When talking about Ernest Hemingway, the one-time personal assistant turned relative by way of marriage, speaks like it was yesterday – her memories vivid of a man who lived life to the fullest.
“He observed a lot and understood everything,” Valerie said. “What he didn’t, he asked about. Never once did he say, ‘I’m bored.’ Every minute was filled with something of interest.”
Valerie Hemingway, then Valerie Danby-Smith, was a young Irish woman in Spain learning to be a journalist by writing stories. In May 1959, she was on assignment to interview Hemingway for a Belgian news service.
“I didn’t grow up with American writers,” Valerie said. “I didn’t know Hemingway’s reputation. Most of his books were banned in Ireland.”
Through the course of the interview, Hemingway became intrigued with the young reporter’s lack of knowledge of Spain and invited her to join him and his entourage for an excursion in Pamplona, centered around bullfighting.
She went and when the week ended, she needed to get back to work. Hemingway told her to work for him instead – saying she’d learn more from him. They were soon celebrating the author’s 60th birthday.
When the 19-year-old first met him, she thought of the soon-to-be 60 Ernest as being “old age.” But once she got to know him, she saw he was “as youthful as anyone, full of energy, and his mind was bursting with ideas all the time.”
As a member of Ernest’s inner circle, Valerie saw how the author worked and lived in his final years.
“He really was an exceptional man,” she said. “He was dedicated to his art. He worked every day. Part of being a writer is you’re responsible for your time. He got to a point in his career where he could call the shots, but he knew you always have to be on your toes. He was also super aware if his writing was as good and thought, ‘I really have to continue to innovate and create.’ It was a preoccupation he had.”
Valerie worked with Hemingway in 1959 and 1960, traveling from Spain to France to Cuba with him and his fourth wife, Mary.
In France, Valerie helped fact check what would become “A Moveable Feast.” Ernest had previously written much of it in Cuba, she said, and he needed her to do a “walking tour” with him, to visit the places he wrote about from his time in Paris from 1921 to 1926.
Valerie said Ernest lived life as an “investigative reporter,” saying what they would eat or drink, for example, always had meaning, such as drinking the best local wine of the region while visiting France or only eating oysters if it was in the right place during the right season.
“He was an intellectual,” Valerie said.
Ernest liked to gather small groups and discuss interesting topics, she explained. This may include journalists, bull fighters discussing the next bullfight, and others. He wanted “the inside news – there was always a point,” she said.
In January 1960, Valerie joined the couple in Cuba, continuing on as Ernest’s personal secretary. Her friendship with both Ernest and Mary grew as she lived at the Hemingway home, Finca Vigia, in the “casita above the double garage,” according to Valerie’s book “Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways.”
It was there that Ernest began experiencing trouble with his eyesight, a problem especially for someone who Valerie said “sharpened his senses all the time.” Ernest even gave up smoking to not decrease his sense of smell, she explained.
“He read three books a week and had total recall ability,” she said.
His regular sport of fishing relied on his senses, from stepping outside “evaluating the sky and wind” to using his eyes to spot fish in the water, according to Valerie.
“The reality that he couldn’t do those things weighed on him,” she said.
There was also the prospect that “he couldn’t write; everything else was incidental,” Valerie said. It was logical that he would become depressed, she said. He spoke of suicide to her.
“Because he gave me and others a template on how you live, doesn’t mean he was free from the evils of the life,” Valerie said.
He had a very bad temper, for example, although Valerie said she “did not incur his wrath.”
“He realized it’s only going to get worse and couldn’t continue to live in Cuba,” Valerie said of the outcome of Ernest’s vision problems.
Valerie spent time with Ernest in New York before they parted ways.
She saw him one last time in Spain. Valerie had gone without seeing Ernest for three weeks and said there was a noticeable change.
“It had to be a mental decline,” she said.
Ernest Hemingway took his own life July 2, 1961 in the Hemingway home in Idaho.
After Ernest’s death, Mary asked Valerie to compile all of Ernest’s papers, including letters spread across the private sector and university libraries, for donation to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Valerie worked for four years on this, saying it “rounded off” her experience with Ernest by giving her “insight into his entire life.”
It turns out those early years she spent with Ernest really did teach her a lot.
“This was a perfect way for my mind to sap up knowledge of all kinds – it was multicultural, the arts, reading. He’d buy 10 to 12 books at a time and say read these,” Valerie said. “And I learned from him that no moment was a dead-end moment. … I learned to observe and be observant and learned how to use knowledge.”