Final Hours of Ernest Hemingway

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: July 2, 1961
Location: Ketchum, Idaho, USA

Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel Prize-winning author, adventurer, war correspondent, bullfighter, drinker and all-round macho man, blew his own brains out on this day. His fourth wife, Mary, said that he killed himself accidentally while cleaning his double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun.

But did he? Controversy has surrounded the death of the 61-year-old celebrity since the fatal shooting at his home in Idaho and over the years writers, researchers – and psychiatrists – have delved into the mystery.

In 2006, American psychiatrist Christopher D. Martin said: “The accumulating factors contributing to Hemingway’s burden of illness at the end of his life are staggering.” He listed bipolar mood disorder, depression, chronic alcoholism, repetitive traumatic brain injuries and the onset of psychosis.

Some commentators have suggested that Hemingway’s problems – and depression – began in 1928 when his father, Clarence, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. But his grandfather, brother, sister, and granddaughter all killed themselves. And besides suicide, the Hemingway family history is also laced with the inherited condition of hemochromatosis, it has emerged.

Swiss scientist Sebastian Dieguez wrote in 2010 that Hemingway's recorded behaviour and symptoms were misdiagnosed, and his death was not an accident, but a suicide driven by the pain of this untreated disease.

Hemochromatosis is a rare iron-overloading disorder that causes internal damage of joints and organs, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, and depression. It is also known as the Celtic Curse, and when it goes untreated can cause severe pain, suffering, and death. It is worse when mixed with the kind of excessive drinking in which Hemingway frequently indulged.

In physical decline, then, Hemingway found around 1960 that he faced another devastating and cruel blow – he could no longer write. The words wouldn't come. Deepening depression came instead, according to English writer and researcher John Walsh.

In the spring of 1961, Hemingway was asked to contribute a single sentence to a presentation volume marking John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He could not oblige. He told his lifelong friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner: "It just won't come any more," and wept.

Walsh concludes: “Building and sustaining the image of ‘Hemingway the Man's Man’ took courage and determination, but it was something he needed to do – and when it dwindled, along with the all-important capacity to write, he had no answer except to go the same way as his father.”

Published: July 1, 2016

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