Dawn broke in a cloudless sky over Sun Valley, Idaho on July 2, 1961. A warm, crystalline day lay ahead for the pristine Sawtooth Mountain community.
Inside the back bedroom on the second floor of his rustic, hunting lodge of a home, Ernest Hemingway rose quietly.
In his blue pajamas, colorful red Italian bathrobe and slippers, he stealthily crept by the front bedroom, where his wife, Mary, lay sleeping.
At 7:30 am, Mary heard what she thought were two drawers being slammed shut. Upon investigation, she found that she had awoken to widowhood.
With a W. C. Scott and Son shotgun which he used for pigeon shooting, Hemingway had taken his own life. The firearm was later severed into pieces and buried in a secret location so that it would never be the subject of ghoulish interest.
On July 6, Hemingway was laid to rest in the quaint Ketchum Idaho Cemetery. The weather was so warm that during the private catholic burial service, one of the altar boys fainted.
Months would pass before Mary stopped telling people that her husband died accidentally while cleaning his shotgun. It took that long for her to admit the truth to herself.
Years before, in happier days, Hemingway said: “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
The “how he died” portion of the quote is the operative phrase. Funeral service professionals have long known that a death, including the events immediately preceding it and following it, often overshadow the deceased’s living accomplishments.
Death can be the great revealer — when a person passes, significant others can learn some surprising details that they had not previous known.
Death can also be the great riddler — loose ends crop up, questions that will never be answered can be disturbing.
Anyone who has sorted through a loved one’s personal belongings or has gotten a surprise when reading a family member’s will, knows the multi-faceted nature of death.
In the Hemingway situation, the suicide, which in the 1960’s was not well understood or accepted, tarnished his reputation. It was so at odds with the super masculine, legendary sportsman image he had cultivated. This was a man who said that courage is grace under pressure — he also declared that man could be destroyed but not defeated. Suicide just didn’t jibe with Hemingway’s robust, big game hunter reputation.
Mary Hemingway was also under fire. She was very aware of her husband’s depression: she had interrupted one earlier suicide attempt and knew of two others. Family/friends wondered aloud, and later in print, how she could leave the keys to the gun storage room on the kitchen window sill where they could easily be found.
If the Hemingway incident happened today — in an era where we more fully understand the impact of bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse and multiple, severe head injuries — it is probable that he would have received media and popular treatment similar to that given Robin Williams or to the NFL players who died suffering from CTE.
Hemingway, of course, is not alone on the list of those whose death provided big reveals: Rock Hudson, River Phoenix, Prince, and Kate Spade also experienced tragic passings that gave us surprising personal information.
Same is true about John Lennon. The nasty estate tangle that Julian Lennon was forced into surfaced unflattering parental data not previously detailed.
One of the most sensational scandals surrounding death in recent years came in October, 1970 when the Illinois Secretary of State, Paul Powell, died at the age of 68.
Within days of his passing, more than $750,000 in cash was discovered in shoeboxes and briefcases in his hotel residence in the state capital of Springfield. Another $50,000 had been squirrelled away in his office. And, for good measure, 49 cases of whiskey were also on hand.
Powell, who had been active in politics since the 1930’s, once remarked, “The only thing worse than a defeated politician is a broke one.” Through a web of schemes, bribes, and kickbacks, Powell made sure he did not fall into the latter category.
It is said that dead men tell no tales – false, dead men can tell many tales.