I came to Sun Valley and the village of Ketchum, to ski, and to test my recovery from a tibial plateau fracture and surgery. A bonus is that the town’s most famous resident is one of my great literary heroes. He killed himself in the town and is buried here. His story is a dreadful reminder of the sometimes fatal combination of creative genius, alcohol and depression. It is also a case study of the trauma imposed on families by depression. Not only did he commit suicide, but also his father, his brother, his sister and his grand-daughter, the film actress, Margaux Hemingway.
My family has also walked down this road. My much loved mother, Alma suffered from severe depression and it terrified my siblings and I as children. The stain has been passed to me and I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. Fortunately for me I have always been a moderate drinker. Sometimes, I will go for years and not drink at all. I don’t find it satisfying and alcohol, especially beer, usually makes me feel sick. I may even have a low grade alcohol intolerance. This has been a godsend. A lifetime’s devotion to the outdoors, regular exercise plus the rigid routines imposed by study and work have shielded me from the worst effects of this debilitating disease which have often been severe.
Depression cannot be cured but it can be managed. Despite enduring the suffering that only people with the condition can appreciate, rearranging my head with a 12 gauge shotgun has never seemed an option to me. That is like admitting defeat. Depression can be dealt with. Depression and self medication through alcohol is dangerous and often fatal. My fervent hope is that this condition, which has afflicted two generations of my family so far, has not been passed to my daughters. It stops here.
Ernest Hemingway first came to Sun Valley in September 1939. He had been invited to stay at the new Sun Valley Lodge as a guest. Sun Valley would become the first ski resort developed in north America.
His son, Pat Hemingway said Papa was attracted to the area not only by the offer from the resort, but also his friendship with poet Ezra Pound, who was from nearby Hailey. Also, during that autumn, Hemingway was becoming estranged from his second wife, Pauline Hemingway, Pat’s mother.
“When that broke up he had to have somewhere to go,” Pat said.
In those years just before WW2, Hemingway was at a high point in his writing career, he wrote what I believe is his best novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Every day, Hemingway wrote or edited in the morning hours until about noon, and then made his way outdoors, often to hunt.
Speaking of Hemingway’s time in Ketchum, “I think he was in search of the vanishing frontier,” said Marty Peterson, a Hemingway scholar. “I think he was in search of a place where he could have some anonymity, where the hunting and fishing was still good. And he found that in Central Idaho.”
Hemingway made new friends in Sun Valley. The group included Sun Valley Resort’s chief guide, Taylor Williams, resort photographer Lloyd Arnold, Arnold’s wife, Tillie Arnold and eventually, a young Picabo rancher named Bud Purdy.
In the autumn of 1939, Hemingway stayed with his girlfriend, writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn, in Suite 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge, which he soon dubbed “Glamour House.” Hemingway worked diligently on “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and soon became enamoured with duck hunting at Silver Creek, near Picabo, and pheasant hunting at points south, near Shoshone, Dietrich and Gooding.
Purdy said Hemingway seemed to like the area because of its geography—which reminded him of Spain—and the people—who were friendly, a little rough around the edges and didn’t make a fuss about his celebrity. Purdy often took Hemingway hunting for ducks, mostly mallards, on Silver Creek, a popular waterfowl migration stop.
“We just jump shot,” Purdy said. “He didn’t like sitting in the blind. … He was a good guy to be out with.”
That November, Gellhorn left for Scandinavia on a work assignment. Through the rest of summer, Hemingway hunted, read and completed numerous chapters of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” before leaving Sun Valley in December to return to his home in Cuba.
Hemingway returned to Sun Valley Resort the following September with Gellhorn and his three sons, Jack, Pat and Gregory. He completed editing work on “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” played tennis and hunted birds, at times with a new friend, actor Gary Cooper. He and his family returned again in the autumn of 1941 as war raged in Europe.
Pat Hemingway said Papa taught his sons how to shoot and hunt, generously allowing them to discharge 200 or 300 rounds of ammunition per day. Being a “social hunter,” Papa liked having his kids and friends around, but also liked his hunts to be well organized. “We mostly hunted ducks, doves and pheasants,” he said. “And we did a lot of rabbit hunting in those days.”
Rabbit hunting was common in the early 1940s, Pat Hemingway said, when the animals—some of them diseased—would descend upon agricultural lands by the thousands. Indeed, Purdy recalled one rabbit hunt in the Dietrich area during which a group of 20 or so hunters, including Hemingway and Cooper, shot about 400 or 500 of the rodents.
Purdy said Hemingway enjoyed the art of hunting but was also fond of shooting. “He liked to hunt not just to kill stuff,” Purdy said. “It was the thrill of the hunt. A lot of times he didn’t get a lot of birds and he didn’t seem to mind that.”
The only story Hemingway ever wrote about Idaho, called “The Shot,” was based on his hunts around Ketchum. The story included a Saturday night bar fight in the mining town of Patterson, during which Papa reportedly dropped a huge, angry miner with several left hooks. It was published in “True” magazine in April 1951. “He always prided himself on being a very good rifle shot,” Pat Hemingway said.
During World War II and until the autumn of 1946, Hemingway was unable to get back to Idaho. Although some evidence suggests Hemingway sometimes loved to shoot for shooting’s sake, there is no doubt his time in Idaho revealed a gentler side. Purdy said he made friends easily and always spoke in a quiet voice. In addition, he said, Hemingway never boasted about his work or his stature as a writer, even after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
“He never talked about his writing,” Purdy said. “And we never talked about politics. I think he was a Democrat, but I’m not sure of that … He was a real gentleman, I think.”
The only time Hemingway spoke about his writing to Purdy, the rancher recalled, was during a lunch at the Alpine Club in Ketchum, now Whiskey Jacques. “He decided he wanted something to drink, so he went across the street to get some wine,” Purdy said. “He was really feeling good. He said, ‘I wrote a thousand words today and it’s worth a dollar a word.’”
Hemingway “liked to party,” Purdy noted, but never drank while they were out hunting, with exceptions amounting to a few sips from a bota bag when all the shooting was done. “He wasn’t an alcoholic at all. No way,” Purdy said.
During the autumn of 1946, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, stayed at MacDonald Cabins, on the south side of Ketchum—now the Ketchum Korral. He worked on “The Garden of Eden,” a novel he never finished but which was ultimately complete enough to be published posthumously in 1986. Hemingway returned to Ketchum and Sun Valley in the autumn of 1947 and stayed through Christmas that year. During that stay, he enjoyed the company of Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, who played the lead roles in the film version of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
In 1946 and 1947, Hemingway’s doctor in Sun Valley forbade him to go hunting in the mountains; he had put on weight and his blood pressure was high. Still, he ventured out to shoot ducks and pheasants.
After leaving Idaho in January 1948, Hemingway did not return for a decade. During those times, Peterson said, Hemingway was busy with numerous projects and settled into his life in Cuba, where he pursued perhaps his greatest outdoor passion, deep-sea fishing. He wrote “Across the River and Into the Trees,” which I loved as a teenager and “The Old Man and the Sea,” a novella that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953.
In the fall of 1958, Hemingway returned to Ketchum and continued to hunt. In 1959, Ernest and Mary Hemingway purchased for $50,000 a house outside Ketchum along the Big Wood River. It had excellent views of the river and the nearby Boulder Mountains.
To a friend, General Buck Lanham, Hemingway wrote: “This place … was a wonderful buy. I plan to live here in the shooting months, which correspond to the hurricane months and the early northers in Cuba. My health and Mary’s needs a change of climate from the subtropics for part of each year.”
While residing at his Ketchum estate, Peterson said, Hemingway did a substantial amount of editing and rewriting of “A Moveable Feast,” a memoir of his days as a young writer in Paris. But all was not well. Friends and family noticed changes in Papa as he battled various health ailments. And he was having trouble writing.
“You must remember that he was pretty well a broken person when he came to Idaho in those final years,” Pat Hemingway said.
Ernest Hemingway died of a self-inflicted wound from his favourite, double- barrelled shotgun in the front foyer of his Ketchum house in July 1961. He was 61 years old. I suppose if you want to find relief then a double-barrelled shotgun will certainly get the job done. By a strange coincidence, the father of my best friend through high school, ended his life the same way – with a double barrelled shotgun. It was a shock at the time. He had coached me in shooting and I really liked him. Alcohol was also involved in that incident.
The blast from Hemingway’s shotgun was heard around the world. So ended the life of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. There have been five suicides in the Hemingway family over three generations — Hemingway’s father, Clarence; siblings Ursula and Leicester, as well as Ernest and his grand-daughter Margaux.
“The ending of his life was kind of traumatic to me. He was such a great guy,” Purdy said. “I guess if he couldn’t write, it got so life wasn’t worth living for him.”
Pat Hemingway said that people should not remember his father as a great hunter, fisherman or father; he should be remembered as a writer who crafted stories like few others could.
“He was to writing what Einstein was to physics,” he said. “He was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers in the 20th century in any language.”
Hemingway is buried in the Ketchum Cemetery, and his grave his now sheltered by three mature spruce trees.
Extracts form The Sun Valley Guide (http://www.svguide.com/svg_hem.htm) and Kieran Kelly