The Nobel and the addict
The nurse wheeled Ernest Hemingway into the white room, gave an injection for sleep, put a rubber gag into his mouth, placed electrodes onto a greased patch on his head and turned on a switch. The electroshock treatment was repeated many times in the writer’s last days.
For the last ten years of his life he took Oreton-M, a synthetic testosterone that stimulates the development of male sexual characteristics, in combination with Serpasil, Doriden, Ritalin, Eucanel, Seconal and massive doses of vitamin A and B. The drugs took a devastating toll on the physical and emotional well-being of the writer. Although his doctors prescribed two glasses of wine a day, Hemingway was reported up to a quart of whiskey a day.
This is the other side of Hemingway, the writer who most changed twentieth-century fiction, catapulting him to early fame, success and money, culminating in the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. His fate seemed doomed by the depression which ran in his family: His father and son had committed suicide, while his granddaughter would later do the same. A dark gloom hung over him. He pushed it away with superman adventures as war correspondent and big game hunter, and with a gregarious social life and arduous discipline in writing. Whenever he finished a novel, the emptiness and depression returned. During those moments when his inability to write eclipsed him, anxiety overwhelmed him. He’d become even more obsessed. Hemingway told A.E. Hotchner (see Papa Hemingway):
“What does a man care about? Staying healthy? Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven’t any of them. Do yon understand, goddamit? None of them. And while I’m planning my good times and world wide adventures, who will keep the feds off my ass and how do the taxes get paid if I don’t turn out the stuff that gets them paid?”
His paranoid obsessions included all his friends turning against him, the FBI even trailing him, ending up bankrupt, and his wife having him committed to the Mayo Clinic so she could control his assets. The image the public had of him as superhero was, in private, a joke. Was it the electroshock treatments, which provided the final nail in his coffin? Indeed, they rendered his memory incapable of recalling how to write coherently, destroying the one thing he lived for. He tried to kill himself on several occasions. His told Hotchner in great despair:
“Retire? How the hell can a writer retire … Unlike your baseball player and your prize fighter and your matador, how does a writer retire? No one accepts his legs are short or the whiplash gone from his reflexes. Everywhere he goes, he hears the same goddamn question–what are you working on?”
Well, Hemingway did retire at age 61 on July 2, 1961 … but in the only way left for him. He woke up early that morning in his home, stuck the metal end of a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.