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Words by Mr John Hemingway
To mark the 50th year since the death of this literary giant, MR PORTER asked his grandson,
Mr John Hemingway, for his take on the man, his legacy and what it was like to grow up in the wake of a literary master

Fifty years after his death many people still think of my grandfather in exaggerated terms: he was the Lord Byron of the 20th century, a hyper-macho, rum-drinking, war-mongering, pistol-packing literary giant who defined what it was, and in many cases still is, to be an American male. It is a comfortable and well-worn portrait and, in part, how I myself imagined him growing up as boy in Miami during the Sixties and Seventies. The man's larger-than-life image and exploits were certainly more exciting than what you got from other writers. He was outrageously real ("too macho to be true" as my dad used to say) in an over-the-top, Quentin Tarantino kind of way.

Persona aside, very few writers, I believe, can compete with Ernest when it comes to the impact they have had on American literature, and the collective imagination. Not only were there self-styled "Hemingway wannabes" throughout the 1950s, when he was already a legend in his own time, but even today I meet people who have a profound admiration both for the man and his work. It is the traditional image of Ernest that stands well with the general public, the one that brings to mind bullfighting, big-game hunting, hard liquor and endless wives and lovers. Had I not been born into this family I, too, might have taken it at face value. However, I have come to understand that there was more to Ernest than meets the eye.

Mr Ernest Hemingway's three sons (from left to right): Jack, Patrick and Gregory (John Hemingway's father)

I have always loved my grandfather's work and as a young teen I thought it amazing that I was related to someone who wrote so well; it was no secret that I was in total awe of the man. But because I am a Hemingway and, in particular, the son of Gregory Hemingway, the popular image of Ernest would never suffice. My father, who worked as an MD while he was alive, and crossed-dressed from the age of 11, eventually had a sex-change to become a woman. Now when most people hear this they say, "John, I hate to break it to you, but your dad and your grandfather were two very different men", and for a long time I agreed, or rather did not want to entertain the idea that there might be something that connected Ernest and Gregory. Ernest, I used to believe, was the real man and my father was the black sheep of the family. Even after I began to write my memoir, Strange Tribe, this was the picture I had of my grandfather and father. In reality I knew, or at least felt, that there was a much deeper connection between the two men, but I didn't want to go there, perhaps, in part, because I was afraid of what that link might say about me.

However, halfway through my memoir I finally started to read the scholarship dedicated to my grandfather since the posthumous publication of The Garden of Eden in 1986. What I saw was how one book had forced a complete revision of the opinion that most Hemingway experts had of the man. There was, as Hemingway biographer Professor Scott Donaldson says "a one hundred and eighty degree shift in how we viewed Ernest Hemingway and his work". What

I have come to understand that there was more to Ernest than meets the eye

emerged from this semi-autobiographical novel of a young American author, heavily engaged in a series of gender-bending games with his wife and her lover, was the life-long fascination that my grandfather had with androgyny, or as the protagonist in the novel, David, put it, the need to find "a more African sexuality, beyond all tribal law". It was a radical change from the traditional image, revealing a writer who was much more layered and modern in his themes.

What the scholars were saying was that The Garden of Eden was not a fluke or an aberration, but the coherent continuation of a life-long search to understand the point of contact between men and women. In the novel David refers to a statue, by Rodin, of two lovers so entwined it's virtually impossible to say where the man begins and the woman ends. This was a complete union and Ernest was writing about such "un-Hemingway" topics in some of his best short stories, including A Sea Change, A Simple Inquiry and The Big Two-Hearted River as far back as the 1920s.

The connection between my father and grandfather was finally clear. They were two halves of the same coin, each pursuing, but in different ways, an integration of the feminine side within every man. My grandfather, because he was a writer, explored this "more African sexuality" with his words, while my father, as a doctor, experimented with his own body.

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