Mariel Hemingway on Beating Family Demons

Jan. 11, 2003 -- Actress Mariel Hemingway never knew her famous grandfather. But Stephen Crisman, Mariel's husband of 18 years, says she carries the family traits.

But along with those family traits came a legacy of family trauma. Ernest Hemingway, the hard-drinking, Nobel Prize-winning writer shot himself just months before Mariel was born in 1961. Her grandfather's death was just one in a string of tragedies that would haunt the legendary family.

In a Ketchum, Idaho cemetery Ernest is surrounded by other Hemingways who lost their lives to alcoholism, illness, and sadness. It's not a place where Mariel feels comfortable or visits often.While some may view these family tragedies as a sort of "Hemingway curse," Mariel doesn't view it that way.

"I don't think of it that way but I know that I'm gonna keep it at bay by taking care of myself physically, mentally and emotionally," she told 20/20's Deborah Roberts.

At 41, Mariel is clearly a survivor. She says yoga and meditation have saved her — bringing serenity to a life threatened by demons. Yoga is a key part of her new memoir called Finding My Balance.

"I use the yoga postures to say this is how I observe my pain from my past. I'm not gonna hold onto my past," she said.

It all started well enough in Sun Valley where her father Jack, Ernest's eldest son fell in love with a striking woman everyone called Puck. The couple soon had two daughters, but the love affair had soured. By the time Mariel came along she says it was clear that her parents were in a loveless marriage.

They were living in separate rooms and fighting a lot, she said. Alcohol played a big role in the couple's troubles. Mariel recalled, "My father and my mother drank every night. … They would call it wine time. … I know that after one glass of wine, they were smiles, after two, there were getting cranky. After three, stuff was happening. The bottle of wine and you know glasses were hitting the walls."

Those episodes had a lasting impact on Mariel, who now says she's "very frightened of alcohol personally" and doesn't drink.

Mariel's homelife spun out of control as her two rebellious sisters experimented with alcohol and drugs. Her sister Muffet's drug use, she says, led to mental illness.

"Muffet was so extraordinary. She was a tremendous free spirit as a kid, but then she would have just these flashes of like almost crazy behavior. Not almost crazy, it was quite nutty behavior," Mariel said.

Her parents would eventually learn that Muffet was suffering from manic depression, which was later diagnosed and treated. Then there was Mariel's sister Margaux, who was seven years older than Mariel. She was a beautiful fashion model, but she was also troubled and rebellious, Mariel recalled.

Her parents were vicious toward each other, but Mariel desperately loved them both, and was shattered when her father delivered some serious news.

When she was just 12 years old her father told her that her mother had cancer and was unlikely to live more than a few more months. Mariel said, "I became so religious, I prayed and prayed, would get on my hands and knees and I said I'll do anything to keep my mother alive. … Because as crazy as she was, she was my best friend. I mean I loved her."

Mariel became the primary care-giver, a big responsibility for a child, but she says it made her feel loved and close to her mother, who eventually grew stronger.

Mariel's Emerging Stardom

In the meantime, Margaux had left home and become a jet-setting fashion model, hoping to become a movie star. Cast in a new film, Lipstick, she suggested that Mariel play her kid sister.

It was an unexpected turning point. Margaux's performance was panned, but Mariel emerged a star.

Director Woody Allen cast the sheltered Mariel in his film Manhattan as his teenage lover. She says it was her first "real" kiss.

The role snagged her an Academy Award nomination and a bona fide movie career. She was next cast in the starring role as an Olympic caliber athlete in the film Personal Best.

Mariel said the role had a downside in that people began to see her as a tomboy. "I wanted people to think that I was a woman," she said.

So when a lead as a sexy Playboy model in a film called Star 80 came up, she fought for the part — and got it.

Mariel got breast implants around that time, but says she didn't get them for the film. "I did it for me. I didn't want to be thought of as a tomboy. I didn't want to be thought of as this kind of butch girl," she said.

She's now had the implants removed, saying, "It's not me. It was never me. It's kind of the antithesis of who I am. I'm a real natural person."

Mariel is dedicated to being the healthy Hemingway. She eats organic foods and even owns a yoga studio in Ketchum. The spiritual focus of yoga helps with what she calls an addictive personality. Her most serious problem, she says, was an intense caffeine habit.

But she licked that problem thanks to a strong will and a solid happy family life.

Margaux's Tragic Death

Then, in 1996 Mariel was hit with another devastating shock. Thirty-five years to the day after her grandfather's suicide, her sister Margaux, who'd lost her shining career to drugs and alcohol was found dead.

"It was horrible. It was so shocking," because, Mariel said, "Margaux was doing better than she'd been doing in years." Margaux Hemingway's death was eventually declared a suicide — a ruling Mariel refuses to believe.

"My sister died because she had epilepsy from all the drugs and alcohol that she had indulged in, in the past. … It wasn't an overdose of drugs. She did not commit suicide."

Mariel said she feels certain Margaux's death was not a suicide because, she said, "I know my sister. … She was very — outspoken and outgoing and she would not have committed suicide without a note."

Loss was a clear part of Mariel's life. Her father died in December 2000, and just two days after her dad's death, her husband, Stephen, was diagnosed with cancer.

"I had a melanoma in my head the size of Detroit," and was given a diagnosis that was usually fatal, he said.

Mariel charged forward finding the best doctors and care for her husband. Stephen is now cancer free.

Another Hemingway in Paris

Mariel is also embracing the positive legacy left by her grandfather. Recently, she was in Paris scouting locations to film A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir about his early life in Europe. She plans to direct it.

"That is the Hemingway people like to remember It's perfect! It's a perfect story. It's a love story — and it's my family! It's my mother, it's my grandmother, and my grandfather."

What's important now is family, not her acting career. Mariel's focus is creating a healthy home for teenage daughters, Dree and Langley, something she never had.

Dree said, "She's a cool mom. I've just been able to talk to and tell my mom whatever I'm feeling, and — it's kind of like we're best friends but we're like — mother and daughter."

For many people, family dysfunction just continues. It becomes a cycle. But this Hemingway has chosen another path.

She said, "My path was to figure out why we came from so much dysfunction and illness and, and say no more. My parents didn't choose to pass it on to me. But they did, and I'm saying no! My kids are going to have problems in their lives — I want them to be their problems — not mine."