Leicester and Ernest Hemingway: Brothers in Arms
He was more like his brother than he could ever have imagined…
Leicester Hemingway was Ernest’s junior by sixteen years, which in sibling terms made him, with three older sisters — and with Ernest away in Europe before Leicester could even walk — something of an only child in the large Hemingway home at 600 North Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois.
With a domineering mother, and three sisters still at home, as well as a doctor father out most of the day making calls, and grandparents who, as they grew older, called less, one can imagine Leicester finding corners of the house he might call his own, playing with his brother’s toys, looking at his brother’s books, perhaps even trying on his brother’s clothes, creating a world of his own as he waited for his big brother to come home.
And his big brother did come home from The Great War in 1918, still recovering from the severe leg wounds received courtesy of an Austrian mortar shell and machine gun fire in northern Italy just a few months earlier.
The nineteen year old Ernest Hemingway soon became a bit of hero in the wealthy Chicago suburb, and his little brother loved him with all his heart. Ernest called him ‘Leicester de Pester’, later shortened to ‘The Pest’.
Leicester Hemingway’s biography of his brother, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, was published soon after Ernest’s death in 1961, but pipped to the post as the first post mortem biography of Hemingway, by Kurt Singer’s, The Life and Death of a Giant.
As I’ve already written, Singer’s biography is an emotional tour de force of sustained writing, racing along at a red hot pace. Leicester’s is a more detailed family biography that often gives a more intimate, more detailed account of his brother’s life, and by association his own. Let me quote the opening passages:
“ Ernest came straight out of the Midwestern Victorian era of the nineties. Our parents were an unusual pair for that middle-class society. But our grandparents were far more typical in their decorum — and in their unquestioning harking to that vast ground swell known even than as Public Opinion.
“ Grandfather Ernest Miller ‘Abba’ Hall was a kindly, well-read English gentlemen who manufactured and sold cutlery through Randall, Hall and Company on West Lake Street, Chicago. Grandmother Caroline Hancock Hall was an intense, poetic little firebrand with a strong will and serious artistic talent. She calmly dictated the lives of her husband and two children. Though they lived in Chicago, she favoured Nantucket for vacations, so the family went there during the summer.
“ Grandfather Anson Tyler Hemingway was an easygoing real estate man with much more interest in outdoor living than in making money. He had come to Chicago from Connecticut in a covered wagon at the age of ten. Grandmother Adelaide Edmunds Hemingway was another dedicated, intense woman who absolutely ruled her family of six children. Vacations were just a word to her.
“ These were the people who moulded our parents, Grace Ernestine Hall and Clarence Edmunds Hemingway, in the Victorian tradition.”
There you have as clearer an image as you’re ever likely to get of two not untypical, well off Victorian families.
It’s easy to imagine the young Leicester sitting in a corner observing these people: absorbing the family heritage and values, helping to create, for himself, updated versions by which to live.
At other times, being ‘invisible’ Leicester was able to observe his big brother’s rather different values, values forged by war, values that jarred with the older folk, although both grandfathers no doubt had an inkling of Ernest’s rebellious feelings, having both served bravely in the Civil War, suffering wounds. We know the old men had, probably on the quiet, passed on their wartime experiences to the young Ernest as he played with his toy soldiers on the parlour floor, toy soldiers Leicester must have played with as he waited for his big brother to come home. The Pest wanted to be like his brother, he wanted to be an ambulance driver, and somebody who gets shot and blown up, and later a famous writer. He wanted all of those things, and, sadly, obtained more than he might have imagined.
He certainly served bravely in World War II, spent as much time as he could with Ernest, and made his own way as a writer, not unsuccessfully, earning a great deal of money from the biography of his brother. He wrote six books in all, lived the island and fishing life, but suffered increasing ill health, as a Miami newspaper described in their news item about the death of Leicester Hemingway, the other Hemingway writer:
A funeral was scheduled Thursday for writer Leicester Hemingway who, like his brother — the prize-winning author Ernest — and his father, committed suicide because of failing health.
Hemingway, 67, shot himself once in the head Monday afternoon while alone in his Miami Beach home, authorities said. A police spokesman said he apparently was depressed over his failing health. Both his brother and father killed themselves for the same reason.
'His family said he had been despondent because of past operations and the prospect of more operations,' said police spokesman Tom Hoolahan.
Hemingway had been in the hospital five times since February, when he suffered a heart attack while on the Bahamas island of Bimini and was rushed home to Miami.
Hemingway had an artificial artery placed in one leg in March because of blocked arteries and poor blood circulation aggravated by diabtes, the family spokesman said. He had another implant placed in his other leg in April, and then had the first implant cleaned in June.
He also had his prostrate gland removed in August.
Hemingway was the author of numerous magazine articles and six books, including a biography of his Nobel prize-winning brother. He also published The Bimini Out Island News, a small fishing report.
He described the newspaper as 'the smallest newspaper in the world' and 'the only newspaper that takes two editions to wrap a bonefish.'
Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, shot himself in the head with a shotgun in 1961 because he was depressed over his deteriorating health. Their father, Dr. Edmonds Hemingway, ended his life during a period of depression over illness.
That was in 1982.
What that piece didn’t say is that one of Leicester’s Grandfathers also tried to shoot himself, but had the gun taken away from him before he pulled the trigger.
There can be little doubt that both brother’s were suffering from some sort of traumatic stress disorder, as must their father, and grandfathers.
The last word is, all these years later, that Leicester Hemingway was a superb writer, whose biography of his brother is one of the best out there and an essential read for lovers of Hemingway the writer, and the man. The reader will find a clue to what makes us human within its pages.