversation at 9pm on Sunday night that had caused the somnolent tumour to fire off.
From Papa: “According to a person who was with him in Havana when he received my letter, he raged at first and then walked around the house in silence for the rest of the day.” Next paragraph: “About three months later his first noticeable symptoms of paranoia began, with the worries about the FBI chasing him for income tax evasion.”
In about nine more months, Hemingway was dead.
Several pages earlier, Gigi recounts something else his father had said, as he and his wife were at the doorstep of the finca, heading for the airport, at the end of that visit after Pauline’s death: “I remember papa remarking, ‘Well, don’t take any wooden trust funds.’ I could see the humour and I smiled as we were parting.” Then Gigi writes, “I never saw my father again.”
But he did see his father again, at least once, at a critical juncture when Hemingway was trying with everything in him to help his son. Despite how he seeks to portray their relationship in the years after Pauline’s death, the letter trail proves they were in touch far more often than they were not. There were periods of silence and of rage, no question. But their mutual need to be connected, at least until toward the end of Hemingway’s life, when he’d lost touch with nearly everyone and anything around him, trumped everything.
As for what Hemingway had said – “No? Well, it killed mother” – that got said, at least the first time, in a phone conversation immediately after Pauline’s death. There’s a letter of Gigi’s documenting this. Why did he alter the facts? Perhaps because he wished to enhance the storytelling tension. He rearranged the truth from real life just as his father had been doing for his whole writing life. And no matter how devastating it had to have been to hear those words on the phone right after Pauline died, it wasn’t devastating enough to keep Gigi from travelling to Cuba a short while later to see his father. To me, it’s one more proof of how large his parental-approval needs were – like any child’s.
So is Gigi’s beautiful book built on a tissue of lies? No, it is a memoir, with a memoir’s faults, and then some. The essence of the story is all there, but it’s clear how he elided and omitted and rearranged and misremembered to suit his purposes.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to become a sadder but wiser man about all this is because I’ve closely read [Gigi’s eldest son] John Hemingway’s Strange Tribe (published in 2007), to which high tribute must be paid for correcting the record. Straightening out a record from what Gigi wrote in Papa – John was able to draw on and quote at length from previously unpublished letters between Hemingway and his son – is just one of the contributions he has made in a memoir-cum-family biography that is a deep act of honouring: loving someone for who they are.
St. Vincent’s no longer has any records of Pauline’s death. Nor does any California government repository have a copy of the autopsy. Nor does any Hemingway family member, at least that I am aware of, possess a copy. What exists as documentary evidence of Pauline’s death is the one-page death certificate. What happened to Gigi’s copy? Who could say? Metaphorically, if not quite literally, he was a man who lived most of his life in the five decades after Pauline’s death from the trunk of his car.
This is the first sentence of Papa: “I never got over a sense of responsibility for my father’s death and the recollection of it sometimes made me act in strange ways.” Like the best of openings, it’s a sentence conveying so much more than it tells. What Gigi is really telling us is that he never got over a sense of responsibility for both his parents’ deaths. No matter the terrible cruelty of his father’s words, no matter the seemingly exculpatory thing he later found in an autopsy report, he had to know, in some deep necrotic pocket of himself, that his father was exactly right; that by going into that movie theatre in women’s clothes, he had set off – call it fired off – the chain reaction of sorrowful events.
And the double guilt over two deaths would end up pursuing him right to pod 377 of cell 3C2 on Monday, October 1 2001, when a shamed child, former doctor, with his surgically altered genitals, with his pink-painted toenails, scheduled for a hearing later that morning on indecent exposure charges, was awakened by a corrections officer, rose, and five minutes later pitched down dead on his face.
Extracted from ‘Hemingway’s Boat’, by Paul Hendrickson, published by The Bodley Head at £20. Copyright © Paul Hendrickson 2012