Imagine: You’re a fresh, raw reporter, and your newspaper sends you to Europe. You are assigned to cover Stephen King or Anne Rice or John Grisham, and in addition to getting a great interview, the author invites you to come along to Pamplona in Spain for the Festival of San Fernin to witness the bullfights. And even more miraculous, you become an essential ingredient in the writer’s literary inner circle, known as the Cuadrilla, a name taken from the bullring and meaning a group of assistants to the matador in a bullfight.
But you cannot imagine, can you?
In today’s world, a fresh, raw newspaper reporter would be lucky to be assigned the story at all, let alone penetrate beyond the publishing houses’ web-based request forms, chatrooms, and general publicity machines. And even if it did happen, bullfights aren’t politically correct enough for today’s successful American authors to endorse, publicly. So, there would be no trip to Pamplona. That’s too extreme, way beyond the world’s reality television and reruns of the Fear Factor television show. But that is precisely what happened to Valerie Danby-Smith in 1959.
A freelance reporter with The Irish Times, the 19-year-old Dubliner’s chance encounter in a café in Spain with Hemingway, known by that time in his life to all the world as “Papa,” forever blended her life and career with the Hemingway surname. And now 40 years later, she wears down seven number-two pencils as she records in an honest, neutral journalistic fashion a roller coaster ride that started with her as Papa’s personal assistant and continued long after his passing.
For those unfamiliar with the man beyond a short story in an anthology or the copy of A Moveable Feast, it is essential to remember that Ernest Hemingway was one of the earliest risk takers. Prose was his extreme sport, and he went for big air every time, rejoicing in the pure screw-you guts of it all. He was the Steve Jobs of iPods, Jackson Pollock of drip painting, and Bill Gates of Windows95.
Bittersweet as some of it can be, Valerie Hemingway’s Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways is more sweet than bitter, and it reveals in a tasteful manner background information that can only come from the primary source. Unlike other books on Papa, this one is a true addition to the Hemingway canon.
Inescapable atmosphere and absorbing characters fill the anecdotes in these 302 pages, and that is an excellent trick since Papa is buried halfway through the book. Throughout it, part biography-part autobiography, Valerie Hemingway is ubiquitous as the Internet, seemingly everywhere all at once as she takes the reader with ease to Spain and France and Cuba and Key West and Ketchum and New York and Montana, and nothing is ignored: Castro, reading, four wives, writing, booze, lunch with Orson Welles, depression, and ever-present genius.
With threats of fines and imprisonment, we Americans are barred from Cuba, and it is on this small island where some of the more full, rich, and telling scenes emerge, both before and after Papa’s death. Before, Valerie Hemingway arrived at the Finca Vigia (the Hemingways’ Cuban estate) just before Castro¹s revolution and stayed by the writer¹s side through tropical days and insomniac nights, writing out his correspondence and typing from his longhand something that he had come to call his “Paris Sketches” on a manual typewriter.
Afterwards, after the Hemingways and Valerie left Cuba, after the Bay of Pigs, and after Papa¹s burial, Valerie and Ernest¹s wife Mary went to Cuba with the help of the Kennedy Administration and the permission of the Cuban Government to pack up the house. Their work would bring them in contact with a helpful Fidel Castro, a Russian antiquity official from Moscow (who wanted to catalog Papa¹s possession for delivery to The State), and with the owner of a small boat, which they used to slip Papa¹s artwork into America.
The vast majority of the book is a well-written page-turner, and Valerie Hemingway does a tasteful job of dealing with the many characters she has encountered while with Papa, some of whom are alive. She uses tales from her life to bookend the work, and much of it is effective, including her story of how she came by the Hemingway name.