At this point in their elaborate morning ritual, on an overcast day in early May, I joined Hemingway and Williams. They live in a modest three-bedroom ranch house hidden behind a giant oak tree, at the end of a sinuous maze of gravelly roads, deep in a canyon on the edge of Malibu. At quarter to 6, Hemingway was in the kitchen steeping her second pot of green tea while talking about a recent dinner with Woody Allen, who directed her Oscar-nominated performance in “Manhattan” — their first meeting in 15 years. At 51, Hemingway still bears an uncanny resemblance to the 17-year-old girl she portrayed in that film: she has the same long, athletic limbs; the cliff-jump cheekbones; the high, distinctive, Muppet voice. But whereas her character in “Manhattan” was unnaturally poised and still, Hemingway is loose, unguarded and disarmingly funny.
Williams padded into the room, still blurry with sleep. Shirtless and in yoga pants, he displayed the chiseled muscles of someone for whom working out is a primary occupation. (In the 1990s, he was the guy exercising in the Soloflex commercial.) Although he is 50, there is much about him, from the diminutive “Bobby” to his mop of brown hair, that seems boyish. His manner, however, can be tightly coiled. “O.K., first of all, let’s tell the truth,” he said. “You wouldn’t even hear me breathing in the morning. You’re here, so Mariel’s giving you stories, but she doesn’t talk at all.”
“You don’t say a word,” Hemingway said. “Don’t throw me under the bus!” She laughed.
In silence, Williams, whom Hemingway calls her “life partner” — they have been together for four and a half years — began loading ingredients into a blender: avocados, coconut water, dates, superfood powder and various herbal tinctures. Hemingway narrated over the grinding. “We put in turmeric for inflammation . . . cinnamon for metabolism and blood . . . the dates are for the thyroid, plus the sweetness is nice. . . . We don’t put fruit in it because it changes it from being an alkaline thing to being more acidic.”
Hemingway, who has written a yoga memoir, an organic-foods cookbook and two self-help books (one written with Williams), believes that the quotidian decisions we make, from the foods we consume to the amount of time we spend lollygagging on the Internet — what she calls our “lifestyle choices” — have a profound impact on mood and well-being. She has maintained this for years, long before the idea became mainstream. “I definitely grew up the healthiest person on the planet,” her daughter, Langley Fox, told me. “My first ‘cookie’ was a nonflavored rice cracker. How a healthy lifestyle will help your whole well-being — I got the whole spiel.”
It’s a topic Hemingway has thought a lot about, because her family not only has a celebrated artistic legacy but also a darker psychological one. Her grandfather, the writer Ernest Hemingway, was a notorious heavy drinker who suffered frequent bouts of depression and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun at age 61, four months before Mariel was born. Her older sister Margaux, one of the highest-paid models of the 1970s, struggled with drug addiction, bulimia and alcohol-induced epilepsy; at 41, on the day before the 35th anniversary of her grandfather’s death, she intentionally overdosed on phenobarbital. Her oldest sister, Muffet, is bipolar and schizophrenic and has been in and out of institutions much of her life.
And that’s just her immediate family. Ernest’s father, her great-grandfather, also killed himself, as did his brother, his sister and his first wife’s father, Mariel’s other great-grandfather. (It’s suspected that another Hemingway sister might also have taken her own life, at age 65, though her doctors claimed natural causes.) In his book, “Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir,” John Patrick Hemingway, the son of Ernest’s youngest son, Gregory, called suicide “the family exit.” The term “Hemingway curse” has become shorthand for the tangle of mental illness, addiction and suicide that has plagued multiple generations.
This family tree, as blood-soaked as any from Greek tragedy, is explored in “Running From Crazy,” a riveting new documentary directed and produced by the Academy Award-winning director Barbara Kopple. The film, shown to great acclaim at Sundance, has its premiere in theaters Nov. 1 and will appear on OWN in 2014. (Oprah Winfrey is an executive producer on the film.) The title is an apt summation of the film’s premise: Hemingway has spent her life outrunning the “crazy” that seemed to be her genetic inheritance. “When Margaux died, I thought, Oh, no, it’s my turn. I’m going to get the sickness,” Hemingway told me. “Honestly, I thought I could catch it.”
She has built a life of preventive measures. The morning I visited, we all piled into the car, a white Mini Cooper with a spider-web crack fanning across the windshield, to head to one of the couple’s “sunrise spots” in the Santa Monica Mountains. They believe that gazing at the day’s first light benefits the endocrine and immune systems.
Williams, who was driving, tossed off a litany of health and wellness-related theories and statistics. “Mariel and I, our idealistic vision is, Why have sickness? Why not just get rid of it? Why not educate our kids to go outside, breathe air?” He talked fast, his Long Island accent growing more evident with every word. I wondered about the superfood powder they put in the smoothie. “I talk about the six doctors,” he continued, “Dr. Sun, Dr. Air, Dr. Water, Dr. Nutrition, Dr. Exercise and Dr. Rest. You want to take your guys from the A.M.A. and have them compete against my guys? ’Cause my guys will give your guys a run for their money!” Hemingway, who was holding his hand, gave him the indulgent look people in relationships give each other and said wryly, “He’s not opinionated at all, as you can see.”
By 6:15, we reached the rocky precipice, but a layer of fog was shrouding the sun. Hemingway and Williams slipped off their sneakers — going barefoot whenever possible is another of their beliefs — and climbed 20 feet or so up the orange-red rock, their practiced, agile toes gripping its crags like fingers. “Your skin is the largest organ,” Williams said, “and 70 percent of the absorption is through the bottom of your feet. Think they’re important? And you have shoes on! What are you absorbing now? Zero! What am I absorbing? Minerals, the earth!”
Hemingway crouched on the rock and looked out into the distance. In the contemplative quiet, you could hear the roar of the ocean far below. Williams broke the silence: “My dad always says to me, ‘What do you do all day if you don’t work?’ I say: ‘Aw, Dad, there’s not enough hours in the day for me to take care of myself! Do you know how much stuff I have to do?’ ”
I pointed out that their joint self-care regimen is something of a full-time job.
Hemingway nodded. “We looked at each other one day, and we were like, ‘How can we turn how we love to live into our job?’ Why not turn it into helping other people live a better life? What I love about our book and our message is that it’s completely doable,” she said. “It’s not like this is so hard. Everybody can watch the sun.”
“Running From Crazy” follows the three sisters born to Jack Hemingway, the son of Ernest and Hadley, who was the first of his four wives. Mariel, the youngest of the three girls, was an unexpected addition born 11 years after Joan, or Muffet, and nearly seven years after Margaux, who was so jealous of her baby sister that she cut off Mariel’s eyelashes with a pair of scissors. Their home life was gloomy and volatile. Jack and his beautiful but resentful wife, Byra (known as Puck), fought a lot and drank even more. Their nightly cocktail hours, which they called “wine time,” escalated into arguments that ended in broken glass and blood. Mariel, who from an early age defined herself as the good, obedient daughter, wiped up the mess.
Her sisters, meanwhile, ran wild. In her memoir, “Finding My Balance,” Hemingway remembers Margaux, rebellious and gorgeous, frequenting the local bars of Ketchum, Idaho, at age 14, then “fearlessly bolting down double black-diamond runs stoned and drunk.” Muffet’s prolific LSD use triggered a full-blown psychosis that sent her tearing naked through the streets of their small town and threatening to stab her mother before she was finally institutionalized.
Another blow arrived when Puck developed a cancerous tumor on her thymus gland. Hemingway, at age 11, became her mother’s caretaker and companion, accompanying her on the three-hour drive to her radiation and chemotherapy appointments in Boise and sleeping with her at night. Her father retreated into himself and the basement room Hemingway calls his “land of seclusion.”
You could not have devised a better experiment for driving someone insane. And yet Hemingway, who is the voice and conscience not only of the film but also of her family as a whole, comes across as solid, intelligent and resilient. “Mariel has always been different,” Woody Allen says. “She’s the one that had the personal resources and the human qualities to survive all that terrible onus.” Most remarkable of all is her penetrating candor, which seems courageous, if possibly inadvisable at times. (“Sometimes I would say, ‘O.K., I don’t need to know all that!’ ” Barbara Kopple told me, laughing.) Her honesty may also be an act of rebellion: Hemingway says her father never spoke about Ernest or the mental illness on his side of the family — for years, his daughters believed that their grandfather shot himself accidently while cleaning his gun.
Among the most moving moments of the film are those in which Hemingway talks honestly with her two daughters about their shared history — something she had previously been unable to do. “I really haven’t told you that much about the family history of all the suicide stuff, because I don’t think that I ever wanted you to feel burdened by it,” she says to Langley, a slight girl with dark, soulful eyes, as they sit together after a suicide-prevention walk. Her sense of urgency about breaking the curse has as much to do with the next generation of Hemingways as it does with her own personal happiness.
“Running From Crazy” makes masterly use of raw archival footage taken by Margaux while filming her own documentary about her grandfather in 1983. The footage adds a powerful second layer to the film. As Margaux retraces Ernest’s life in Paris, Spain and Ketchum, we not only witness the walking, talking reality of her parents and sister, Muffet, laughing with one another and enjoying their “wine time,” but we also get a close-up of her pain, which is palpable and heartbreaking.
Margaux is no longer the sylphlike young woman adored by the camera. Instead, we see a heavier, altogether more lugubrious and fragile-seeming person. Her hair is thin and strawlike; her strange, low, scratchy voice is slurry and indistinct: you can almost hear the addiction in it. In one eerie clip, she stands in front of the house where Ernest shot himself and says, “I’ve always felt that if somebody can’t go on living and creating the way they can, I mean, the way they used to, and in a healthy form, in which Grandpapa was accustomed to . . . I mean, I accept the fact that he . . . that he killed himself.”
At the time this footage was filmed, Margaux’s film career had foundered, while Mariel’s had taken off. This was especially galling to the older Hemingway, because she had procured her sister her first role, in the 1976 rape-revenge fantasy, “Lipstick.” Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, dismissed “Lipstick” as “anti-intellectual in the ways that B movies always have been” and Margaux as “not much of an actress yet.” Meanwhile, he wrote that Mariel “gives an immensely moving, utterly unaffected performance that shows up everything else as a calculated swindle.”
Impressed by “Lipstick,” Woody Allen cast Mariel in “Manhattan” as Tracy, the wise 17-year-old girlfriend of his neurotic 42-year-old alter ego, Isaac. She was 16 at the time and had never had a boyfriend; Woody Allen was her first real kiss. She remembers the making of the film fondly. She stayed at the apartment of Ernest’s fourth wife, Mary, and Allen, she says, took an avuncular interest in her, taking her to museums and movies. “It made me feel mature,” she remembers. “It made me feel seen. I was such a kid . . . and he was really kind.”
Hemingway dropped out of school and moved to New York, partly to pursue acting full time and partly to get a break from taking care of her mother at home. (Her mother died in 1988, when Mariel was 26; she was ill, more or less, for 15 years.) Hemingway says now that she wishes her parents had insisted that she remain in Idaho. Once she was on her own, her need for control intensified. She cast herself as the self-contained foil to her sister’s barely contained chaos. “I was like, I can control my life, why can’t she control her life?” she says of Margaux, who, in the ensuing years, would marry and divorce twice, declare bankruptcy, flicker in and out of sobriety and do a stint at the Betty Ford Center.
Hemingway’s self-discipline expressed itself mainly as a rigid attitude toward food. She was vegetarian, then vegan; she ate all fruit, no fat, very little protein; she drank only espresso while fasting for days, “addicted to the feeling of lightness.” Eventually, her thyroid shut down, and her periods stopped, the latter of which pleased her: “In not allowing my female qualities to come fully into bloom, I thought I was controlling my own health and sanity,” she writes. “My female role models represented nothing I wanted — illness, instability and heaviness.”
Her boyish figure and natural athleticism led to a starring role as an Olympic track-team hopeful in Robert Towne’s “Personal Best.” Next came Bob Fosse’s “Star 80,” in which Hemingway played Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy playmate murdered by her estranged husband. Because Fosse was not immediately convinced that the prepubescent girl-boy of “Personal Best” could play a voluptuous sex symbol, Hemingway got breast implants and lobbied hard for the role, explaining that she understood Stratten’s desperate need to be loved.
Despite the relative critical success of “Star 80,” Hemingway’s career stalled in the wake of its release. The following year, in 1984, she married Stephen Crisman, who at the time was 34 and the manager of the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. Within five years she had given birth to their two daughters, Dree, now 25, and a model, and Langley, 24, an illustrator. Hemingway continued to work regularly, if not always illustriously, taking on a role a year, often for financial reasons. (She doesn’t receive money from the Hemingway estate.) “I was focused on being a mother. I’d do something to make money, to support the family. . . . I’d get offered a ton of bad movies, and I did some of them, just to get by,” she says.
For her, those years were marred by anxiety, obsessiveness and depression. “It was kind of like a low-grade fever,” she says. Her career wasn’t absorbing; her marriage was unhappy; she was self-destructively healthy. Her diet became even more abstemious, consisting of “big bowls of salad or popcorn or these big foamy things of coffee.” (She would put organic instant coffee in a blender with hot water, blend it with ice and eat the foam — an anorexic’s cappuccino.) She exercised two, three or four hours a day, until she would become sick and “broken down.” She sought out “a succession of strange spiritual wacks, psychics, astrologers and holistic doctors” to free her from her obsessions. There was one period during which she felt her family would be better off without her.
In 1996, when Margaux took her own life, Hemingway, who had recently begun to repair her relationship with her sister, was shocked. “I was sad that I wasn’t as sad as I probably should have been,” Hemingway told me, with signature frankness. “I didn’t know how to feel. It was so confusing. It was so sad.” Three years later, Hemingway’s husband, Stephen Crisman, received a diagnosis of Stage 4 melanoma, which thrust her back into the role of caretaker. (The couple divorced in 2008, several years after Crisman’s cancer went into remission.) “My days were about getting through,” Hemingway says. “How do I manage myself and not end up like the members of my family? How do I control what I’m feeling?”
Although her depression has lifted, Hemingway is still like a sentry guarding her self. In the months I trailed her, I never witnessed her indulge in a single unhealthful habit. She abstains from alcohol, has renounced coffee, forgoes gluten and sugar and appears to subsist mainly on avocados, almonds, eggs and large quantities of salad greens. She believes her way of living has kept her sane and alive.
Her most recent book, “Running With Nature,” written with Williams and published in June, is essentially a chronicle of a healthful lifestyle perfected. “It’s an experiment in how to live,” Hemingway says. The couple’s 1.5-acre property, which they call the Ranch, serves as their laboratory. There are organic vegetable beds, an infrared sauna and, in the backyard, an adult playground of sorts, featuring parallel bars, punching bags, a slackline, a rope ladder, a climbing wall, a basketball court, a full gym, a giant trampoline and a tepee — making time for “play” is one of the main principles of the book. While some of their suggestions (holistic dentists, tossing your microwave because it renders food carcinogenic) may seem extreme to anyone unfamiliar with alternative-health dogma, most of them (going outside, getting more sleep) are common knowledge.
A week after our early-morning hike, I accompanied Hemingway to an evening event at the ArcLight, a movie theater in Hollywood. A 10-minute video she stars in for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Emmy-winning “Profiles of Hope” series was being shown, as were some clips from “Running From Crazy.” In the past few years, Hemingway has become a regular figure on the mental-health-awareness circuit, speaking for organizations like McLean Hospital and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “People feel like, ‘O.K., if this celebrity can do this, I can, too,’ ” Robin Kay, chief deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, told me, as we waited for the event to begin.
“All I want to do is to inspire others to say, ‘It’s O.K., I’m not alone, I can tell my story,’ ” Hemingway told the audience, gesturing emphatically. “There is mental illness and mental instability practically in everybody’s life.” Her message was one of equality, of our shared human journey. “Of course, I have your story,” she told me in the car on the way home. “It’s everybody’s story. Everybody has the same story.”
In telling her story, she spares no detail: her sister’s suicide, her simmering depression, the bizarre diets and “wackadoo” gurus. She cries as easily as she laughs, her eyes filling and her voice wobbling as she speaks. Her emotions are right on the surface; witnessing them come and go is like watching clouds gather and pass.
The audience listened, rapt. Many of those who came to see her that night had personal experience with suicide: they’d lost a family member, or they’d attempted suicide themselves. Hemingway gently pointed out that unlike almost any other illness — “AIDS or addiction or alcoholism or diabetes” — mental illness and suicide remain taboo topics of discussion. “People feel tremendous shame around it,” she said.
The theater darkened, and the “Profiles of Hope” video began. There was Hemingway, all blond hair and tawny skin, seated in her sunlit living room. “I truly feel I have broken the chain of whatever that is — people have called it the family curse,” she says. As empowering as this idea is, it’s also potentially controversial, because she often speaks to practitioners who take a more traditional meds-and-talk-therapy approach. She is careful to present her methods as only one possible solution. And she concedes that some people need antidepressants: her sister, Muffet, she says, is on a “truckload of pharmaceuticals.”
In the video, Hemingway enumerated ways of healing yourself. She advised viewers to “be a kid again, play like you’re a child.” There were images of Hemingway walking the slackline and scaling the rope ladder in her backyard. “We’ve got a climbing wall,” she narrated. “We’ve got stationary bikes. We’ve got organic biodynamic gardens.” At the mention of organic biodynamic gardens, I heard two women sitting to my right snicker.
When the lights came on, I turned to them. One of the women told me she was a real estate agent who specialized in time-share properties, a sector of the market no longer flourishing. In the past two years, she’d also developed spinal stenosis and arthritis in her neck that caused her chronic pain. “I lost my house, and I lost my rental properties, and I lost my job,” she said, standing with one foot in front of the other, as if to steady herself, “and the rug from my life was just pulled out from underneath me . . . and I went into a really superdeep depression.”
I asked what she thought of the clips.
“I wish I had that kind of lifestyle,” she said, “but so many things limit me from having that, and that’s an excuse, yes, but it’s a really good one — it’s a reality. I mean, I don’t live in a beautiful place and have that setting as my backyard. I don’t have a life partner who supports me. . . .”
“Sunday is play day!” Hemingway said, in her singsong Jim Henson-character voice. She and Williams and I were driving 60 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to Ojai, Calif., where they would shop for sunflower sprouts, pumpkin seeds and raw sprouted almonds at the local farmers’ market and visit a healer who used dowsing rods to make his diagnoses. (“Bobby,” said the healer, a stern but solicitous middle-aged man in a white lab coat, with a Slavic accent so thick as to render him nearly unintelligible, “needs to eat fermented foods to purify his liver and deal with his anger.” Hemingway was “balanced.” I was to increase “my appetites” by smoking pot.)
The freeway was a thick soup of Sunday afternoon beach traffic, but Williams would not be deterred. He darted back and forth between lanes, exploiting any visible space between cars to wedge in. When this failed to move us ahead with satisfactory swiftness, he swerved to the right shoulder and drove 80 miles an hour on it the rest of the way, jerking the car sharply back into the lane whenever the shoulder ended.
“Please be watchful for the Man, babe,” Hemingway said, warning him to look out for cops, though she did not seem all that bothered by the speed. “She definitely has that Hemingway gene of living on the edge, of allowing adrenaline to come through,” Kopple later told me.
As we zoomed along, Williams lectured me through the rearview mirror on the benefits of raw egg yolk and buffalo meat. “The stronger the animal, it’s going to be energetically better for you,” he said. In the mirror, I could see the words “Just Breathe” written on his T-shirt. I tried to remember this as he revved to 115 miles an hour. I was reminded of one of the documentary’s climactic scenes: Williams is driving on a dirt road in the middle of the Idaho desert when he grabs the emergency brake in an attempt to spin the car around action-flick style, which causes it to stall. This disrupts the mountain-climbing expedition they’d planned and creates a crisis over how to deal with the car. When Hemingway starts to get upset, Williams tries to shut her down: “Look, you can’t talk like a girl. Be a boy for one minute. Just one minute. No girl talk.” The argument that ensues is not exactly an advertisement for healthful living. But the scene ends, astonishingly, with a quiet Hemingway scaling a mountain nonetheless.
“Bobby brought spontaneity into my life,” Hemingway said, back on the road to Ojai. “I realize now I was really rigid. I was always about order and routine.” She swiveled around to face me in the back seat. “A little of that is good, but too much of that makes you old — I was older when I met him.”
On the way home, fed up with traffic, the pair pulled over on the side of the road to climb a massive sand dune. Upon reaching the summit, they began to perform joint calisthenics. From my vantage at the bottom of the dune, they were miniature figurines on the top of a wedding cake. Miniature Williams got down in the sand and did push-ups. Miniature Hemingway followed. They did stomach crunches. Miniature Williams heaved a boulder in the air and started lifting it up and down. Miniature Hemingway lifted two smaller rocks like free weights.
As I watched them, it occurred to me that Williams is a contemporary, extreme-sports version of Ernest Hemingway, without the literary ambitions. He is all of his masculine pretensions distilled. Another day, when Mariel and I dropped by the house after an interview to find him standing at the counter in a cowboy hat making a gluten-free pizza, he said: “Hemingway was a show-off! He was trying to be something he wasn’t! He had no confidence! If I got him in a boxing ring, I’d give him a whupping.” Mariel hooted with laughter, put her hand over his mouth and said: “Be quiet. I love you, but you’ll sound stupid.”
When I last spoke to Hemingway in early October, she told me she was rereading her grandfather’s books, as she does every few years. It makes her feel close to him. She also plans to produce the film version of “A Moveable Feast,” the story of her grandparents’ relationship in Paris and her favorite book. She has purchased the option from the estate. “It represents a piece of me,” she says. “I’m a part of it in a way, because my father was a baby then.”
As she talked about Ernest’s work, it became clear that a tendency toward depression isn’t the only thing she inherited from her grandfather. There is also, arguably, a more positive connection, a shared quest: “The machismo thing, I think that’s secondary,” she said. “I think it’s a cover-up for what he was really doing, which is looking at deep emotion. To me, that means being truthful about what is real and what is happening. It’s being true to what is. That’s why he loved adventurous circumstances, because they bring out raw emotion: there’s no bull in the middle of a bullfight.”
Amanda Fortini is a writer who lives in Livingston, Mont.
Editor: Lauren Kern