Sunday 23 October 2016

Mother of Behan's son who became a Hemingway wife

Ulick O'Connor tells why he chose not to reveal the secret of Brendan Behan's child in his biography

Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00

CONFESSIONS: Valerie Hemingway, daughter-in-law of the writer Ernest Hemingway
CONFESSIONS: Valerie Hemingway, daughter-in-law of the writer Ernest Hemingway

Recently, Valerie Hemingway, wife of Gregory Hemingway (son of the writer Ernest Hemingway), gave a fascinating talk at the RDS about her book Running with the Bulls, which is an account of her life with the Hemingway family. As a young woman, Valerie had been personal assistant and confidant of the famous writer Hemingway and accompanied him and his wife when they lived in Spain, France and Cuba.

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I met Valerie in New York in the Seventies where she was most helpful to me. I discovered she was a Dublin girl, educated at Dominican College, Drumcondra. She had been a Newsweek researcher before I met her, but had since acquired the prestigious position of a public relations executive for Guinness-Harp, New York. She had important contacts, some of whom she was kind enough to put me in touch with. It was through her that I was invited to John Huston's 70th birthday party and placed at a table between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

In Running with the Bulls, Valerie gives an account of her relationship with Brendan Behan, by whom she had a son in New York in 1962.

At the time my biography of Brendan Behan was published (1970), I had known that Brendan was the father of Valerie's child. I didn't, however, refer to this in the book as I thought it might affect the position of the boy as he was growing up. Five years later Valerie married Dr Gregory Hemingway, Ernest's son. Later Valerie's son Brendan would go to Clongowes where he turned out to be an outstanding swimmer and a popular boy in the school.

Between 1961 and 1963, Valerie spent a good deal of time with Brendan Behan as he was commuting back and forward to Dublin from New York writing his books, Brendan Behan's Island and Confessions of an Irish Rebel.

Neither had I referred in the biography to another child of Brendan's wife Beatrice's, of whom Brendan was not the father. As I had dealt sensitively with these matters and acknowledged Beatrice's unselfish contribution to Brendan's survival, as well as her real skill as a serious artist I had expected that the biography would please her.

Unfortunately she allowed herself to be influenced by a group who disapproved of the book and which was headed by Cathal Goulding. They hung their objections mainly round my revelation in the book that Brendan, though very much a woman's man, had not entirely abandoned elements of the gay style which had been part of his life in Borstal when he was imprisoned as a young man. To suppress this I think would have meant that the portrait I was trying to create of Brendan would have been flawed. Though the book was highly successful both in the United States and England (it went into eight editions), the campaign against it continued for a considerable period. In the Nineties, when a bio documentary on Brendan Behan was made by an Academy Award winner, I found that 90 per cent of my contribution had been removed behind my back at the request of the Beatrice and Cathal Goulding-led group.

I found it hard to understand this. I had given Beatrice in her own right a high profile in the book for her fine gifts as an artist and praised her stamina and courage in protecting Brendan during his vociferous life. She was to have another child who was not Brendan's and neither was this referred to in the book.

I did keep a tab on Goulding, though. In the course of a review of Brendan's book Confessions of an Irish Rebel, he made some statements which were defamatory of me. I sued him for libel and obtained an apology as well as a sum in damages with the proviso that these be paid into the funds of the Royal British Legion.

As Cathal Goulding had been Chief of Staff of the Official IRA, I felt this organisation would not have been his first choice. Brendan's immediate family supported me to the hilt. When Brendan's mother Kathleen was asked about a reference to Brendan's sexuality, her reply was: "What about it, aren't we all human."

His father Stephen too backed me up, and both he and Kathleen and two of Brendan's brothers attended the launch of the biography in the Savoy in London. Needless to say, the publicity arising from the Goulding-Beatrice attack had made the book headlines in most of the papers.

Valerie writes here of the time she spent with Brendan Behan in New York and their little son. It was hoped that Beatrice and Brendan might adopt the boy and bring him up as a Behan.

Kathleen even offered to adopt him. But all this fell through and in 1968 Valerie married Dr Gregory Hemingway of Bute, Montana, the son of the writer.

Young Brendan Hemingway grew up in a joyful family of one sister and two brothers, went to school in Clongowes and while still in his teens made a sailing trip across the Atlantic in a small yacht with a single companion.

Valerie has retired in her public relations capacity but still travels and promotes her book, which is a gripping account of how a Dublin girl became part of the entourage of one of greatest writers of the 20th century and participated in his contribution to literature.

Sunday Independent

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