Hemingway, Margaux

views updated

Hemingway, Margaux

(b. 16 February 1955 in Portland, Oregon; d. 28 June 1996 in Santa Monica, California), fashion model and actress who was a granddaughter of the novelist Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was the second of three children of John (“Jack”) Hadley Nicanor Hemingway, eldest son of the writer Ernest Hemingway and a stockbroker, writer, conservationist, and sport fisherman, and Byra (“Puck”) Whittlesey Whitlock, an airline employee. Her given name at birth was Margot Byra Hemingway. Hemingway’s early childhood was lived somewhat in the shadow of her famous grandfather, and, as her father sought to make a career in the securities business, the family moved from Portland, Oregon, to Havana, Cuba; Mill Valley, California; and finally Ketchum, Idaho, where they settled when Margaux was twelve years old.

In 1962, in the aftermath of the sensation caused by the suicide of her grandfather, Margaux was first afflicted with the epilepsy that would trouble her all her life. She also suffered from dyslexia, which made her indifferent about school and more interested in a variety of outdoor activities, including skiing, hiking, and fishing. Learning from her parents that she was conceived over a bottle of Chateau Margaux champagne, she adopted the -aux ending of her name.

Around 1973, having dropped out of high school, she joined a friend in a local public relations firm; during a trip to New York City, her striking looks, six-foot frame, husky voice, and famous name attracted the attention of Errol Wetson, founder of a hamburger chain. Her star rose quickly: in the fall of 1974, Wetson introduced Hemingway to people in the fashion industry, including the photographer Francesco Scavullo. Acting as her manager, Wetson helped arrange articles, fashion spreads, and cover photos for her in Vogue, Town and Country, Sports Illustrated, Women’s Wear Daily, and People magazine. Wetson and Hemingway also became engaged during this time.

In June 1975, having just turned twenty, Hemingway signed a contract with Fabergé, the cosmetics manufacturer, for $1 million, at that time the largest advertising deal ever offered to a woman, all less than a year after her arrival in New York. This deal attracted an enormous amount of press coverage; one typical article described her as “Viking-woman tall, magnificently Wild West and American ski-slope outdoorsy.” She appeared on the cover of Time magazine that month as the headliner of a story about “The New Beauties.”

She married Wetson in Paris in 1975 and embarked on a round of parties at nightclubs, drinking heavily and making the gossip columns. In 1976 she made her film debut in Lipstick; her performance was harshly criticized and the movie bombed, but critics praised the performance of her younger sister Mariel, whom Margaux had suggested for a part in the movie. Ironically, press attention abruptly shifted from Margaux to Mariel, who went on to have a successful career in film and television.

Hemingway divorced Wetson in 1978 and that same year costarred with her father in an ABC documentary about the jungle and wildlife of Venezuela. Her winning the role may have been due to her connection with the Venezuelan film director Bernard Foucher, whom she married the following year. The couple lived lavishly in Paris, and Hemingway appeared on French television. Her film career continued with small roles in mostly second-rate movies such as Killer Fish (1978), They Call Me Bruce? (1982), and the more mainstream Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), in which she costarred with Elliott Gould and Sid Caesar.

Hemingway’s plans to make a documentary with her husband about her grandfather were eventually abandoned, and she divorced Foucher in 1985. By this time, her alcoholism had advanced to the point where she was having trouble with her memory and was deeply in debt. Meanwhile, her mother, from whom she had grown estranged, died of cancer in 1988, deepening Hemingway’s already serious depression. That same year she checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic to help her in her struggle with alcohol. In an attempt to pay off her debts and restart her modeling and film career, she posed for Playboy magazine in 1990. Her newfound sobriety and a live-in relationship with a businessman in Manhattan seemed to have stabilized her for a time, but she had never been good at managing her money and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1991.

After her appearance in Playboy and a role in a French movie failed to have the desired effect, she began to consult a variety of chiropractors and alternative healers in the hope of finding a spiritual solution to her physical problems, which included bulimia as well as epilepsy and dyslexia. This led her to take a trip to India in 1994, where she suffered some sort of breakdown; she was treated at a private psychiatric clinic in Idaho, from which she was released in 1995.

Hemingway moved to California and acted in a half dozen low-budget films in the 1990s, made infomercials, and endorsed a psychic hotline. In the last days of June 1996, she made phone calls to several friends, leaving rambling messages. On 1 July, a friend went to her apartment in Santa Monica and found her body; it was one day short of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the suicide of her grandfather Ernest. Although close friends found it hard to believe, the coroner’s report ruled her death a suicide, caused by “acute barbiturate intoxication,” making her the fifth member of her family in four generations to commit suicide.

Hemingway was by all accounts warm and trusting, an open and enthusiastic person who made friends easily, and whose naiveté made her a target for unscrupulous people seeking to profit from her celebrity. She was overwhelmed by her sudden rise to fame and her equally rapid descent out of the public gaze. Having never been trained for a career out of the spotlight, and having never sought to develop herself professionally, she did not have a job or skill to fall back on when her novelty wore off. There were some indications that she was working her way back to more solid ground: she had made a series of nature shows to be broadcast on a cable channel, and there was talk of her bringing out a line of signature clothing and cosmetics. Her sister Mariel felt that Margaux’s personality was more suited to television comedy than to movie drama, saying, “My sister was a big girl, bold and uninhibited. She had that presence.... In comedy, I think she could have really been amazing.” Her remains were cremated and interred in the Ketchum Cemetery near her famous grandfather.

There is no biography of Margaux Hemingway. Many published sources about her are somewhat gossipy accounts and contain conflicting, inaccurate, or misleading information. The high-water mark of her celebrity was the eight-month period from March to October 1975, when at least a dozen articles about her appeared in Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Harper, Esquire, People, Vogue, and elsewhere. Within five years there was almost no press notice of her at all. She was given to a confessional manner, and in the 1980s and 1990s her struggles with bulimia, alcohol, epilepsy, and dyslexia were very public. In 1988, People Weekly published a revealing interview with her (8 Feb. 1988), but her death prompted an outpouring of articles of varying value, the best of which are “A Life Eclipsed,” in People Weekly (15 July 1996), and Hara Estroff Marano’s excellent and probing portrait “What Killed Margaux Hemingway?” Psychology Today 29, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 July 1996).

Peter Coveney