literary life

A Visit With the Missoula Motel-Keeper Who Sheltered a Hemingway

Photo: Courtesy of Writer

Someone tells me I ought to go talk to Thelma over at the Thunderbird Motel, so I stop by and introduce myself, and this is what she says:

“Years ago, maybe 20 years ago, there was a gentleman that checked into my motel and said he was Dr. Greg Hemingway. I didn’t think much about it at the time and I didn’t see him for a few days, and then he came down and talked to me and said, ‘Ernest Hemingway was my father.’ I thought, Yeah, right.”

The way Thelma laughs is not after her sentences, like punctuation, but all the way through them, like the Clark Fork River out back, rolling by big and slow with sunlight on it. The Clark Fork passes through Missoula, Montana, so close to the Thunderbird that you could skip a stone across it from the rearmost of the motel’s 31 rooms. The frontmost is Room 102, next to the lobby where Thelma and I are talking. It is the easiest room for a motel owner to keep her eye on, and the one that served, on and off for a quarter-century, as a second home to Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, who was also known, also on and off, as Ernest Hemingway’s only daughter.

“Oh, he caused me a lot of grief.” The river splashes over a rock and continues on downstream. “They called me one time from the store next door and said, ‘Do you know that you have a naked man running back and forth on your deck with a paper bag over his head?’ So I went up and there he was totally stark naked and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t want to sunburn my face.’ He was just always doing something. Every morning his first comment to me was, “How’s your blood pressure today?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it depends how you’re going to be.’”

He stole her glasses and sat in the lobby wearing them and holding a newspaper in front of his face while she looked for them high and low. He stole a pair of her pants and ditched them in a local park so that the police, who recognized them, showed up at the Thunderbird worried something terrible had happened. He stole a backhoe from some construction workers on lunch break and took it for a joyride: “I just happened to be looking out the window and next thing, he runs over there, gets on this backhoe, and he’s driving it down the street with these fellas running after him. I mean, we practically had to lock up everything because we never knew what he was going to — excuse me. Thunderbird Motel?”

“Well, anyway,” Thelma resumes, “Greg had a problem taking lithium, and at that time that was about the only medication there was.” By this point she has already given me a geographic and medical history of the Hemingways: Missoula, Bozeman, Ketchum, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide. “But you know, you just couldn’t help but like him. My boys, two of my sons, were very close to him. He was so interesting because he’d been all over the world, and he’d graduated at some ridiculous age from medical school, he was just extremely bright. And he was very outdoorsy. He’d play tennis with my son Steve, and he and Jimmy used to run up to the M” — the big concrete University of Montana “M” that Missoula’s Mt. Sentinel wears like a letter jacket, three-quarters of a mile up its western slope. “You know, 90 percent of the time he was okay, he was alright. It was just that other 10 percent that he was off the beam. I shouldn’t say ‘off the beam,’ it doesn’t sound very good.”

Thelma wears a silver-and-gold cross around her neck and two rings on each hand that make a pattern when she interlaces her fingers before starting to tell another story: ring-plain-ring-plain. Ages ago, she says, before she got into the motel business, she worked as a surgical technician, and sometimes she and Greg would talk about medicine. “One time, he left to go on a trip and came back very pale and said, ‘I have to go to bed, I had surgery and the only reason they discharged me was because I told them I had a friend who was a nurse and she said she would take care of me.’ I said, ‘I haven’t worked in — I’m not going to take care of you! And anyway, what kind of surgery did you have?’

“I mean, I suspected,” she says. “But you just didn’t hear much about these things back then. But it never bothered me. It bothered me when he’d do crazy things, but when he was on his good behavior, he wasn’t a nuisance. He’d come in to visit a little, and we’d talk. You could talk to him about darn near anything.” Her eyes match the blouse she is wearing, cornflower-blue. She has buried three sons and has one son and a daughter remaining and never mentions a husband. I figure her for somewhere around retirement age and imagine she’ll never retire. And I figure that, husband or not, a lot of hopeful men make a habit of stopping by the Thunderbird.

He had the sex-change operation in Trinidad. “I had a housekeeper at that time, she was in rehab before she went for her doctorate degree, and she had been in — what was the name of that square in China, where all those people …?” Tiananmen, I supply. “She had been involved in that, and when she came to work for me, I said, ‘You’re way overqualified to be doing rooms.’ But she said, ‘No, this is the way I earn money to put myself through school, I won’t be any problem, I just want to work and think and get my life squared out.’ Well, she took a liking to Greg, so she brought him lunch and dinner and would report to me. So we kind of looked after him. And to be fair, he was on his better behavior at that time.”

“Then he started ordering clothes from QVC and he’d put these dresses on and come in here and — well, you know, he hadn’t started to shave his legs, you can’t imagine what we went through. I remember, I had a desk clerk working here and she was just a hoot. She said, ‘You know, I tried to teach him how to sit right. I told him he couldn’t sit with his legs wide open—’” Thelma spreads her arms way out, like a man overestimating the size of a fish. “You know, there was times that we just had a lot of fun.”

“But there was other times that I tell you, I just …” She shakes her head: life. “My daughter called me one day” — this is before the operation — “and said, ‘Would you come over here and do something, Mom? He’s got his scrub clothes on and the fly is open, and he’s standing outside the door and just won’t listen to me.’” He lost his job as chief of staff at a local hospital the same way: “He had been out running and when he came in through the waiting room and passed all the patients, he was holding his organ. But I don’t think he was ever — he was basically harmless. Still, there were several times I told him, ‘I don’t ever want to see you again, you just leave.’ And then he’d come back and say, I’ll be good, I’ll behave.”

Papa with Greg, on the right, and his brother Patrick.

“And you know what, you couldn’t help but feel sorry. He said, ‘Everybody wants me for my money, but you and your family, you’re just so good to me.’ He used to call me and say, ‘Thelma, I feel that I’m going to have a problem, can I come and stay? I won’t cause you any trouble, I’ll just stay in the room until I get over it.’ I think he sort of looked at me as a security blanket. Yes, can I help you?”

A guest comes in with a Tennessee drawl and a story that starts with mowing the yard at his pastor’s church and winds around to his stint as a night manager at a Holiday Inn and eventually lands at how, for liability reasons, Thelma ought to put some yellow tape on the motel stairs to alert people to the impending effects of gravity: “I’m just worrying for you and your safety. I’m a safety nut. Go to a hardware store and buy some sticky yellow tape and just put it on the edges, because there’s always some dumdum who wants to do you harm because they’re stupid. Plus it’ll pick up dirt and bugs.” After the man leaves, Thelma tells me he came to Montana to do some rafting, but the local guide — “this fella is really good” — canceled because the river conditions were too hazardous, and so the safety nut asked around until he found someone willing to take him. “You meet some of the most interesting people,” Thelma says.

Another guest comes in looking for sugar and creamer, and Thelma waves her to the counter along the back of the lobby: microwave, toaster, coffeepot, coffee, tea. Behind us are two easy chairs waiting to retire to a hunting cabin. A sign above the front desk says Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much. The rest of the lobby is decorated with framed posters of the University of Montana football team. On September 8, 2001, Thelma was in the stands for an away game when the Grizzlies lost to Hawaii, 30-12, breaking a ten-game winning streak. The team flew home; Thelma and a friend stayed. Then came 9/11. Greg, who was living at the time in Miami, called her in Maui: “He said, ‘When are you going to be home? I really need to come and stay at the hotel.’ I said, ‘There’s no planes. I mean, I can’t swim across the ocean.’ But I could tell he was going to have some problems. He said, ‘I need to come stay and be quiet and get another lease on life. You can’t come home?’ I said ‘I can’t, Greg. I can’t come home.’”

She folds her hands in her lap and the rings disappear. “Apparently he was — I don’t know, he was dressed as a woman, and I can’t remember what he was doing, but a police officer stopped him and he hit the officer with his handbag and they put him in jail. He didn’t have any of his medicines with him, and he called the woman he was married to and asked her to bring him his medicine and she wouldn’t.” Gregory a.k.a. Gloria Hemingway died on October 1, 2001, of hypertension and heart disease, while awaiting trial in Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.

A man and woman cross the parking lot outside carrying two suitcases each. “He was lucky to find you,” I say. “In many ways, he was,” she agrees. “And I was fortunate to be a part of their life.” It is the automatic plural of fame, the plural of Hemingways and Kennedys, but I hear it for a moment like that workaround pronoun we sometimes use to avoid choosing between his and hers. There is so much awkward plural everywhere in life, male and female, manic and miserable, impossible and beloved.

I leave because I feel I should, not because I want to — by now I am thinking I would rather write about the life of Thelma Baker than the life of any Hemingway, and rather live it, too — and I go out to find some dinner, and by the time I walk past the motel on the way back to my own, it is dark outside. The Thunderbird looks best by night. On the roof over the lobby the neon sign with the towering capital T blazes orange against the sky and casts pink shadows on the lobby below, while the walkway connecting the 31 rooms glows a lightsaber blue. It is American beautiful, a vision of the kind of motel that loomed out of the darkness in the middle of nowhere in motoring’s best and bygone era. But walking toward it I am thinking about how there is no best, there is only kindness or its absence; and about how there is no bygone era and no middle of nowhere, there is always just the present moment, and the place you are in, and everything that happens to be there.

The Motel-Keeper Who Sheltered a Hemingway