The Sun Also Sets

The sun set on Ernest Hemingway’s life and career at the relatively young age of 61. Clearly he had bipolar disorder. And famously so. But he would not have wanted to be the poster boy for bipolar disorder that Vincent Van Gogh has seemingly been.

Hemingway probably would have agreed with Alec Baldwin’s character on NBC’s hit series 30 Rock: “I believe that when you have a problem, you talk it over with  your priest, or your tailor, or the mute elevator porter at your men's club. Then you take that problem and you crush it with  your mind vice.” 

Hemingway’s macho swagger and his stoical nature were legendary.  He had long stated that he thought his father’s suicide an act of cowardice. That being said, Hemingway abided by his doctor’s wishes for him to take Librium and stay at the Mayo Clinic, albeit secretly and under an assumed name.  There he stayed for seven months and underwent electroconvulsive therapy, to little positive effect. 

How do we think we know he had bipolar disorder?  There are classic symptoms that plagued him as well as many of the subjects of this book. Typically we see people with the disorder, particularly bipolar I disorder, abuse substances. Some 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder have struggled with substance abuse, compared to a figure closer to 10 percent of the general population. Those with bipolar are terrible with money. They are sexually promiscuous and have unstable relationships. Their behavior is predictably unpredictable. But they are also known for their creativity and incredible productivity.  Many of them, way too many of them, end their own lives. Today, researchers have put the figure between 25 and 60 percent of the people with the disorder who attempt suicide at some point in their lives. The number was probably higher for people in history who did not have the benefit of modern treatment.  And though bipolar II disorder is considered more manageable, its suicide rate is as high or higher than bipolar I. Bipolar II victims find the rapid cycling that goes with it unbearable.

Hemingway had all the above mentioned characteristics of bipolar.  His early life was packed with adventure. The bipolar life can be adventurous. Ambulance driving in World War I Italy, machine gunning sharks in the Caribbean, running a speakeasy in Key West, covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II, earning money as a boxer in Paris, playing poker in Austria, running with the bulls in Pamplona, hunting for grizzlies and fishing for trout in Wyoming, big game hunting in Africa — he lived a full life until he could no longer, due to physical and mental ailments.

And, like many others in this book, he was hyperproductive. He won a Nobel Prize for literature, a Pulitzer, and a bronze star. He wrote seven novels, six short-story collections, and two works of nonfiction. He left several unfinished works at the time of his death. He was the original “World’s Most Interesting Man,” though he preferred martinis to Dos Equis.

Hemingway’s thirst for alcohol was prodigious and his sexual appetites immense. He was married four times and carried on various extramarital affairs. At the time of his death he suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, and an enlarged liver presumably from his drinking.  But unlike many of those with bipolar disorder, Hemingway was good with money. He was living off a healthy investment portfolio for years before he died, and he left a $1.4 million estate to his fourth wife.

The bipolar gene, whichever gene that is, seems to have permeated the Hemingway bloodline. Hemingway’s father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, plagued by health and financial difficulties and known for his mood swings, shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings committed suicide. Ernest’s suicide with a double barreled shotgun pressed to his head, was committed two days after his release from Mayo and being declared successfully treated.

Son Gregory, who married five times, died in a Miami jail in 2001, while being held for indecent exposure and resisting arrest. As his father would later, Gregory underwent ECT therapy.

Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter by his son Jack, model and actress Margaux Hemingway apparently inherited the bipolar gene.  After years of struggle with alcoholism and bulimia, she intentionally overdosed on drugs.  Her sister Mariel, also a model and actress, has been active in mental health awareness and suicide prevention.  In 2011, Mariel received the McLean Award, given to those who have raised mental health awareness.  McLean Hospital is a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts that’s affiliated with Harvard Medical School.  It’s ranked #1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report.