Thursday, July 3, 2008


I confess that I had to be reminded by a friend that yesterday was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death. Of course, July 2nd was also the day that my cousin Margaux died and while technically I was alive during the lifetimes of both of these people I never met my grandfather. I was 10 months old when he killed himself, whereas I knew Margaux.

In the summer of 1971 I spent a month out at my Uncle Jack’s house in Ketchum, Idaho. Margaux was 16, five years older than me, and very much a rebel. Someone who, if I’m to believe what her younger sister Mariel was telling me, liked to hang out at cowboy bars and open beer bottles with her teeth. She was tall and athletic, but not yet the stunning beauty that the world would find out about a few years later.

She liked to provoke people and to draw and I remember once that she showed me, in the presence of Mariel, some sketches she’d done of male nudes with all their family jewels “ben in vista” as the Italians say. It was the sort of thing that she knew would get little sister riled and Mariel went running upstairs screaming to her mother that “Margaux was showing those dirty pictures to John!”

Later on, when she became famous I think that I was more surprised than most people to see her face on the cover of magazines. I still had that rebellious image of her from when she was sixteen and the transformation from cowgirl to fashion goddess couldn’t have been more complete.

The last time I saw her was at the height of her career in 1977. I was in New York City staying with my father and his wife Valerie at their small apartment on East 95th street. My dad had just moved back from Fort Benton, Montana, having given up on his first attempt to start a practice in that state. He was clinically depressed and I was being sent to various Prep Schools around New England to see which, if any of them, would take me. While I was waiting to find out where I would go to school I ran into Margaux on a street corner. It was in the morning and I had gone down to a delicatessen to get something for breakfast and walking back to the apartment and waiting for a light to change I looked up and there she was.

“Margaux?”, I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“I’m your cousin John.” I told her, and she couldn’t believe that it was me. She remembered who I was, of course, but the last time she saw me I was 11 and now I was 17. She asked me what I was doing and why I was in New York and I told her and remember thinking how tall she was and pretty. The magazines didn’t exaggerate her beauty, not at all.

Then she asked me about my mother, if she was doing OK?, and no one ever in the family ever asked about Alice, because everyone knew that she wasn’t. She was paranoid schizophrenic and her frequent breakdowns and episodes where she’d start to hear her voices and they would tell her that we had to be given to the Catholic Church or abandoned or some other such fantasy was one of the major reasons why I was constantly being bounced from one relative to another during my teens. But Margaux asked and seemed genuinely concerned. I’m sure that she knew what everyone else knew about my mother, but she was the kind of person who can’t help but care about the fate of others.

She had a generous heart and I’ll never forget her.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Oh Canada!

I’ll never forget the first time I found out about “Canada Day”. It was July 1st, 1985 and I was in sitting in the living room of my father’s apartment in Missoula, Montana watching TV. Gregory Hemingway had separated from his third wife about a year before and while he’d seemed a bit nervous when we’d met in June, I think that he was happy to have me there. He was full of plans and in the evenings after he’d finish his work as a doctor at the state prison in Deerlodge, he’d let me in on all the things we were going to do, the countries we’d visit, the car he would get me, the local university that I would enroll in for my Masters and the house that he would buy for the two of us should I decide to stay.

My dad was bi-polar and had I known more about his condition back then I’m sure that I would have seen all his extravagant promises and ever-increasing energy as early warning shots across the bow. He could only get worse and finally “crash” before slipping into another deep depression that might last months if he didn’t undergo ECT (electro-convulsive therapy).

That morning I was wondering where he was. He’d hadn’t come home the night before, nor had he called to say that he’d be back late and that I shouldn’t wait up for him. I figured that eventually he would show up and grabbed a box of donuts from the fridge and had breakfast as the Canadian ambassador in Washington fielded questions from an audience of American college students on the Today Show. What did the Ambassador think of the US and Americans in general, how strong was the relationship between the two countries and did Canada have a president and if so who was he? The Ambassador said that Canada was a constitutional monarchy and that the Queen of England was its head of state, and it was right about then when the front door opened and I saw my dad peek inside wearing what looked like a blond wig. I think he was surprised to see me because he closed the door almost as quickly as it had opened.

I sat there in my chair as the college students continued to ask their questions on TV and I thought, “Was that Greg?” I had heard from a step-brother a few years before that he liked to put on make-up and my mother had once told me that when she had been married to him he would cross-dress, but hearing about his exploits was one thing, seeing him actually do it quite another.

A few minutes later the door opened again and my father walked in, this time without the wig and holding his high heel shoes. He was wearing a silk dress and had a serious look on his face as he passed in front of me. He was pretending that I wasn’t there, his lips pursed in a kind of grimace as his muscular body turned and he slowly started to walk up the stairs to the bedroom.

I continued watching the Today Show and didn’t say anything, and when he eventually came down, having changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, he didn’t offer any explanations. In retrospect, it was an important moment in my understanding, subconsciously at least, that there was much more to being a Hemingway than I was aware of and that the dividing line between my father and my grandfather’s essential character was not nearly as great as most people might think. My family truly was, as Ernest had once described it, a Strange Tribe.