The Hemingways – a strange tribe

 Familia Hemingway – un clan ciudat

First published: 29 septembrie 2023

Editorial Group: MEDICHUB MEDIA

DOI: 10.26416/Psih.74.3.2023.8693


The Hemingway family is a strong case for the genetic com­po­nent as the main suicide risk factor, in the two ge­ne­ra­tions we have considered closely being recorded no less than five sui­cide completers: Ernest Hemingway, his father and three of his siblings.

Ernest Hemingway, two Hemingway generations, genetic load, suicide


Familia Hemingway, un „clan ciudat” şi de-a dreptul „periculos”, cu cele cinci cazuri de suicid în doar două generaţii (Ernest Hemingway, tatăl său şi trei fraţi), impune apăsat ipoteza că moştenirea genetică este principalul factor de risc în suicid.


The Hemingways were, in Ernest Hemingway’s words, a “strange tribe”(1), utterly “dangerous”(2) indeed, with suicide and mood disorders running havoc. In the two generations we have investigated, there were as many as five suicide completers (i.e., 62.5%), the three others having only mood disorders. The preceding generation had contributed two suicide attempters and several bipolars, the next in line were to contribute at least one suicide completer: Margaux Hemingway (1954-1996), a borderline(3) with narcissistic traits in the vulnerable spectrum, living with dyslexia since 1979, epilepsy since 1982, bulimia since 1990, manic-depressive psychosis since 1992, and alcoholism since 1994(4); having a blockbuster box-office debut (a million-dollar contract to be the face of the Babe perfume for Fabergé), getting covers in quick succession for Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Time and, of course, Playboy (May 1990); committing a phenobarbital-induced suicide (100 tablets, twice the lethal dose) prefaced by obsessive references to “the other world” in conversations with her few friends(5)...


We will focus in each of the following cases on the psychobiographical elements(6) that are most likely to have contributed to suicide, and with this objective in view we will make liberal use of memoirs, letters, monographs and... Hemingway’s fiction, given the largely acknowledged recognition of its autobiographical status.


The father: Dr. Clarence Hemingway (1871-1928)

He was a borderline personality with paranoid traits, considerably hypertrophied in his old age when he, once “high-strung, active, determined, cheerful and with a twinkle in his eye” became “irritable and suspicious” overnight, “quick to take offence”, and almost unable to trust others. He began to spend “long hours in his office with the doors closed”. He kept “his bureau drawers and his clothes closet locked”. It was “an agony for my mother”, exclaimed Marcelline, to see “he must be distrusting her”(7).

Associated either with depressive episodes or with somatic complaints (diabetes and angina pectoris), paranoia came up in various letters home, when he made financial arrangements in the event of his death “under suspicious circumstances”, or even wrote a “consistent and convincing story for a coroner’s hearing” (in 1909), also when he made a bank deposit of $1,000 (in 1920), “in case of some unforeseen accident”, and so he did not return(8). These are quite unusual transactions for someone who has no suspicious dealings, he was an obstetrician with a perfectly legitimate clientele in the states of Illinois and Florida, educated at the prestigious Rush Medical College in Chicago. He had made what he thought to be a few “unsuccessful” real estate investments, but otherwise nothing to worry about. As for whatever suffering, his self-esteem was the point at issue, in the “intolerable” situation his medical practice did not get more than 80 dollars a month, while his wife’s music lessons got over 1,000 dollars a month(9). A patriarchal, Victorian philosophy (But men must work and women must weep!) could not be reconciled with such a privileged status of the wife.

So, the mother finally bears the blame for the father’s autolytic gesture on December 6th, 1928. He arrived home “around lunchtime”, inquired about Leicester’s cold and felt “relieved” to learn that he was better. Then he went downstairs and burned some personal papers in the basement furnace, probably some receipts, went up to his bedroom, shut the door and took his father’s Civil War revolver out of a drawer. The forensic report stated that “the bullet pierced the brain looping under the skin, after shattering the bone of the skull in the left temple, 5 cm above and 7 cm posterior to the external auditory meatus. There were powder burns at the point of entrance of the bullet. Blood was oozing out of the bullet wound”(10).

At the funeral, Ernest was to tell Marcelline in passing that suicides are not “welcomed into Heaven”(11), and not so much because they are censored by faith, as because they do not always do it “out of necessity”(12). In actual fact, a deleted passage from The Green Hills of Africa (1935) explicitly says that Dr. Hemingway was a “coward”, simply because his final gesture was “without necessity”. His father-in-law, Ernest Hall, on the contrary; he was driven by exceedingly “unbearable” pains. He was suffering from Bright’s disease and was having excruciating pains. He meant to shoot himself, but his son-in-law previously emptied the magazine of the pistol under his pillow, and when he pulled the trigger the cartridge was blank(13). Ernest was only old at the time, but even then he understood that he was dealing with a cruel fraud, all the more cruel as the perpetrator was “very proud” to have saved a Christian life...

Hemingway could never forgive his father for “that cruelty”, and he also did not forgive him for “his other weaknesses”, but he did not forget to put the “third generation of suicides” on record, as if he saw the sign of doom in here(14).

From another angle, however, the father’s “cruelty” was just cold and calculated professionalism, ultimately stemming from empathy, as in Indian Camp (1924), which is, literally speaking, the story of a jack-knife Caesarean.


The mother: Grace Hall/Hemingway (1872-1951)

She was a histrionic personality with obsessive-compulsive traits, and promised a brilliant stage career when she debuted as a contralto voice at the Madison Square Garden and was offered a contract at the Metropolitan Opera House. She did not accept it because her eyes could not tolerate the stage lights. And then, her own mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and, to top it all, Ed Hemingway showered her with love letters and the tempting offer to join him in his promising career as a physician in their hometown (Oak Park). With a heavy heart, frustrated by the abandonment of her artistic dreams, she finally agreed to step into the role of “Victorian wife”, but not before extracting from her fiancé the promise that she would be free from household chores. How disappointed she must have been when, instead of a prima donna, she consoled herself with the status of a private music teacher, and conductor of the children’s choir at the Congregational Church in Oak Park!

Her father’s illness came upon her, and the first children were born at home, as she was afraid they might be abducted... And then the obsessive-compulsive traits in her personality prevailed upon her. She dressed Ernest in girl’s clothes, made Marcelline miss one schoolyear, so that brother and sister could be classmates. Later on, she insisted that the siblings should have the same way of life, play in the same orchestra, cello and piano. Finally, the mother compelled them to go together to tea parties and evening dances, where they were supposed to be introduced as fiancés(15). How embarrassing for the adept of hypermachismo to have accepted his feminization!

Finally, her hysterical anxiety seemed to develop into a cyclothymia punctuated with devastating migraines. These unfortunate days would be faithfully reflected in The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife (1925), with the father struggling to keep his volcanic temper under control, with the mother “lying in the room with the blinds drawn”. She called her son “to talk to her”, but he turned her down and invited his father to join him to a “place where there are black squirrels”.

But the mother was not always struck down by the disease. In moments of respite, she vigorously resumed her role as Cerberus, censuring her son for being a real scoundrel in this or that secret outing by boat on the river, kissing the girls “beyond the edge of firelight”(16). What example did he set for Ursula, Sunny or the other even younger “companions”?

Mother’s love – she wrote in an “open letter” addressed to the family – is “a bank account, seemingly inexhaustible”, but by the age of nineteen Ernest had already “overdrawn” on that account. He had decided at eighteen that he needed neither advice nor parental guidance, he made his own “philosophy of life”, a “code of ethics in dealing with men, women and children”. At twenty-one now, more than ever he needed “good guidance”, cease “lazy loafing, and pleasure seeking”, stop “trying to graft a living off anybody and everybody” while spending all his earnings “lavishly and wastefully on luxuries for himself”, stop trading on his “handsome face”, to fool “little gullible girls”, while neglecting his “duties to God and Savior Jesus Christ” – or else, there is nothing before him but “bankruptcy”(17).

How could a man, quite positive that everything he himself does is good and what the others do is criticizable or even reprehensible, bear such reproaches? He reactivated his old temper and blurted out how much he hated “that bitch”, and in “how many ways!”(18) She would pick up from her spotty memory only what pleased her, “[he] hated her guts and [she] hated [his]”. And again: “She forced my father to suicide”(19).

On a deconstruction of the “androgynous bitch” in pre-Socratic terms, she would be a spherical harpy, neither female nor male, or rather both female and male; deconstructed in Hemingway’s terms, she would find herself in Margot from The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1936), the woman who killed her husband as soon as he had ceased to be under her control.


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Given the “Hemingway case”, we have a borderline personality with 1) frantic efforts to avoid abandonment; 2) intense and unstable emotional relationships, from idealization to devaluation; 3) unstable and gelatinous self-image; 4) self-inflicting impulsivity; 5) suicidal behavior; 6) marked affective reactivity; 7) feelings of emptiness; 8) inappropriate and intense fits of anger; 9) transient paranoid ideation.

We will further extend this hypothesis so as to take into account a superimposed amalgam, with a borderline foundation and a narcissistic masonry. This being the case, we will see Hemingway keep within the perimeter of a borderline pattern by genealogical “commandments” and the closest possible “kinship” to affective disorders and suicide, flirting so very intensely with his manufactured image that he almost identified with it, even by means that were not exactly honest, like swaggering and boasting. He went so far as to say that the first step in the writing profession is the science of lying...

If the “Wilde hero” in The Portrait of Dorian Gray had referred to his image in the mirror moment by moment, Hemingway did not behave differently, by staging a not very subtle and insidious game, even brutal, between harsh mise-en-scenes. “Hemingway’s hero” cannot be imagined outside of an audience with whom he dialogues. Krebs in “Soldier’s Home” has his somewhat intrusive mother and sister nearby; Manuel Garcia in “The Undefeated” performs in front of an Amphitheatre full of spectators and obsessively checks how he appears in their eyes; Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea is alone with the swordfish and makes him an empathetic interlocutor.

Only Nick Adams of the Big Two-Hearted River feels no need for an addressee, he’s sufficient to himself. Trauma (a war wound) was once close to him on stage, as it is with Jake in The Sun Also Rises, but he has already made a “separate peace” and allows himself the luxury of being with himself, and that’s it. However, this is an isolated case, the “Hemingway hero” and Hemingway himself need a scene and a dialogue, or at least a mirror for the mirroring.

But we cannot overlook an ultimately narcissistic strategy, which sometimes gets the upper hand. That being the case, we will keep the “borderline logic” stated before, but we will adapt it so that the “borderline criterion” comes up, wherever appropriate, in congruence with the respective, connotative “narcissistic branch.” Returning therefore, for reformulation, we will note: 1) existential loneliness alleviated by the call for community solidarity; 2) constitutional misogyny undermined by family tolerance; 3) identity insecurity exposed to the machismo/androgyny carousel; 4) ethyl neuromodulation, ambivalent; 5) autolytic masochism favored by gratuitous impulsiveness; 6) transient anxiety, prodromal to depression; 7) affective emptiness in return for programmatic institutional commitment; 8) passive aggressiveness maintained by harsh competitiveness; 9) paranoia connected to ever-more distressful discomforts.


With a view to finding answers to what will happen further, we had a closer look at the parents, and saw that theirs was an “assortative mating”(20), two bipolars, borderline and, respectively, histrionic – which hardly needs any “encouragements” to produce major mood disorders and suicides. In their children, for once, we get Marcelline (1902-1966; borderline depression; an overdose of antidepressives), Leicester (1915-1982; histrionic depression; a shotgun), Ursula (1902-1966; borderline depression; an overdose of prescriptive medication for cancer)(21).

And, to be sure, there was Ernest who may have been anything but a straight borderline, divided as he was by his desperate and distressful life-long attempts to live up to the fabricated image of his own code-hero(22). There was in himself a narcissistic construct against his innate borderline framework – just as there was a recurrent posttraumatic-stress disorder superimposed on his inborn bipolarity.

To sum it up, so as to pronounce “the guilty party” in the case of Ernest Hemingway, we are strongly inclined to call his inheritance to the bar and, next in line, this “tragic” split between himself and his self-image, with all its impossible requirements (should-s) making it necessary to call for “grace under pressure”. 


Conflict of interest: none declared  
Financial support: none declared
This work is permanently accessible online free of charge and published under the CC-BY. 



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  2. Hemingway E. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner’s. 1964; p. 108.

  3. Hemingway M. Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness. Addiction and Suicide in My Family. New York: Regan Art. 2013; p. 60.

  4. Estroff Marano H. What killed Margaux Hemingway? Psychology Today. 1996;01.12.

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  22. Yalom ID, Yalom M. Ernest Hemingway – a psychiatric view. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1971;24(6):485-494.

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