The Importance Of Being Ernest: Hemingway Meets The Gay Gothic

Just once, in A Moveable Feast, the chest-wig slips, revealing—revealing what? Hem’s Inner Queer? His feminine side—his anima, as Jung would say? In “Secret Pleasures,” a chapter Hemingway cut from the book but which the editor of the Restored Edition includes, we eavesdrop on a breathily conspiratorial huddle between the author and his wife. Hem is confessing his desire to grow his hair as long as Hadley’s, at which point Hadley proposes that she trim hers and keep trimming it until their hair is the same length, an androgynous twinship both of them seem to find unbearably exciting.

The editor, Hemingway’s grandson Seán Hemingway, reads this as a time-honored rite of passage, marking Hem’s transition from his days as a newspaper correspondent “to his new bohemian lifestyle as a full-time writer of fiction.” Inarguably, that’s the manifest content of this weird little vignette, as a dream analyst would say. But the fur-crackling sexual frisson of their discussion is unmistakable (“We looked at each other and laughed and then she said one of the secret things”). It takes on a Freudian significance when we learn from Cline that Hem’s mother dressed Ernest and his sister Marcelline “like female twins, in gingham dresses or fluffy lace tucked frocks with picture hats.”

She had their hair cut similarly in a Dutch dolly style with bangs across the forehead hanging prettily below the ears. Ernest wore dresses until he entered kindergarten, twice as long as any contemporary boy might have been attired in female garb. Moreover no boys in that period had girls’ haircuts as well as girls’ clothes.

Did I mention that his mother called him Ernestina?

Hemingway, whose hatred of his mother deepened throughout his adult life, was convinced that Grace Hemingway drove his father to suicide by emasculating him, too, most humiliatingly in her “intimate companionship” (Cline) with a girl only three years older than Hemingway’s sister—a subject so charged it drove Clarence Hemingway to act “insane.” When Clarence banned the girl from the family home, Grace simply arranged assignations at a cottage she had built near the Hemingways’ summer residence. After Hemingway’s father shot himself, Grace’s companion moved into her home permanently. Enraged, Hemingway forbade his sons to visit their grandmother because she was “androgynous.”

(In a plot twist so ironic it hurts, the writer’s youngest son, Gregory, was tormented by gender-identity anxieties. Drawn to crossdressing from an early age, he was scalded all his life by the memory of his father’s face frozen in a mask of disgust when Hemingway père stumbled on the 10-year-old boy in his stepmother’s nylons. At 64, Gregory underwent a partial sex change. Meaning: he had his genitalia surgically altered but not his breasts. Later, he had one breast augmented, an operation he subsequently reversed. At the local bar, he was “just one of the guys,” a patron said, presenting as male, with a deep voice and burly build; yet he secretly retreated into an alter ego named Gloria. Arrested in 2001 for indecent exposure—police spotted “a stocky, bowlegged brute of a woman,” as his daughter Lorian described him in her memoir Walk on Water, strolling naked down a thoroughfare in Key Biscayne—he died of hypertension and heart disease in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. He had given his name as Greg, then revised it to Gloria. “I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying not to be a transvestite,” he told a Hemingway biographer, explaining his condition as “a combination of things—first you’ve got this father who’s supermasculine but who’s somehow protesting it all the time, he’s worried to death about it, never mind that he actually is very masculine, more masculine than anybody else around, in fact. But worried about it all the same…” Paul Hendrickson, the biographer in question, is only stating the obvious when he says that “the son was acting out…the tortured sexual ambiguities that the father felt.”)

Repressed memories of enforced effeminacy, psychic emasculation, and threatening androgyny return in transmuted form, in Hemingway’s art and life, as eroticized fantasies of androgynous twinship, lovers who merge identities. Again and again, hair is the fetish object that works the genderqueer juju. (Mary Hemingway told an interviewer that Hem viewed hair as the only physical feminine attribute that could be reversed to signify maleness without the necessity of a sex-change.) In Hemingway’s unfinished story “The Last Good Country,” a female character who wants to be a boy opts for symbolic gender reassignment by cutting her hair short, a magical rite that also binds her more tightly to protagonist (and Hemingway alter ego) Nick Adams: “Do I look like a boy? … Now I’m your sister but I’m a boy, too. Do you think it will change me into a boy?” By that logic, which is after all the author’s logic, Hem’s desire in A Moveable Feast to grow his hair to feminine length bespeaks a desire to change into a girl. Similarly, in A Farewell to Arms, Catherine wants Frederic Henry to grow his hair while she trims hers until the two lovers are “just alike only one of us blonde and one of us dark…Oh, darling, I want you so much I want to be you too.”

Left: Hemingway with Hadley, his wife in A Moveable Feast. Right: With Pauline, whose arrival at the book’s end portends the demise of  one marriage and the beginning of another.

For Hemingway, boyish haircuts—never mannish, like Gertrude’s Stein’s close-cropped Roman-Emperor cut, which he detested—transformed women into the best of both genders: the female ephebe, boyishly outdoorsy and athletic, unburdened by the usual feminine “weaknesses,” yet still sufficiently feminine to banish the specter of the butch, man-hating lesbian or, heaven forefend, man-boy love.


There is, as Mellow points out, “a thread of strangeness that runs through Hemingway’s treatment of male-female relationships. In fiction, at least, Hemingway seems willing to entertain the notion that love and sex are a merger of sexual identities.”

Papa is even more revealing in his posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden. In it, Catherine Bourne adopts the by-now regulation boyish haircut because she wants to make love as a boy to her husband David. She convinces David to dye his hair white-blond like hers, turning them into them twin androgynes. Their genderplay takes what Mellow calls a “Krafft-Ebing turn when David, in some unnamed fashion, allows himself to be sodomized by his wife: ‘and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside.’ Catherine, with eerie satisfaction, declares, ‘Now you can’t tell who is who can you?’”

Fascinatingly, Hemingway echoes, here, the cultural logic of ancient Greece, which emphasized dominant and submissive sexual roles—active penetrator, passive penetrated—over the gender of the participants. Hemingway, who in the early ‘20s had been a devout reader of Havelock Ellis’s seven-volume Psychology of Sex, pressing the books on his friends and effusing about them in his letters, could not have missed the pioneering sexologist’s radically progressive comments on homosexuality. Counter to prevailing views of “sexual inversion” as unmistakable evidence of degeneracy, Ellis argued that gays were Born That Way. Citing the prevalence of same-sex behavior across cultures and even in the animal kingdom, he argued that homosexuality was natural and therefore an acceptable expression of love between consenting adults.

All his life, Hemingway had publicly reviled gay men, shuddered in disgust at their deviance from “normal” sexuality and “healthy” manhood, their swishy, lisping artificiality. In The Garden of Eden, however, Papa’s got a brand new bag. Was Hemingway doing in fiction what he couldn’t bring himself to do in the autohagiography of A Moveable Feast—write “the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway” Stein had dared him to write? Certainly, the book invites close scrutiny through a psychoanalytic lens: like Hemingway’s mythologized memoir, The Garden of Eden is set partly in the Paris of the ‘20s and David Bourne, like the author, is a young novelist and World War I vet.

In retrospect, The Garden of Eden looks like an attempt to imagine a more enlightened masculinity; a premonition, even, of the polymorphously perverse ‘60s, when the square-chinned, stuffed-shirt manhood of the ‘50s would start to soften around the edges, in preparation for the liquid masculinities of the gender-bent ‘70s. The Hemingway who imagines David Bourne’s ecstatic “emasculation,” femdom’d by a boyish wife armed with a strap-on (or whatever it is), is poles apart, in his libertine acceptance of gender as a role we perform, from Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, who can barely suppress his gag reflex at the sight of Brett’s retinue of gay boys: “I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure.”

At the peak of his fame, Hemingway was the heavyweight champ of muscular prose and the Romantically Troubled Masculinity it telegraphed. For a generation of men, his fiction, the movies based on it, and the men’s magazine adventures of the man who wrote it was the screen on which America saw its wish-fulfillment fantasies of manliness come to life. (“Of all men, living or dead, Ernest Hemingway stands for much of what we, at True, admire,” gushed the editor in the magazine’s February 1956 issue, which featured a cover story titled “Hemingway, Rogue Male.” Hemingway, he wrote, “represents a hairy-chested maleness, an irreverence for the conventional, a dislike of the traditional. He is, truly, a rogue male.”)

At his best, Hemingway was the brilliant, quick-cutting director of the dream life of the American Man, stage-managing men’s reassuring self-delusions, bromantic tendresse, and almost endearingly clueless incomprehension of that alien species, Woman. At his worst, he was the purveyor of a size-queen machismo that measured its manhood in women bedded and bulls bled to death in the ring and elephants shotgunned in mid-charge and lesbian littérateurs bitch-slapped.

In The Garden of Eden, was the “phony” whose Sun Also Rises Zelda wittily dismissed as a book about “bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit” toying with the notion that no one is as masculine as he pretended to be because masculinity is equal parts Darwin and drag, genetic fact and social fiction? Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, E.L. Doctorow detected “the enlargement of a writer’s mind toward compassion, toward a less defensive construal of reality.” Strong-willed and sexually dominant, Catherine Bourne is “the kind of woman the author has before only detested and condemned,” but here Hemingway draws her with such sympathy and subtlety that for Doctorow she suggests “the rudiments of feminist perspective.” I’ll go further: the first glimpse (true at first light?) of a less hysterical masculinity, a more polymorphously playful take on sexuality. “She changes from a girl into a boy and back to a girl carelessly and happily,” the narrator says of Catherine Bourne.

Hendrickson told The New York Times that scholars, “including great female scholars,” are peeling away the Papa mask—the pugnacious machismo, the truculent misogyny and homophobia—to reveal Hemingway’s “sly and deceptive sensitivity toward women,” a secret sympathy that may well have sprung from “a tortured sexual ambiguity.”

It’s that ambiguity—the buried fears and secret pleasures—that makes his best work hum with high voltage. “He misdirected us with the mask,” writes Hendrickson, in Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost.

The mask wasn’t false, a lie, a fraud, as so many detractors have wished to say. The hypermasculinity and outdoor athleticism were one large and authentic slice of him. But beneath the mask was all the rest, which is why his work endures, why his best work will always have its tuning-fork “tremulousness,” as it’s been called.

We can’t help but wonder: did Hem perform a posthumous Verónica, risking all to write One True Thing about sex and gender?

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? TC mark


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  • Sheela Cheong

    Please, more. Read, Bookmarked and Saved to re-Turn to.

  • Jack Shoegazer

    This was a great article.

  • Guesty

    what is good writing doing on TC. This makes no sense

    • RONEX

      Guesty, you’re obviously a guest here.  TC has a huge range of writing. 

  • Andri Alexandrou

    I want to take a class taught by you. I feel like this is the real literature. Good job on this one.

  • RicePaperPlant

    Clearly, you’re determined to prove that Hem was down with the
    dudes. However, your thesis is based entirely upon unsubstantiated speculation.
    It’s fun, it’s delicious, it’s lavishly expounded upon through well spun
    quotations and historical discourse but, ultimately, it rests warily upon feet
    of clay. Like many gay people, I cling to plenty of sexual suspicions as I attempt
    to claim beloved cultural icons for team pink (I’m looking at you, Abraham
    Lincoln). Unfortunately, on this one, though sumptuously entertained, I remain unconvinced.

    • RicePaperPlant

      Also, what THE FUCK are you doing on Though Catalog beside some whiny little girl’s ode to menstrual cramps?

      • Gabrielledunn

        Be fair. Boys write whiny odes too!

      • Markdery

        Without the benefit of blaming them on menstrual cramps.

    • Markdery

      I never said anything of the sort. My point was just exactly the opposite: that Hemingway’s sexuality was fraught. He, and the times he lived in, insisted on bright-line distinctions. But Hem (like all of us, most sexologists would argue) contained multitudes: he harbored gay impulses, yes, very likely never acted on, as well as transvestic fantasies, an undying homophobia, a fond misogyny, and a gnawing fear of his Inner Queer. How does an analysis that constellates those disparate points add up to an attempt to recruit Papa for Team Pink? Take off the pink glasses and read me again, this time with feeling.

  • Gabrielledunn

    This was great. Thanks for writing it.

  • Gabrielle Bodek

    great thesis, a lot of courage

  • Liam Pezzano

    This was a really well written article. There was a lot about Hemingway I did not know. I had been told by a miserable wretch of a girl (for reasons not pertaining to modernist literature) that Hem was a closeted hypocrite, and I had read the books and I saw he had issues with gender identity, I simply did not know where they came from. I had no idea about his relationship with his mother, and the ill effect it had on the way he treated his son. This was a very insightful article. I don’t often enjoy it when people look back at a historical figure and try to retroactively claim something about them, I feel it takes away from the work itself, but I felt your article examined his life and works very honestly, and there was certainly an abundance of evidence to support the claims made. Hem had issues with gender, there is no denying that, and I thank you for making me this much more well-informed on the subject.

    • Markdery

      And thanks to you, Liam, for this thoughtful response. At the risk of defaming my stablemates, I’m not a fan of much of the hipster confessionalism and unapologetic navel-gazing that passes for Deep Think on THOUGHT CATALOG, but it’s clear from this thread that the site has some thoughtful readers, which makes publishing longform brow-furrowers like this one worth all the tears and toil.

  • Jourdan

    i’m going to write an article called “The Wilde of Oscar Wilde” about how he was actually straight

    • Mark Dery

      And you’d be 50% right, since Wilde was, in fact, bi.

  • real estate

    I wouldnt have ever noticed you basically never tried look and research.
    Superb and fine and aim delighted I first viewed it. Now we all be
    acquainted with a couple of things i have to do. Thanks much.

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