Saturday, January 9, 2010
(Note: On February 16, 2010, Minotaur Books will release my third novel, PRINT THE LEGEND, which deals with the death of Ernest Hemingway. The novel's plot also turns on Hem's unfinished manuscripts and his relationship with his fourth and last wife, Mary. Several of these topics are touched on in an interview I conducted with Valerie Hemingway years ago upon the release of her memoir, Running with the Bulls. She currently maintains her own blog, which you can explore here. After several years of the interview being publicly unavailable, and to provide a little more background and perspective on some of the themes of my own novel, I'm re-presenting my conversation with Valerie in its entirety below. — Craig McDonald, Jan. 9, 2010.)
RUNNING WITH THE BULLS
In 1959, a young Irish journalist was sent to Spain to interview 59-year-old Ernest Hemingway.
Valerie Danby-Smith was 19 and had been raised largely in a Dublin nunnery. Her employers sent her into the interview with Papa Hemingway armed with bad questions based on a faulty premise. And Valerie, while well-versed in Irish literature, had little back-grounding in Hemingway’s works.
Hemingway, the gallant veteran journalist, took the young reporter under his wing and, soon, into his employ. She would come to travel Europe with the author and to live in his home in Cuba, the Finca Vigía, during the last two years of his life.
Papa would eventually discuss the prospect of marriage with Valerie. She demurred, but eventually did wed Ernest’s youngest son, Gregory "Gig" Hemingway whom she met at Ernest’s funeral.
After more than 40 years of near total silence on the subject of the Hemingways, Valerie has composed the revelatory memoir Running with the Bulls (Ballantine Books, 314 pages, $24.95), arguably the finest of any of the books penned by a Hemingway insider.
Following Ernest’s suicide in Ketchum, Idaho in July 1961, Valerie moved from being Ernest’s “secretary” to widow Mary Hemingway’s assistant. Valerie traveled to Cuba and Key West with Ernest’s fourth and final wife to recover manuscripts and papers and eventually took up residence at the Kennedy Library in Boston, which Mary had chosen as a repository for Ernest’s manuscripts, letters and personal possessions.
The ghost of another Hemingway also casts a long shadow across Running with the Bulls.
Valerie’s husband, Gregory Hemingway, the youngest of the famous writer’s sons, had the most turbulent relationship with his father of any of the three Hemingway sons. The two battled bitterly and remained estranged for many years.
The youngest Hemingway also chafed under his father’s disappointment that he had not been born Ernest’s long-hoped for daughter. Eventually, Valerie Hemingway would discover that her bipolar husband was a transvestite.
In the throes of his mood swings, Gregory would give visitors gifts and mementos related to Ernest that belonged to Valerie. She eventually fled the house with her daughter following a physical attack by Gregory.
In 1995, Gregory actually underwent a sex change operation and adopted the name "Gloria." He died of heart disease in a woman’s jail in Florida in October 2001.
Many other authors crop up in the course of Running with the Bulls, not the least of which is Irish writer Brendan Behan, with whom Valerie had a brief affair, and a child, in 1962.
Valerie Hemingway spoke with interviewer Craig McDonald in November 2004 from her home in Bozeman, Montana.
The obligatory question: Why this particular book at this particular time?
I felt I could look back. I did try it in about 1991. I was suggesting ideas for books and my agent said, “You know the one book that would really sell would be to write your memoirs of your days with the Hemingways.” I started and I got into about sixty pages and said, “I can’t do this.” It just wasn’t the right time. My husband was still alive. I probably would not have mentioned him. It would have been a completely different book. For some reason, I couldn’t go on, so I stopped and I said, “I’m going to put that aside and I don’t know if I’ll take it up again.”
And then he came back to me again a couple of years ago. What got me started on it was that Maxwell Perkins’ granddaughter went down to Cuba and she realized that there was a stash of Hemingway papers there in the basement of the Finca that she had never heard of. When she came back with the news it seemed like completely new information to all of the literary people in America. So she set about getting funding — and she still is working on this — so that those papers at least can be preserved because they were crumbling. When I heard this, of course it wasn’t news to me because it was Mary and myself in 1961 — I actually assembled all those papers — who put them there.
Mary had intended to leave the Finca to the people of Cuba and her first idea was that this would be a learning center. With that in mind, we selected an across-the-board sampling of Ernest’s sort of writing and letters and notes and things and photographs that would validate the Finca being a learning center. So what I did was I wrote that chapter that is Mary and myself going back to Cuba, thinking I could sell it as an article. The response to that was, “This looks like a much larger work…we’d be interested in it if we saw something more complete.” So my agent said, "Why don’t you at least write an outline of a whole book?" And that’s exactly what I did. I thought maybe it is the time to say it because if I don’t speak out, then the time goes and everybody draws their own conclusions, as they have done.
For many years…
And many biographies. And even though I know that my part is a very very minor part in the scale of Ernest’s life — I said somewhere I spent two years with him and that was one-tenth of my life at the time, and it was one-thirtieth of his life, you know. Still, nothing can compare with a first-hand account. You can tell things, but things get diluted as it goes from mouth to mouth or whatever.
Normally, I have tried to avoid giving interviews prior to this because it was hard to explain, say, my relationship with Ernest. It was somewhere between being a daughter, being a muse…being an employee. It was a little mixture of a lot of things that don’t translate into the present day sound-byte. They want everything cut and dried. So I thought the only way to do it was to describe how it was and then the reader will know.
You have a postscript in the book in which you deal with your former husband’s fate. Had you written the manuscript for your memoir and added that coda, or was the memoir written subsequent to your ex-husband’s death?
When I wrote the book and sent it to my editor I said, “I don’t feel that Greg’s death is my story because I heard it second-hand.” But I think she very wisely said to me, “You need to mention it.” I think when you are face on with people you say, “That’s what happened…that’s how it was.” You’re much less likely to sort of stir up the questions. And people always imagine things to be much worse than they are, you know?
Even though I’d rather not have done it — mainly for my children…they’d rather not have it rehashed again, but it will be — so I thought it was sort of the brave thing to do. I put it in a postscript to indicate that this was something that was not mine first-hand…it’s how I came to hear of it — which was through my son Edward — and what emotions, or some of the emotions, it brought to me.
You express particular gratitude to your son Edward for his support of your book. Have some of your other children come around a bit now that they’ve read the book?
My daughter has been absolutely — it’s funny, because I was a little bit anxious with my daughter because she was the youngest and she lived through so much. The boys really didn’t see the worst side of Greg. They never saw him dressed up. But she did live through sort of realizing as a teenager that her father had some mental problems. Teenagers are sort of difficult, anyway. I don’t know if you have teenagers yourself?
No, they’re very young. Four and six.
Well, lots of luck! Actually, they’re good, but they do go through difficult periods. She went through a difficult period. So I thought this book was going to touch her more than the other children. When she read it, she e-mailed me and said, “Mums, I’m just so pleased you wrote this book. I’m so proud of you for writing this book.” She said for the first time “I feel proud to be a Hemingway.” For years she had sort of…well, when she married, she took her husband’s name. She just didn’t want to be part of the Hemingway hubbub.
It’s a lot to shoulder.
The funny thing now: she’s just had a baby and she’s going to take a year off work and try her hand at a novel. It was sort of sparked by what I wrote and there she is in it — that was part of her life. I guess she just sort of realized certain riches in her life even though the riches may not be the happiest riches. You know what I mean? One has a treasure there.
My other two boys are a bit more reserved about it. They feel that they’d rather not have the notoriety. They both complimented me on the book and said they’re behind me, but I could tell. Which is only natural — that they would rather not have to deal with people asking questions and I can certainly understand that.
But you know, instead of Hemingway just fading out, every year, there’s more and more interest in him and more and more articles. And now, every now and then, people do come up, just sort of interested in Greg. It seems to be much much less than one might expect. I’ve just done a three-week East Coast tour and there were barely a handful of questions about Greg and usually very polite and not intrusive. Which I’ve been pleased about. Because what people are interested about is Hemingway and his work and that’s what it’s all about, really.
Gregory by all accounts, and by his own account, had a very bad relationship with his father and years of estrangement. You lived with Gregory for so many years. Did that color your attitude toward Ernest in any way?
No. I guess I’m able to compartmentalize. I never really thought of the two in sort of the same way. I met Greg after Ernest died and Greg turned out to be so different from what I — well, I hadn’t really thought about him — but what I thought was, “Well, this is a no-good person that I’m probably never going to meet.” Then I meet him and I find he’s wonderfully charming, articulate, kindly…interesting. I mean, of course, he also had his moods and temper…all the other side. But, by and large, he was a very, very interesting person.
I never thought of his father in the same sort of picture, because Greg had really not had much to do with his father from when he was 19. He was 29 when I met him. So the times hadn’t really overlapped. Once in a while he might ask me something about the Finca or something about my time with the Hemingways, but not much. What he remembered mostly was his childhood when things were great. He didn’t talk about the bad times with his father. He talked about being a little child and how enchanting it was and how he’d always tried to impress his father and up to a certain age he had done that. He was a great shot. He was fine athlete. Ernest had a little baseball team in Cuba in San Francisco de Palo, and they were Giggy’s friends. Someone just recently did a little movie on it, a documentary.
I interviewed a man involved with that film…crime writer Randy Wayne White.
Yes, I know Randy. He’s a good guy. Although they did call (Gregory) “Gee-Gee” instead of “Giggy” (with hard “G”s). That’s something that happens in the tape of my book, too. My son Ed listened to the book and said, “Aw, they call my dad ‘Gee-Gee.’ It’s just that it never even occurred to me because it was just sort of my knowledge that it was Giggy and it never occurred to me that I should sort of phonetically spell it.
Yeah, I can remember reading it in many places as “Gig.”
Yes, he was Giggy as a little kid and then he became “Gig.” So those were the times, if Greg tried to think of his father and the early times, he would think of the good times. He did his own book, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with that…
Yes, Papa, I have read it.
It wasn’t that angry, except for that introduction where he’d had a fight with someone who’d mentioned his father and that sort of brought out unconsciously his anger and frustration at his father. But he didn’t allow the children to even talk about his father. It wasn’t until they went off to school and they’d come back and say, “Why is our grandfather so special? Everyone is asking us about our grandfather — why do you never talk to us about him?”
I remember saying to them, “If you want to know about your grandfather, read his books. There they are on the shelf — that’s how you’ll know about your grandfather. And I pretty much never told them anything. So I think in a way they feel a little bit cheated. But the thing is it’s hard to, well, when they read the book now, well, it isn’t how you’d tell children.
Are you trying to write your account through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old girl?
That’s what I was trying (the first time). Because that’s how I met him. He wasn’t this enormous hero which is why I think it clicked. That’s one of the reasons why when we met that we got on so well. Because I wasn’t one of these adoring sort of American college-age students who had just read Ernest in class and wanted to connect with him. I wasn’t even interested really.
In an Irish school, in the sort of rather formal setting that I grew up in, writers, preferably, were dead. One had to be rather suspicious of writers if they were alive. They were better dead and up on the shelf.
Where they can’t disappoint you?
I always had the sense through many of the biographies that Ernest was really in declining health after the airplane crashes in Africa. But your portrayal seems to depict a man in steep and sudden decline. Early in your memoir, you describe him as “a bulky, energetic figure walking briskly.” He seems, when you met him, to have still been a vital and rather formidable man.
Yes. He certainly seemed so to me, when I met him and going those days. I mean, we had probably 16-, 20-hour days. In Spain, you’d eat your dinner at 10 or 11 at night and you go on to two or three in the morning. Then he would get up at six, or I presume around six, and start writing, because he’d already done his writing by the time anyone saw him in the morning.
That was his modus: He’d get out of bed and write every morning and it didn’t matter how late he went to bed, if he didn’t sleep or if he were hungover. He just wrote. It was habit. I think it was rather like people who run. I mean, there is a great craze for running now. People get out of bed and they run every day. And if they don’t for some reason, they feel disoriented. I think that’s how it was with his writing.
His concerns over his loss of eyesight seems to me to come across in your memoir — much more than any other I’ve read — as a real trauma for Hemingway. I guess that was his first intimation of his body failing him in a way that went at his writing?
For whatever reason, he was having difficulty writing at that time. I think part of it was worry. It was worry about his health. It was worry about what was going to happen in Cuba vis-a-vis his living there. I think he wasn’t concerned politically, as he said and as I put it as he speaks to Phil Bonsall. He said, “I’ve been here through revolutions.” Leaders had come and gone in the 20 years that he lived there.
He said, “I’m a writer and writing is my business, not politics.” Bonsall said, “You know, it’s important to the government that you take a stand. If you live there, that’s taking a stand in favor of Cuba” and now Cuba was the enemy. That was sort of devastating for him. I think he sort of felt at first that he could get away with living there. It was his home and his life and he could do that without being involved in politics.
It was a combination of things. I think age: he was a person who even though when we look at it now 60 is young — I hope so because I’m in that club. But I think he was a person where not so much youth but that strength that you mentioned…physical ability, the mental capacity and the writing…those were terribly important to him. He was not a person who was going to age well. It all came together with the idea of losing the house, the books, the animals. The staff was really like family to him. And also that was such a nice place. There’s something about the tropics that’s really rather alluring…to be able to write there. They had bought the house in Ketchum (Idaho) around January of ’58, but Ketchum is a whole different ballgame.
A much different vibe, yeah.
Yes. And he had lived the ten years before Cuba in Key West, and before that he had lived in France. All his adult life he had been living in this kind of climate, bound by the sea…sunshine and tropics. It was just too much. And probably he was prone to depression. I think there was also an element of a chemical imbalance. It wasn't just these things, but the combination of everything hitting him like that at the time that just put him into a suicidal determination.
You’ve mentioned it’s hard, particularly in the age of sound-bytes, to really characterize your relationship with Ernest. There have been people who have theorized there was some physical relationship between the two of you. I think I read somewhere where even Clara Spiegel was led rather indirectly by Mary Hemingway to believe that. When you were sorting Ernest’s papers did you come across anything coming from him that would have fostered those sorts of suppositions?
No. I did remove little notes from him to me and from me to him, but nothing like that. I say that I was more a muse, but he did at one point in Spain, not in Cuba, but in Spain when he wanted me to go to Cuba, he said that he had this vision that one day we would be married and have a daughter. Now, that was completely in his imagination, because I was sort of horrified. Here I was, 19, thinking that was the last thing I wanted in my life at that point. But physically he was in fact very protective. He was much more physically protective of me as he would be of a daughter.
He had this sort of idea of sort of purity of people because he was very very careful. People look at the photographs and I’m in a lot of the photographs either to his right or his left side, usually. But he was very careful not to allow people to photograph me. Like, when he wrote The Dangerous Summer, he didn’t put me in. He said, “I don’t ever want you to be the butt of any scandal.” But that wasn’t just a façade. He was absolutely hands-off.
Well, he had had some experience with that on the other side with Across the River and Into the Trees with Adriana Ivancich. What was Mary Hemingway like? I’ve heard descriptions of her as being…well, someone who knew them both well said she was the least equipped of any of the wives to really be Ernest’s wife. And did you see her go through an actual mourning period for him?
You know, I did. But the thing is that Mary was very much for Mary. She had this idea or vision of being Ernest Hemingway’s wife. It was a very important thing for her. I do think she loved him, but Mary was rather a cold person. Her parents were Christian Scientists. They were both only children and she was an only child so she had no close relatives of any kind. She was very sort of suspicious of…well, when I married Greg and when we had children, she liked that one-on-one relationship with her. The sort of Irish girl with no relatives.
None of my family ever came over to the United States so I was always on my own here. That she was easy with. With family, she was a bit suspicious that people might be wanting something from her. It took me a long time, even as a single person (to know her) because she thought I wanted something. Maybe people who do that are people who want things themselves. But with her mourning period, she had this sort of glory of being Hemingway’s widow and that offset some of the anguish and the awful anguish of his death the way he died.
I wondered if she ever alluded to that particularly to you. I was re-reading a book by a woman named Rose Marie Burwell.
You know her?
I’ve met her on the circuit and I don’t really know her. And I avoid reading the books because first of all they just annoy me. I figure in my mind, “Why do I want to be annoyed?”
Burwell had talked to Bill Walton, and it’s not even in the body of her book but buried in the notes somewhere — something to the effect that Walton had had a phone conversation with Mary immediately after she had found Ernest’s body. There was an indication that maybe Mary had sort of willed the suicide along or helped it along by leaving the access available for the guns and so forth. Did Mary ever address that with you at all?
You know, she didn’t. She didn’t address that aspect of it, but she kept asking me those first two or three years after he died, like, “Why did he do it? Why did he do it? Why could we not have prevented it? How was it that we missed…?” The thing was that I couldn’t and never did say to her was that he had told me outright that he intended to kill himself. I was looking at it of course from a completely different point of view. I had sort of argued with him, saying, “You’ve told me your father committed suicide and you felt he was a coward. You felt that was cowardly thing to do. How can you tell me you’re planning to do it?”
He was very clever. Even at his lowest point he was always able to out-argue you. He was just looking at it in terms of his entity…that he had accomplished what he was going to accomplish in life. There was nothing further that he was going to add to literature. That’s what he felt. He did not want to be a doddering old man and felt it was just downhill all the way.
So why go on?
Now we know a lot more about depression and so on. I think there was a chemical imbalance there, too. And mortality as his limbs were giving out…he felt what is the point in going on? Mary was a very good sort of caretaker.
It’s really almost impossible to judge people in marriage, even if you are living in the same house with them. There is an element there that nobody else can penetrate. I know Mary got annoyed with him if he drank too much and she thought he was silly. She sometimes got tired of hearing the stories over and over again, whereas for me they were fresh and I was a great audience. She was worried about his health.
She could be a little bit of a nag. And then a lot of the time she did her own thing. In the Finca she had her position which was running the household, gardening…being in touch with the different people who might be coming to visit or taking care of plans while he did his writing.
She facilitated his working, which is what he wanted in a wife. There definitely was a sort of an affectionate thing between them, too. They had their nicknames for each other and sort of the little stuff that goes on. I would be hard put to say, even being with them for that length of time day-to-day…it wasn’t all discord and there was an interdependence there.
I was haunted by a scene in your book where you and Mary are going through the papers and burning some of his private papers and she’s singing this song about herself which seems extremely characteristic of Mary based on everything I’ve read. Was that song her composition?
I think it might have been Ernest’s. He used to put words to songs. I have a feeling it’s based on an actual song. I always thought he made it up.
Now for the recorded version of your book, have you made sure that this tune is preserved in terms of the melody?
Oh. They recorded the book and I did talk to the person, but they sort of bypass the author. They pick the person. I thought I could have done it very well, you know. But that wasn’t even considered. It’s Brilliance Audio.
Can you hum the tune?
(Laughing) I don’t think I can hum it right now.
I assume it was sung in Spanish around the Finca?
It was, it was. Soy come soy/ Yno como Papa quiere/ Qué culpa tengo yo/ De ser asi? There was a song that was similar to that and what he did was — and he did this with a lot of songs — he just changed the words. It’s an old sort of Spanish love song. He just added, I am as I am/ And not as Papa would wish me to be. I think he made it up for Mary because he did make up a lot of songs.
Have you heard from (A.E.) Hotchner (author of Papa Hemingway) at all?
I haven’t. Hotch has always kept his distance from me. When we were in Spain and later in Cuba, Hotch pretty much dismissed me as some ignorant little hanger-on.
Except in terms of how he could use you when you were sorting the Hemingway papers at the Kennedy Library, I guess.
Right. Then, when his book came out, Mary tried to prevent it. But there was nothing in it that could really be prevented. She just felt very hurt. But I suppose she would be hurt by my book, but of course I wouldn’t have written this and published it while she was alive. But going on, not even with Mary, but with the present generation, there is a feeling of entitlement and owning Hemingway…that Hemingway should just belong to the family.
And yet of course all the wealth comes from the public Hemingway. I haven’t heard from any of the family. I haven’t heard disparagingly or with accolades. I did try to write it in the most honest way, and yet with the best version. I mean, if you took incidents in your life you could string up all the worst incidents and have a completely different book. So I tried to just give a sampling of the good and the bad.
I’m interested in that you actually read some of the books that appeared posthumously in their original formats. There has been talk about some Library of the Americas sorts of versions of the novels. Would it have been better to just print those as you read them and as they were left, or was it better to put them out in these kind of cobbled-together versions?
For instance, now, Robert Lewis of the North Dakota Quarterly and one other person are putting together the entire unedited version of True At First Light. I think they’re going to call it something else. But they’re putting that whole thing together. Of course it’s about 1,200 pages. So the thing is that these books that were published afterward — except of course The Dangerous Summer, which was based on articles and there was actually a lot lot more of that, but he knew that was going to be published as a book and he was pretty much finished with A Moveable Feast.
But The Garden of Eden he was not finished with and satisfied with. His writing was so important to him and he never wanted a word changed. He wanted to bring it to his own editing, really. He did have Maxwell Perkins and then Harry Brague was his editor when I knew him. He was willing to listen to an editor, but basically he wanted the final say. That was why he wrote that he didn’t want anything published posthumously, because he felt he wanted the final say.
But what was there — I have to say I skipped through a page or two here or there — but I read through most all of it and did peruse every one of those manuscripts. It’s like the iceberg: These are the whole iceberg and he would have edited them to the tip, to the one-eighth or whatever. I don’t know, to answer your question directly, that it would have been better because that’s not what he would have done. He would not have let the whole thing go. Maybe after they do True At First Light, they may do Islands in the Stream — that was an enormous manuscript. And The Garden of Eden — that was an enormous manuscript. But how many people today want to go through 1,200 pages unless they are scholars?
Could just be the aficionados for certain.
And I don’t know if this enhances the reputation. It’s interesting to see, “Oh, that’s how he wrote,” you know.
Or it could diminish him.
Yes. It’s a hard one, you know? He wanted to preclude all that by just not having anymore done. But times have changed so much. And our mores regarding publishing and people’s intentions and their wills and so on have changed completely.
Yes, they are at great variance, often. You describe Ernest reading your palm once.
You describe him as seeming very upset by what he saw. That of course echoes that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls where Robert Jordan’s palm is read by Pilar, the Gypsy woman.
Oh. You know, I never thought of that. Isn’t that funny? (Laughing) It takes someone else…
Well, in the Bell it was quite ominous. Did you ever get a sense of what Ernest saw there in your palm?
Well, my feeling at that time, well, the only thing a young person can think of is—
That you were a goner?
—That I was a goner. I became reckless. I had no interest in going somewhere, getting a job…thinking of marrying and having family. Because I felt, you know, I’m going to die imminently. So I sort of floated back to Ireland and America…hither and thither. I was just thinking, “You know, I’m going to die so I don’t have to think of posterity.”
That was what it meant to me. I wasn’t thinking of, “Oh, you’re going to have a tragic life.” Looking back on it — if one looks back — there was a lot of tragedy. When I think of it, there was Ernest and his suicide. Then there was Brendan Behan and his premature end. And then there was Greg and his problems. I felt like I’m a blight to anyone who’s even going to want to come and have tea with me.
There’s a book by Anthony Cronin called Dead As Doornails—
Yeah, I have that. I thought he was a bit harsh. Everybody drank in those days. If you were to do a drinking diary of people…well, Brendan had great intellect.
Has your memoir come out in Ireland yet?
No, it hasn’t. Only the Spaniards have bought it.
I was assuming you might be headed to Dublin soon to promote it.
Maybe. But I’ve been very very cautious. I think Ireland has changed, but much as I love Ireland, there’s a certain narrow-mindedness. To admit to having an affair really puts you in a corner…you’ve got the dunce’s cap on.
Is there another book to come?
This was my compromise. I wanted to do a book on aspects of Ireland that I know very well at some point. But actually what I’m working on right now is a book on Montana, which is a great challenge. I never wanted to come here. It was a wrench to leave wonderful New York and come to Montana.
Montana has sort of earned its place in my little canon here. So I’m putting together a book on Montana. There are all sorts of Irish influences here. As a schoolgirl I’d learned about Thomas Francis Meagher and he’d gone off to Tasmania, banished forever, and then suddenly 40 years later I find him cast in bronze sitting on a horse outside the capital in Helena. And I say, "What’s this guy doing here?" I learn he was the acting governor of the territory. And he was quite a character. Talk of Irish characters, there was another one. And the cowboys and Indians and copper lords…all sorts of intrigue in this state.
Monday, January 4, 2010
Art imitates life; death imitates art?
About a year ago (in my pre-official blog site days), I put together a post regarding the second novel in the Hector Lassiter series, Toros & Torsos, and the fact it spins on the premise that surrealist art and aesthetic theory may have informed or inspired several bloody, unsolved crimes of the 20th Century — most notably the murder of Elizabeth Short, the so-called “Black Dahlia,” as she was dubbed by panting L.A. journalists circa January 1947.
The correspondences between Elizabeth Short’s mutilation murder and photographs and paintings by Man Ray and Salvador Dali were first put forth by Steve Hodel in his 2003 nonfiction study Black Dahlia Avenger, a New York Times notable book and Edgar® Award finalist. (To be fair, James Ellroy had made a particular painting an element of his 1987 novel based on the Dahlia murder.)
Hodel’s theories were greatly expanded upon by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss in their excellent 2006 release, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder.
Using the Nelson, Bayliss and Hodel works as a springboard, I extrapolated outward to construct a multi-decade saga that encompasses not only the Dahlia murder and the post-war Hollywood surrealist art circle (which included such diverse personalities as John Huston, Fanny Brice and Vincent Price), but also the Spanish Civil War in which the surrealists played a pivotal propaganda role.
Further research in that area uncovered allegations of jaw-dropping reports of Spanish torture chambers designed and constructed to surrealist aesthetics — a sort of crazy cross between Escher and Abu Ghraib.
I mixed in some female torsos that began turning up in the vicinity of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home in the 1950s…actual mutilation murders touched on by Hemingway in the published version of his posthumous novel, Islands in the Stream.
It takes a strong stomach and a cold eye to confront the evidence put forward in the Hodel and Nelson/Bayliss books — particularly in Exquisite Corpse. But once key surrealist works are compared to Elizabeth Short’s autopsy photos (reproduced in graphic detail in the Nelson/Bayliss books) it’s difficult to shake the notion surrealist imagery was very much on the mind of Betty Short’s twisted, never-apprehended killer.
Life imitating art…art imitating death, and for some, it seems, it wasn’t truly art until somebody died.
Well, that was then. I posited my killer surrealists operating in the period between 1935-1959.
Late last year, Woody Haut, author of the excellent crime fiction studies Pulp Culture and Neon Noir, among others, very kindly reviewed Toros & Torsos. In passing, he noted, “And don't think surrealist murders are simply the stuff of urban legend. In the part of the world where I'm currently living, near Perpignan, there were a handful of such murders a few years back, the corpses of which supposedly replicated paintings by Dali.”
Over the holidays, I finally had a few minutes to follow up on that intriguing aside of Mr. Haut’s. I found this article from The Guardian regarding those Dali-esque crimes…
Occasionally, you find yourself the subject of these remarks about the plots of your novels turning on an “outrageous” or “absurd” premise, or you get the left-handed compliment that your novel works despite its “far-out concept” that surrealist art might inspire serial murder.
Yeah, well… Maybe you can’t make this stuff up.
From the March 9, 2000 edition of the Guardian: “Police are wondering if they are not dealing with a serial killer inspired by the tortured visions of Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali i Domenech, born May 11 1904, died January 23 1989. ‘It's a theory they've tested and are continuing to test,’ says Mohamed Iaouadan, a lawyer. ‘I've seen the files, believe me. They've commissioned analytical reports from art experts on the significance of Dali paintings.’”
As the lawyer quoted in the article goes on to say, “I'm not sure what I think. Maybe it's madness, this Dali stuff. But killers are inspired by films, aren’t they? Why not by decapitations, eviscerations and dismemberments in the painting of the man who made this town famous?”
For more on the contemporary “Dali” case, you can check out the full (and very graphic) account of the crimes in the Guardian here.