Valerie Hemingway:
Inside the Cuadrilla

Valerie Danby-Smith was a journalist working in Madrid when she met Ernest Hemingway in 1959. She served as his secretary in Spain, France, and Cuba from 1959-60, and after the author's death worked for the Hemingway Estate in Cuba, Key West, Ketchum, and New York--gathering all of the authors papers and organizing them, first for use by Carlos Baker, later for presentation to the Kennedy Library. She came by the Hemingway name by marrying--and later divorcing--Gregory, Ernest's youngest son. For two decades she worked in publishing and public relations in New York City, including two years as a fiction reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Her articles have appeared in Saturday Review, The New York Times, and Ski Magazine. The interview was conducted on February 19, 1996.

© 1999 James Plath, from
Remembering Ernest Hemingway
by James Plath and Frank Simons (The Ketch & Yawl Press, 1999)

James Plath: According to biographers, you met Ernest Hemingway in Spain when you were a 19-year-old journalist. Freelance or staff?

Valerie Hemingway: I was mostly freelance, although I worked for a couple of places. I was working for Belgian News Service at the particular time that I met him. I did a lot of English-language work for them, and they sent me to interview him.

JP: You got the interview?

VH: Yes, I did. You know, I didn't have any interest in Hemingway. It was just another assignment for me, so I had to go off and find out about him, and unfortunately the material I found on him was pretty out of date. But that's all right. I did it in English and then I handed it over to my office and I presume they translated it into French, because it would have gone over the air. It was a news service, you see. They would give me a list of questions they wanted me to ask. It wasn't just literary people, you know. In fact, he was the only literary person that I interviewed.

JP: He didn't grant many interviews. Did you manage to keep a copy?

VH: It's long been lost, because I was in Spain, left Spain, went to Ireland, went to Cuba, went back to Europe, came back to America--so goodness knows whatever happened to it. At the time, it was not something of importance, because it never occurred to me that I would have any further association with him.

JP: Carlos Baker wrote that "Evidently, believing, as earlier with Adriana [Ivancich], that a miraculous renewal of youth could be achieved by association with a nineteen-year-old girl, he adopted Valerie Danby-Smith as his secretary, insisting on having her at his elbow during meals, at the bullfights, and in the car." First of all, is that the way you saw it? And secondly, could you comment on Baker's psychoanalysis?

VH: First of all, I didn't know anything about Adriana, and I was out essentially for myself--the way one is at 19 [laughs]. I mean, I wasn't interested in other people's points of view.

JP: Did you sense any flirtation on Hemingway's part, or feeding off of youth?

VH: There were a lot of young people around. I met him in Madrid, and a couple of months later I went up to Pamplona at his invitation. I went up with a bunch of friends from Madrid, but I didn't realize until I got there that I was included in his party, you know. Basically, as I understood it, if you're living in Spain, one of the things you ought to do is go to Pamplona, and I thought, well, I probably ought to do that. And then I totally forgot about it. Other things came up in my life and I just didn't think of it again. Then I had a note from Juanito Quintana who said, "We've booked a room for you at Pamplona. Please let us know immediately if you can't come, because there's such a shortage of rooms there." I had actually moved addresses and so I didn't get this until much later, and there was a second letter there. It said, "Since we haven't heard from you, we now understand that you're coming up, and this is where your accommodations will be," and so on, and "meet us later." But even so, it still didn't occur to me that I was being invited as a guest of the party. I came from Ireland, where everyone helps everyone else. You don't think anything particular if someone does something for you that might be a little bit out of the way.

So I got up to Pamplona, I came on the train from Madrid with a bunch of friends and intended to hang out with them, but then I found that there were bullfight tickets there and a note where to meet the Hemingways and so on, so obviously I went off to meet them and thank them for the accommodations. And then it was sort of understood . . . I mean, I was sort of given my schedule, and I was paired up with a young reporter from the Christian Science Monitor, you know? We had our fight seats next to each other. And there were a number of young people there. I was not an exception. How I became the secretary, at the end of the week everyone was planning the future and a lot of his guests were going down to Málaga for the famous 60th birthday party, and so he or Bill Davis said to me, "Are you coming down to the birthday party?" and I said, "Oh, no, I have to earn a living. I have to go back to Madrid and continue working." It was after that, Ernest sort of said to Bill, "Well, if Valerie has to work, why can't she work for us?" They went as a group, and he was staying with Bill and Annie, and he said, "Perhaps we could give Valerie some sort of work to do." And I was just dumbfounded, you know? Bill said, "Well, I can't see why Valerie couldn't be useful. She can be the secretary to the cuadrilla," as their group was called.

JP: That was the name that the Hemingway mob called themselves?

VH: Yes, named after the group in a bullfight: the matador and his banderilleros and his various men that worked around him. Hemingway and his little group, the inner group, were the cuadrilla. So, I went back and actually it was a fallow period, because in the summer everyone clears out of Madrid. It was July and I had planned to be away for August, so I began to think, what's the difference if I'm away for July and August? So I accepted. I went down and joined them in Málaga. With Ernest, I think, as with a lot of men who don't want to accept getting older, I think they do sort of flirt with young people, there's no doubt about that.

JP: Oh, we finally got that one answered.

VH: [Laughs] Well, you know, I was not singular in that respect.

JP: All of the accounts and biographies tend to be narrative or factual in their orientation. I wonder if you could just describe, in some detail, a day at the bullfight with the Hemingway cuadrilla, or a typical day.

VH: Almost no two days were the same. In Spain, we were moving from place to place, unless there was a feria or fiesta, where there would be fights for three or four days.

JP: How about describing that first encounter with the Hemingway cuadrilla, then?

VH: First of all, I was a pretty independent person, so I didn't always follow the rules. I used to get into trouble occasionally for that. There were certain places we would meet, and in Pamplona--let me go back in my memory to that--it seemed to me that it was almost a continuous thing, where the night blended into day. You got three or four hours sleep. Two or three in the morning you're dancing in the street and having a merry time, and then you go to bed and you're up again and it would be 10 or 11 when we met again in the square, and there would be the inevitable round of drinks, and the discussion. I mean, there always was a discussion, which was nice. One of the things I spoke about last year in Key West was the learning process. That was one of the delights for Ernest and for young people to be around him. He loved to tell them about things, to teach them and to show them, so that we would meet somewhere between 10 and 11 in the morning and sit mostly at the Choko Bar on the square. Then there would be a discussion about the day: the kind of day it was, the bulls and what kind they were, which ganadería they were from, and the bullfighters. Of course, Ernest was particularly interested in Antonio Ordóñez, and so if Antonio were fighting there'd be speculation as to what he might do with that particular bull, you know? There would be various serious discussions, but all the time there would be the interruptions, because young Americans, old Americans, and sometimes Spaniards, Europeans, and all sorts of people would come up and interrupt, constantly. Then we would have lunch before going off to the bullfight. In some ways, it was fairly sedentary. Ernest would go--because bullfighting is essentially a man's sport, and women really don't hang around the bullring or the pen where they keep the bulls--especially if Antonio were fighting, he would want to go and actually look at the bulls. Often he would go off and talk to the other matadors. He would go and busy himself with that sort of thing.

At that time, I don't think in Pamplona that I sat near him. He had bought some tickets, but they weren't necessarily all together. I think in some cases I was a couple of rows behind, and I was to be with this young fellow from the Christian Science Monitor whose name utterly escapes me, and who was a very dour [laughs] . . . He was certainly not an Irish, Celtic type at all, no one that I had been used to. He was quite put-out. I mean, I thought this was wonderful, in one way, to have these bullfight tickets and have this whole agenda which I hadn't even thought about. I thought I was going to have a completely different agenda, which would have also been completely interesting because the friends I had come up with were in the film business, and were making a film partly in Madrid and partly down in Málaga. As part of that group I met Beverly Bentley, who later married Norman Mailer, and Beverly and I became great pals on this sort of cuadrilla circuit. In fact, in Valencia she and I shared a room together. When she didn't have a room, I said, "Come and share mine." So I had an exciting bunch of people that I would have been with, had I not been [laughs] commandeered or whatever by this other group. After the fight, we would again gather back at a bar, usually, and Ernest would go over the fight, pretty much movement by movement. And it amazes me, even now, that he was able to recall things. If you see a boxing match, can you recall every blow or every exchange? Not too long ago I was rereading The Dangerous Summer, and it was just incredible. We didn't have video then, not even in the papers do you get such detail, and he has these movement-by-movement accounts. He had an incredible memory.

JP: Would you call it photographic?

VH: I would think so, yes. He really had an amazing memory. But I don't know if he was accurate, because I can't remember those things pass by pass. If he made it up, it was exceptional, and nobody said "That isn't the way it was." Today, you could do that, because you'd have a video of it, that if you didn't get it right someone could look at the video and say, "No, he didn't make that veronica up, he didn't do that." But it was just amazing. After each fight he would analyze it, what had been done wrong, what had been done right. And so it was just like an intensive course in bullfighting. After that, we'd have a sort of break and plan to get together later and have more drinks and dinner, because in Spain they don't have dinner until about 10 o'clock at night. And no matter where we were, dinner would go on for hours and hours. You had to have tremendous staying power. It was just unfortunate, in some ways, that I was so young and not attuned to a lot of the conversation. I had come directly from Ireland, and so I didn't know very much about American literary circles and literary gossip. I knew a lot about Irish literary circles, but not American. And also Hollywood, because in Pamplona that year David Selznick was supposed to be there. He was supposed to be in San Sebastian at the film festival, and the speculation was that he would be in Pamplona, and Ernest was still very angry with him about A Farewell to Arms. Ernest felt he got a very raw deal on it, that they paid him a flat $50,000, yet they made millions on it. He was very rankled about this. He wanted to capture Selznick and make him pay for his not being generous at the right time. So there were all sorts of asides like that.

JP: Did you attend the running of the bulls each morning?

VH: I didn't. I did get up maybe once or twice.

JP: Did Ernest?

VH: I think he did. First of all, he was not a person who slept very well, and he got up very early as a rule. I'm sure that he went, because that's where a certain amount of action was, and that was the first time you get to look at the bulls and get some idea of the breeds that were fighting that afternoon. He wanted to be a part of everything that was there, and of course he did, really. When I got up early . . . I guess there was a certain part of the day when I avoided them. When I first joined, this idea of being there like 12 or 14 hours of the day, I didn't realize that if you joined the cuadrilla you were on Spanish time. You were lucky if you got one half-afternoon off a week. You were expected to be there. Spanish servants are there from dawn until like two in the morning--they're still at your elbow, ready to fill up your glass. But I hadn't caught on, in Pamplona, because that was my first week. Also, I was there as a guest, or whatever, but not as a worker at that point.

JP: Sinatra had his Rat Pack, and some celebrities surround themselves with "yes" people. Others manage to attract genuine friends or pals, while still others are beset by groupies or wannabes. What was the Hemingway cuadrilla like?

VH: I think it was a mixture. I mean, there are always followers, the people who attach themselves like leeches, and they have their own agenda. It varied, because first of all there were Bill and Annie Davis, who were the Hemingways' host in Málaga. They didn't know them very well, but they were very rich and they had this beautiful house and lots of servants and serviceable cars, and when Bill wrote to Ernest and said he heard he was coming to Spain, could he be his host, maybe it's because he didn't know him very well that Ernest accepted. Mary always said she was very surprised, because normally they didn't stay at other people's houses. They either rented one or they stayed in hotels, for that independence. But actually it worked out very well, because Davis didn't intrude. He had a strange personality. It wasn't one of these effusive things. He was very much a laid-back, quiet, almost self-effacing type. Ernest called him "Negro" the whole time, because he had very thick lips and he felt he had this sort of Negroid . . . you know? So that was almost like using him as a servant, in a way. He drove the car. He was like the chauffeur, he was not so much like the host. He let the Hemingways use the house as if it were their own house. He didn't do the big thing of "I'm the host, I'm hosting the Hemingways." He really took a back seat, and his wife Annie was just the most delightful person, just a wonderful, warm person. There were two children who were about eight and ten or eleven at the time, so it was a family house. But the family was very much in the background. Then, of course, there was the infamous Hotchner, who was invited as a friend. I think Ernest really enjoyed his company and did feel he was a friend. I mean, my only quarrel with Hotch was his writing a book when it was totally understood that friends did not write books. I mean, it was more than understood. You were told that if you want to be a part of this cuadrilla, then there were no books. So Hotch was there as a friend, and he was pretty much like the court jester. Ernest would bounce things off him. Ernest would say something and Hotch would counter it, and we'd all laugh. He had his position there. Then Dr. George Saviers and his wife, Pat, came from Idaho, and again it was something that Ernest wanted to show them. It was part of his teaching. I don't think they'd ever been to Europe before--certainly not to Spain--and they hadn't seen bullfights and he loved to teach them. A lot of people who came to Pamplona and who were there most of the summer were personal friends who had been invited to the birthday party. But obviously, only people who had a certain amount of money and leisure time were able to do that. Another person who was a friend was Buck Lanham, and he was definitely a friend of Ernest's. And then when you sat down at the table, it seemed like there would be 20 there, because people would see you and they'd join. The table was large enough that people whom we didn't know at all could come and sit down; it would take a while for anyone to realize that they weren't a part of the official group.

JP: What about the journalists? Were these contingencies similar to the press corps that would cover candidates during an election?

VH: No. He had some friends who were journalists, and I think he always wanted, as I think most personalities do, to be friendly with the press. There were some Spanish journalists there. There was José Luis Castillo Puche, I'm sure you know his book, Hemingway in Spain, and there were other people who came and went. Hemingway had been a journalist, and he definitely had a lot of journalist friends and encouraged journalism and felt that it was a very good way, if you wanted to write creatively, to get into that. He felt that if you wanted to write, that you should write in whatever form.

JP: I've read different accounts of his work day, in relation to other aspects such as fishing. What was your observation on his daily routine?

VH: Well, at the time I was with him he wrote every day. He wrote from early in the morning--I don't know what time he got up, but probably about six--until 10, pretty much every day. Sometimes a little later, if he was really going good, but otherwise he might even stop a little earlier. Then he had breakfast and he went swimming. The whole schedule was fairly regimented there. We went fishing on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, unless there happened to be a squall or something that prevented it. The boat was ordered, the chauffeur was ordered . . . you know, when you have that kind of life where you don't do things spontaneously, because you've got a whole retinue of people who have to set it up for you.

JP: Did he need a nap in the afternoons?

VH: Usually in those countries you have a siesta, because we would have, usually, a bottle of wine with lunch, then after lunch there was usually a siesta. Then there would be another swim or some kind of activity. Sundays we went to cockfights. A couple of days a week Mary and I went into town. Once we went into the market, and then the other time we'd go shopping or for some other purpose. After the siesta, I would work with him in the afternoon. Then he would do letters and things like that, you know. Creative writing was done in the morning. And bedtime? In Cuba it was earlier--I would say around 10:30, 11 o'clock. In Spain, it was never before two.

JP: And would he be out there dancing in the streets with the others?

VH: He would be out there, yes, to a certain extent. He was definitely out there cheering other people on. In some ways he was a very shy person. He always said he wasn't musical--and there was no evidence that he was musical--that he was forced to play the cello when he was young, and his mother emphasized music. Whether it was that he just decided he was going to take a lifelong dislike to it, or whether he actually didn't have musical ability, there were some things that he liked. He loved Fats Waller, and when we were in Spain around the pool, the Davis's always had their loudspeakers by the pool and they always had Fats Waller songs. He loved things like "Your Feets Too Big"--that was one of his favorites. But as I recall, he did not really sing in tune. He loved to encourage other people to perform.

JP: You mentioned the 60th birthday party in Málaga. Legend has it that it was quite a blowout. Were you there?

VH: Oh, yes. It was an absolutely magnificent party. The house is a really beautiful house. The setting was lovely, and there were some very silly things there. For instance, they set up a rifle range, and in some cases there were caricatures of people Ernest didn't like and they were used as targets. Then there was a time when I think Antonio had a cigarette in his mouth--it got pretty wild--and they were trying to shoot the ash from the cigarette. Antonio's wife, Carmen, also had a birthday, although I must say she was rather secondary. The Maharajah of Cooch Behar was there, and the Maharajah of Jaipur and their maharanis, and David and Evangeline Bruce, all sorts of wonderful people were there, and some of them had flown in from all sorts of places. Some local Spanish aristocracy were there, there was music and laughter and fireworks--all that sort of thing. Again, that was pretty soon after I'd met him. I really only knew him for about two weeks at that point.

JP: What was your initial impression of Ernest, and did it change over the years?

VH: Initially I felt that he was very affable and kind, when I met him. I didn't even know if I would get the interview, and I was in a way surprised but not in a way surprised to--not because of him, but because I tended, if I wanted to do something, to find a way to do it. But I was pleasantly surprised at how, when I had that interview with him, he spent extra time chatting with me afterwards, discussing me and my work and what I was doing, Ireland and his impressions of Ireland, Irish literature. Usually, when I saw people, you just got the bare minimum and you went your way, so I thought that was good. At the time, Bill Davis was there and Mary was there, but there were other people around sort of walking in and out. Then, when I went up to Pamplona, it certainly was very jolly. It was a holiday atmosphere, not a working atmosphere. I had been to bullfights before, but I really knew nothing about them, so it was absolutely fascinating. He was, again, I thought, very affable. But he did, after a few drinks, as people do, go looking for David Selznick and [laughs] was going to pay him back for all the injury he'd received. I didn't think too much about that, because when you grow up in Dublin you meet a lot of characters and people do a lot of odd and strange things, and you don't even think twice about it, you know? So I sort of didn't judge him on that. We had a good week, and I must have liked it enough to say that I would go to Madrid and settle my affairs and meet them in Málaga. I think just the change over the time was that Spain was a happy-go-lucky time.

I know that there are other readings on this, and that there were certain tensions--in life there are always tensions. Yes, he got drunk, yes, they got drunk, we all got drunk at times, we all got on each other's nerves, and there were possible incidents. But that's life. That's just the way it is. There was a real contrast between Spain and when I joined them in Cuba a couple of months later, because that was a totally different lifestyle. People didn't intrude. They had this place outside Havana which was on a hill, Finca Vigía, which means "lookout," and it was very peaceful. Ernest wrote every day . . . he wrote every day in Spain, but it was very hectic. This was very peaceful. By contrast, he didn't get drunk, there was no rowdiness, there weren't outbursts of temper. You know, the things that one associates with a lot of drinking: a lot of fun and then tension that results from it, and people milling in and out and misunderstandings of who's going to be where, when. In Cuba, everything was very, very regimented. Every night they had different people for dinner, but it was a routine. Monday night it was Cucu Kohly, who was a doctor (he had a lot of doctor friends), Tuesday it was the American ambassador, Wednesday it was Roberto Herrera, Thursday it was someone else, and Friday we went out to dinner. It was an absolute fest regimen. If anybody came, it was all pre-arranged. Obviously, you couldn't get in. The gate was locked, and there was no way you could penetrate the walls, so it was very ordered. Consequently, our lives were very low-key. It was really quite wonderful. When I run into people who talk of Hemingway the drunk--including his sons--in Cuba, he didn't drink too much. We had a little wine at lunch--I doubt that the three of us had a bottle between us--and then the next drink was at five o'clock where you had one whiskey and soda or one rum and soda water with a piece of lime in it, and then we had dinner, you know, and we had wine with dinner and no drinks after dinner. So this idea of fall-down-drunk and one's brain being besotted certainly was not the case in Cuba.

JP: You did some of the typing on A Moveable Feast ?

VH: I did pretty much all of the typing on that, and on The Dangerous Summer.

JP: Ernest was aware of Harold Loeb's own memoirs at the time, and what he thought was Loeb's way of wishing it would have been--that revisionist impulse in anyone who would recollect. Did Hemingway second-guess himself at any point during the writing of A Moveable Feast, or at any time during the writing indicate to you, off the record, that he might be having a bit of fun with the truth?

VH: No, because even though I say I typed it, he told me that he'd written it some time before. I've never quite pinned down when that was written. At one time he told me that he wrote it when he had a broken back after his second plane crash. I know he definitely told me that, because he said that when he was on his back he began thinking back to the early days, and that was when all this came to him. I don't remember him telling me, but I've heard from others that this was done earlier. And of course it could be that at one point he started it earlier, and then he seriously got down to it after the crash. When I was typing it, he wasn't writing it then. All he was doing was putting it in publishable form, because he had finally decided he would publish it. He was really professional. By the time I typed it, he made very few mistakes. It might be a comma here and there, or an "and" or something, but there were no changes. He was amazingly disciplined in that way in his writing. I think the system that I could see that he was doing was that he would write every day. Supposing he got up with a filthy hangover (as people do) or you're just tired or you're sick. He would write no matter what. And I think the writing reflected that. I mean, there is some stuff there that's really almost bad. But that was just that he forced himself to do this, day after day. He never ever missed, when I knew him, and that was probably the worst part, in that he was older, he was disillusioned, he had suffered from depression and so on, but he always wrote. And when he was thinking of something for publication he was very careful, so that when he got stuff off to his editor in later years, there wasn't much that they changed. I mean, he would fight with Harry Brague, who was his editor at the time, over a word.

JP: Most scholars and biographers agree that Hemingway needed both romance and physical activity in order to get the writing done. In Cuba, did he maintain a physical regimen?

VH: He did swim every day, twice a day. We all had sort of allotted times when you went to the pool. Everyone went separately, and then swimming was usually exercise. It wasn't just lolling in the pool. I don't think we ever, at any time--Mary and I, or Ernest and I--were there together. We all went separately, and at least once a day. I remember Mary saying that for his birthday a couple of years before, a present she gave him was a truckload of ice. It was a very, very hot July, and so his gift went right into the pool. She was very big on birthdays and those kinds of celebrations. I'm sure he did exercises in the morning, too, because every day on the wall he would put his weight, and he had his blood pressure taken frequently. He was over preoccupied with health. That was something that was very important.

JP: Do you recall any boxing that he engaged in, either planned or spontaneous?

VH: You mean like altercations?

JP: Or sparring.

VH: I can remember going to find David Selznick, but we never found him [laughs] and so he didn't get boxed. In Cuba, it was a very regimented, quiet, and disciplined life. He was very wary of journalists, except for his personal friends, because he talked of the time a couple of years before, maybe '57, when Milt Machlin had come down, a writer of note at that time for True, or one of these popular pulp magazines. And he came down, he met Ernest at the Floridita. Nobody came to the house unless they were formally invited, because unless someone opened the gate they couldn't get in. But they met, and they apparently hit it off, and Machlin was invited to the Finca. He came, must have done an interview, because he had a little notebook, stayed to dinner, and they did have some drinks after dinner. In fact, Machlin was pretty stewed, so they poured him into his car or the chauffeur took him off. But the next day his little notebook was found in the sofa, and in the notebook he had just written these absolutely dreadful things--obviously as part of his article, instead of the answers--and Ernest was absolutely furious. Machlin would have been one of the people where, if he had run into Hemingway again--I think he actually had the effrontery to call the next day and ask, "Have you seen my notebook?"--he would have been a candidate for fisticuffs. That, I know.

JP: You worked for the Hemingway estate. Is that a euphemism for Mary?

VH: I don't think so, although it was Mary who paid me. The estate was working on the papers. I had an office at Scribner's, and all of his papers were put there. In fact, inadvertently, through that, Hotch got a lot of material for his book, because he used to come up and spend afternoons and we'd chat over things, and he'd say, "What are you doing now?" and I'd show him, because I trusted him, the same way Ernest had trusted him, you know? And I'd say, "Oh, look at this!" or "Can you imagine that?" because I had thought this was like being in the confessional. And, of course, Hotch used whatever he could of that material, which I thought was very rat-like. Anyway, I went through all the papers and prepared them for Carlos Baker, and later for the Hemingway library.

JP: Hemingway is known for being a pack-rat. Were there some unusual places where you discovered material?

VH: We went to Cuba, that was the first place, and we took out as much as we could or as much as we wanted to from there. Then we went out to Idaho, because those were the main places where things were. And then later Mary had me go through all the letters he had received, and I made a list and took the key 30 or 40 people and I wrote to them and asked them if they would send Xeroxes of the letters they had received--and in many cases they had already gone to libraries, or had been sold. But in a lot of cases people did send us Xeroxes. So that was the "gathering."

James Plath
© 1999 James Plath
from Remembering Ernest Hemingway
by James Plath and Frank Simons (The Ketch & Yawl Press, 1999)

Remembering Ernest Hemingway