When the Allied armies gathered at the outskirts of Nazi-occupied Paris in August 1944, Ernest Hemingway was a step ahead of them. The barrel-chested 45-year-old author and war correspondent had fallen in with a band of French Resistance fighters and was able not only to lead the way into Paris but also to “liberate” one of his favorite haunts, the Ritz Hotel, where his arrival prompted a riotous two-day party. “We had a hell of a good time,” Hemingway told his friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner, “until the rest of ’em caught up with us.”
Now, nearly 40 years after Hemingway’s 1961 death, the world’s writers, fighters and bons vivants are still trying to catch up with him. Though he is almost certainly the most influential American writer of the 20th century—his 27 books have sold tens of millions of copies—Hemingway’s powerful works are rivaled by his towering personality. “He was larger than life,” says author George Plimpton, who knew Hemingway in the ’50s. “He was the only writer who was a star.”
As his 100th birthday approaches, on July 21, Hemingway’s star is once again on the rise. Along with the annual lookalike and short-story contests held on Key West, Fla., where he lived on and off, the anniversary has triggered an avalanche of Hemingway-focused conclaves, articles, books, films and birthday celebrations in his native Oak Park, Ill., and elsewhere. Then there is Hemingway’s own True at First Light, a fictionalized—and already controversial—memoir recently edited by his son Patrick, 71. Some critics contend that Hemingway never wanted it published.
There’s little dispute, though, about the continuing fascination with Hemingway and his family. While the triumphs of his actress granddaughter Mariel, 37, along with the 1996 suicide of her fashion-model sister Margaux, then 41, echo Hemingway’s own life, his imprint can also be found in such commercial ventures as a line of Hemingway-themed furniture and accessories authorized by his sons. It can certainly be found in the works of his countless literary imitators and heirs. “It was fashionable to make fun of Hemingway,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Annie Proulx. “But his work is still with us.” Adds Norman Mailer: “His influence was everywhere—on our style, our philosophy and the ways in which we wanted to live our lives. I don’t think that can be said of any of us writing today.”
Born in 1899, Hemingway began his career as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. He came to international prominence after World War I (in which he was seriously wounded as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross), when he published The Sun Also Rises, the first in a line of brilliant novels that would include A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
When he wasn’t writing, Hemingway hunted big game in Africa, fished for marlin in the Gulf Stream, boxed anyone who challenged him, watched bullfights and wars from ringside seats and indulged his vast appetite for food, drink and revelry. Known universally as “Papa,” Hemingway’s exploits were reported—and often blown out of proportion—in the same gossip columns that tracked his movie star friends Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner.
Never comfortable with his celebrity, Hemingway saw his fame grow even more unwieldy when his taut novella The Old Man and the Sea snared a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and became an instant classic. Though he was now viewed as a national treasure, Hemingway’s battered body and fragile psyche were already unraveling. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” he once wrote, and then one morning shortly before his 62nd birthday the author used his favorite shotgun to destroy himself.
Since then, Hemingway has been both lionized and criticized for his machismo and his obsession with war, danger and death. But after growing up in Papa’s shadow, Jack Hemingway, who at 75 is the oldest of Ernest’s three sons, prefers to remember the dad who wouldn’t spank him even when he’d been naughty. “He could be so affectionate, warm and loving,” he says, sitting in the memorabilia-lined study in Ketchum, Idaho, not far from the small house where his father spent his last months. “Papa really enjoyed life in those days,” adds Jack’s brother Gregory, 68, a retired doctor in Montana. “He took us fishing and hunting and played baseball with us. And he was so much fun!”
Hemingway’s own childhood was complicated, to say the least. The second of six children born to Clarence Hemingway, a doctor who would commit suicide in 1928, and his artistic if autocratic wife, Grace, Ernest refused to go to college after the war, so infuriating his mother that she marked his 21st birthday by kicking him out of the house. Years later she sent him the pistol his father had used to kill himself. “I thought you’d want this,” she wrote.
Married in 1921 to Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis heiress eight years his senior, Hemingway moved his bride to Paris, living on her $3,000-a-year inheritance while he pursued the “one true sentence” he said it took to begin a story. While Hadley took care of their son Jack, Hemingway charmed his way into Paris’s glittering circle of artists and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. “His first wife said everybody loved Ernest—men, women and small dogs,” says biographer Michael Reynolds. “Men wanted to be like him. Women threw themselves at him. It almost wasn’t his fault.”
Hemingway’s intensity ensured a high turnover rate among wives. Just as his career began to flourish in the late ’20s, he left Hadley for a socialite named Pauline Pfeiffer. The couple had two boys of their own, Patrick in 1928 and Gregory in 1931, but divorced after he fell for writer Martha Gellhorn, whom he married in 1940. That match also proved short-lived, ending in 1945 when he became involved with Mary Welsh, the hard-shelled TIME correspondent who would be his fourth and final wife. She died in New York City in 1986.
For all his rugged living, Hemingway did show a gentler side. “He had a soft, high-pitched voice,” says Hotchner. “He wrote poetry. And his ambition was to translate the simplicity of a Cézanne painting into a way of writing simply.”
But when he was ready for fun, Hemingway confronted the world on the balls of his feet, eagerly planning his next foray to the bullfights in Spain or the ski slopes of Switzerland. He also led booze-soaked fishing trips on his beloved 38-foot boat the Pilar, which he moored near his home outside Havana. But even after he won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, Hemingway still craved approval, as George Plimpton learned while previewing a chapter of A Moveable Feast. “He was kneeling behind me, breathing in my ear, and every time I chuckled he’d say, ‘What? What are you reading?’ ”
He could charm his friends and enrapture the media, but Hemingway’s fits of “black-ass,” as he called depression, deepened after World War II. Back-to-back airplane crashes during an African safari in 1953 compounded the effects of the wounds he had suffered over the years. And the long mornings at his writing desk were becoming less fruitful. “That really rankled him,” Gregory Hemingway says. “It made him drink more, and of course the drinking made the writing worse, and it snowballed.”
By 1960, Hemingway’s mood was dark as he paid a final visit to his boat’s skipper, Gregorio Fuentes, during his last trip to Cuba. “I’m sick,” he said sadly. “Take care of yourself, and take care of the Pilar.”
A year later an increasingly delusional Hemingway had begun to fear that the FBI was going to arrest him and that his friends were out to kill him. Stays at the Mayo Clinic didn’t help, and the crude electroshock therapy of the day only destroyed his ability to write. Rising at dawn in his Ketchum home on July 2, 1961, Hemingway took his shotgun into the small entryway off the living room, put the barrels in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Thus, Hemingway followed his father’s path; eventually both his sister Ursula and brother Leicester also committed suicide. Tragedy struck the family again in 1996 when Ernest’s granddaughter Margaux, whose modeling career had been cut short by a drinking problem, overdosed on phenobarbital. But Margaux’s sister Mariel Hemingway, a star of Manhattan and Personal Best among others, still feels “it’s a tremendous honor” to be his descendant. “Inheriting his ability to see the world helps me. He went into places that were frightening. Therefore I can go into those places, and they are not frightening for me.”
Papa’s vision could be all too clear, as Gregory recalls. “When I was a kid he’d say over and over, ‘Being a man is a hard trade, Gig. No one survives.’ ” Like so many things he wrote, his words still ring hard and true.
Peter Ames Carlin in Ketchum
Cindy Dampier in Oak Park, Anne Driscoll in Boston, Joseph Harmes in Key West and Havana, Ellise Pierce in Santa Fe, Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and bureau reports