Remembering 'Papa': Ernest Hemingway's son in Bozeman talks about his relationship with famous father

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Posted at 4:58 PM, Feb 03, 2023

There’s famous, and then there’s beyond famous.

Novelist Ernest Hemingway is well-known for generations and his work is still read to this day.

His insistence on writing letters back and forth with his children gives us a chance to know him on a more intimate level.

MTN’s Donna Kelley visits with his last surviving son, Patrick Hemingway, on a new book that shares some of the relationship.

Patrick was in east Africa for 25 years then moved to Montana in 1975.

He re-married after his wife died. He and his wife Carol have been together for 42 years and they live in a retirement community in Bozeman.

He wrote a book on letters written back and forth between him and his father.

“What a tortured end he had to endure. You know, I bring this up in the book. When he died, Mary was very upset of course. And She tried initially to pass his death off as an accident. You know, that he was cleaning his gun and it went off. Well, this was impossible to do and it was soon very apparent that he was a suicide. That he’d killed himself,” Patrick said.

Patrick would be one of the first to come to his father’s aid when he died at 61.

Ernest Hemingway was in two plane crashes in two days, suffering a severe head injury and pain for the rest of his life.

A lot of accounts would say he was a very heavy drinker.

“Oh, was he not! No, he belonged to that great English tradition that you could drink everybody under the table. You were the last man alive, you know. And alcohol certainly played a role, but at the end of his life he was off alcohol. He really did stop. Under proper treatment he would have had a nice old age,” Patrick said.

Patrick turned 94 toward the end of June.

A letter was to be written on the first and 15th of every month by Patrick Hemingway to his father, Ernest.

“I understood pretty early on what my dad was trying to do,” Patrick said. “Create a real relationship with his children and himself, which as I point out was hard to do through so many families and his own family”.

Patrick and two of his grandsons chose which letters to include in his book by reading them out loud and finding the ones with the most interest.

“I made a point of testing everything that he had done for myself, to see if I liked it myself, and it turned out that really most of the things he liked, I liked too. This was especially true of reading and literature,” Patrick said.

The relationship was an extraordinarily close one.

“Loving. We loved each other,” Patrick said. “We were on each other’s wavelength. We had similar tastes. He of course was much more talented,” Patrick said.

One of Patrick’s siblings said it was hard to be in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway, in the shadow of his fame.

“No, no. It wasn’t hard for me. I enjoyed being his son,” Patrick said.

It was a solid battle to get back his dad’s estate.

“First it was to get hold of it. I mean we were more or less disinherited. I don’t know that he had that intention and so we were finally out in the cold,” Patrick said. “We had to institute a lawsuit that took a long time and cost half a million dollars to get back in control of his estate and it finally went to the New York Supreme Court.”

Part of getting it back meant his stepmother Mary dealing with the leader of Cuba.

“There was a boat that was leaving for Tampa from Havana. And she managed to get by getting the goodwill of Fidel Castro. He allowed her to take everything she wanted. In return, she turned over the Hemingway house there to the Cuban people,” Patrick said.

With so many books, at least 16, that garnered a Novel and a Pulitzer Prize, and many made into movies, Patrick does have a favorite.

“'A Farewell to Arms' is my favorite. It’s his most conventional book and it is I think a really great novel,” Patrick said.

"A Farewell to Arms" is said to have 47 alternate endings.

“I’ve never gone over those 47 alternate endings," laughed Patrick. "Most people, especially women readers, would say they don’t think he should have gone for an unhappy ending. That his wife shouldn’t have died, you know. I think that’s a genuine point of view."

“There are many more letters since the publisher said they could not print a 650-page tome. But if this book goes well, some of those that landed on the cutting room floor could be shared,” Patrick said.

He certainly had a big father and is thankful for his mother as well.

“If anything, I loved my mother more than I did my father. Which is the usual case with a son,” Patrick said.

Patrick’s mother died when he was 23 years old. He would make the best of getting along with the two women who his father married after.

But a man and his dog? That's a bond of unconditional love that's hard to match.

"We had three labs, and you know the main thing about dogs is they don't live long enough," Patrick said.

Agreed—but he still has his father's work that lives on, next to forever.