Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts From a Life
I remember the day clearly. That’s why my memories are not to be trusted. Memories, like myths, lie—rounding or sharpening the edges of events so as to embellish or settle scores. It is where fact and fiction blend, evolving into a narrative we can live with.
The day is November 23, 1963. It is a cold morning. My immigrant father is backing up his large Chevrolet Bel Air out of the garage. I get in as the car idles and he and I sit in silence until the temperature gauge reaches the level my father always thought appropriate for automotive maintenance. I recall a slow drive where the images outside the fogged windows seemed dreamlike, unreal and yet real enough to disturb a small boy. We were driving on Austin Avenue past the Chinese laundry and Wagon Wheel diner. There was the Patio Theater, where just a week before I had seen a film starring Gary Cooper. The theater’s grand façade was lit up with its sparkling lights, its marquee announcing John Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The movie palace glittered, untouched by all that had happened, and that provided a strange comfort.
Many times during that drive I turned to look at my father but he was far away and lost, traveling in silence down familiar streets with leafless trees, paralyzed by events and a sorrow that, even as a boy, I sensed would last forever. It was in that slow-motion car that I learned that no one gets over anything.
The day before, John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and in a small room in a Chicago apartment my mother died. She had been ill for some time but my father always held out hope that by force of will he could save her. On November 22, that was but one of the many illusions that were shattered.
The television seemed to be on all the time that day, and the black-and-white pictures and solemn voices kept up a guarded hope that finally ended with Walter Cronkite holding back tears, taking off his glasses and reporting the time of President Kennedy’s death. So many people have told me that they remembered exactly where they were when they heard the news. I do not. What I remember is looking through the windows of my father’s car on the next day and seeing people grieving in unexpected ways. The man raking his yard when there were no leaves or the woman walking quickly with her bag of groceries suddenly stopping, looking as if she had forgotten something, before sitting on a bus bench. All the faces, none with smiles, heads bowed. To a small boy it was so confusing because it felt like they were grieving for my mother as well as the president. I cannot remember if my mother died before or after the president’s assassination. I suppose it doesn’t matter and if it did, it would be easy enough to know by looking at her death certificate, but I have never been able to do that, for I too reside within the narrative that I can live with.
HEMINGWAY FAMILY PORTRAIT TAKEN ON THE WAY HOME FROM WINDEMERE IN AUGUST 1909. (LEFT TO RIGHT, BACK ROW) ERNEST HEMINGWAY, CLARENCE HEMINGWAY, GRACE HEMINGWAY, (LEFT TO RIGHT, FRONT ROW) URSULA HEMINGWAY, MADELAINE HEMINGWAY, MARCELLINE HEMINGWAY. ORIGINAL PRINT IS TORN SLIGHTLY ON ALL FOUR CORNERS, AND SHOWS MANY WHITE SPOTS THROUGHOUT THE IMAGE. COPYRIGHT UNKNOWN, HEMINGWAY COLLECTION, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON.
Our destination on November 23 was Oak Park, where some relatives lived. In that grand, wood-paneled home, some of the old Greek women, dressed in their most depressing black, clung to rosaries that occupied their hands but gave little comfort. Occasionally they would pause, kiss me and hold my hand. We were all locked in an impenetrable sorrow, and no one knew what to say until an uncle told me that just a few blocks away a great American writer had grown up. It was the first time that I heard the name Ernest Hemingway.
As a young man, I, like so many others, went through my “Hemingway” period. I read the books and was excited by the worlds he described and became hungry for life’s adventures. I left home at seventeen and began traveling the world in search of those experiences and a hoped-for knowledge that might be acquired along the way. I traveled to Spain and ran with the bulls and then on to Paris to visit some of Hemingway’s haunts, but he was nowhere to be found in those commercialized temples that had a “George Washington slept here” quality to them. He was where he had always been, in his books.
As a result of that understanding I quickly grew tired of the Hemingway legend and realized that the man’s greatness lay in the work and not in his lifestyle, though the two were often intertwined. The more I learned the more I understood how disciplined and dedicated he had been to his craft and how hard he struggled to put words on a page. He may have been, as some said, a genius, but that did not mean he had discovered a shortcut to hard work.
A number of years ago, while working as editor on a book entitled Sacred Trusts, I contacted a number of writers, soliciting essays for the volume. I had read something about Africa written by Ernest Hemingway’s middle son, Patrick, that I thought very good and wrote a detailed letter to him, not only about my hope at his possible participation, but of my experiences since leaving Chicago. A few weeks later I received a lovely letter in reply.
It was, as Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Within a short period of time and ahead of schedule, Patrick sent me his essay “The Elephants of Tsavo.” It was beautifully written, heartbreaking and sadly prescient. After the book’s release I received a call from Patrick inviting me to Montana. My late wife, Kris, and I drove to Bozeman from Philadelphia and spent three days with Patrick and Carol Hemingway that were filled with laughter and wonderful conversations that danced from literature and science to mathematics, politics and religion. A short time after our return, Patrick called again and
asked if I would be interested in managing his father’s literary estate. To say the least, I was taken aback.
“But I’m not a manager,” I said.
“You’ll get the hang of it, pal, and it won’t take up much time so you’ll have time for your own writing and work,” Patrick answered.
I remember declining, twice, but Patrick was persuasive. Over the last nineteen years I have had the pleasure not only of Patrick’s company, but of the remarkable stories and remembrances that seem to fill every hour that we have been together. I have learned much from Patrick about his father and, as one would expect, the story is far more nuanced and detailed than myth allows.
The myth of Hemingway, some of which he created himself, is too simplistic. It is the he-man tough guy who drinks hard and gets the women while talking in a clipped fashion suggesting a world-weary cynicism arrived at from war, betrayal and broken hearts. This was the beginning of his style or, more accurately, his use of the Kansas City Star’s style sheet that he was given in 1917 while working there as a reporter. The style sheet’s number one rule was “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.” Some of the other rules would stimulate Hemingway into constructing sentences of fiction in a revolutionary way that seemed utterly new. “Avoid the use of adjectives,” proclaimed one of the rules, and then, “eliminate every superfluous word.”
What Hemingway did caught on. After the release and success of The Sun Also Rises, people would travel to Paris imitating the book’s characters. They would sit at cafés like the Dôme and La Rotonde in Montparnasse, putting on their best Brett and Jake personas, and not just in Paris, but in cities on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the public’s imagination Hemingway had become not merely a successful writer, but also a trendsetter. The word trendsetter, by its own implication, suggests something momentarily in fashion that passes and is finally rendered cliché. Some people may have thought that about Hemingway at the time but not many. Others, like Donald Ogden Stewart, were confused by The Sun’s success, believing it to be nothing more than straight reporting about a contentious time between friends at a festival in Spain, which Stewart had been part of.
There are so many competing layers of myth concerning Hemingway that it seems at times impossible to see the man. But when Hemingway is looked at through his own words, at different stages of his life, and through some of the twentieth century’s most tumultuous events, the story becomes far more deep and interesting. That is why the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library is an invaluable resource in understanding Hemingway as an artist and a human being and how the life he lived informed his work.
Patrick Hemingway once told me that his father did not keep a journal but did keep everything else and did so as an aid to memory. The Hemingway Collection is a scrapbook of one of the world’s most influential and enduring writers and a rollicking trip through the twentieth century.
COPYRIGHT JFK LIBRARY.
PORTRAIT OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY. INSCRIBED ON PHOTO: “ERNEST MILLER HEMINGWAY 5 YEARS 2 MONTHS OLD.” COPYRIGHT UNKNOWN, HEMINGWAY COLLECTION, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON.
COPYRIGHT JFK LIBRARY.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY FEEDING A SQUIRREL. FROM GRACE HALL HEMINGWAY’S SCRAPBOOK 4, PAGES 14–15, HEMINGWAY COLLECTION, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON.
CIRCA 1934: TWO UNIDENTIFIED CUBAN FISHERMEN PULL A LARGE FISH INTO A SAILBOAT, CUBA. KEY WEST YEARS, 1928–1939. PHOTOGRAPHER OFFICIALLY UNKNOWN. PAPERS OF HEMINGWAY COLLECTION, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON.
The many artifacts in the collection are his, and they tell a story of what he liked and valued. The thousands of letters he wrote present a funny nickname maker, a good and loyal friend, a loving father, an attentive brother and son, a competitive and jealous man and sometimes a cruel one.
While exploring Hemingway’s life through his words and things, something has become very clear, and that is his powers of observation. Hemingway was making lists all the time, seemingly listening to and watching everything and storing it away to be used at some future date. One photograph that I discovered, which I believe he probably took while fishing in Cuba, shows the seeds of what years later will become The Old Man and the Sea. The photograph shows two old fishermen on a small boat with a short, single sail. Alongside the boat they are hauling up a large swordfish. The image is a fine one, executed with an understanding of composition and timing. He was paying attention. Close attention.
Unlike in this current age where people are recording everything and seeing nothing, Hemingway was taking life in, and he was doing so from a very young age. On June 9, 1909, age ten, Hemingway writes to his sister Marcelline in a straightforward storytelling style:
Our Room was in the field day against Miss Koontz room. Al Bersham knocked two of Chandlers teeth out in a scrap and your dear gentle Miss hood had Mr. Smith hold him while she lickt him with a raw hide strap.
Hemingway lived in an analog world, not a digital one. He traveled by ship, train and car and in planes, not jets, at least not in the beginning, and yet there he is, seemingly everywhere. World War I in Italy, Spain, Africa, Cuba, Key West, New York, the Spanish Civil War. Back to Italy, Paris as a young man, Paris as an old man, China, Sun Valley, Chicago, Wyoming and Germany. With Mussolini, with Cooper, Dietrich and Capa. He’s fishing, hunting and running with the bulls and writing, always writing. There is one wife, a child, then another wife, two more children, another wife and one more after that. He is there, with Picasso and Fitzgerald, Stein, Joyce and Pound, with generals and old fishermen. He’s in World War II, then the Ritz, Orwell and Salinger and on and on. Yes, Hemingway seemed to be everywhere, but the age he lived in, its pace at the start of the century, was conducive to poets and observers. Hemingway was suited to the early twentieth century and was spared “that agent of superficiality” that Peter Fleming declared was modern plane travel.
There are over eleven thousand photographs, bullfighting tickets and scraps of paper with lists of what books a struggling writer should read. There are airline, train and steamship tickets that are so lovely they seem a page from an illuminated manuscript and demonstrate how much beauty there once was in the artifacts of daily commercial exchanges. As I went through his things I realized how much tactile aesthetic has been sacrificed and replaced with a severe digital practicality.
There are the letters, thousands of them, from the JFK and other collections, that record the goings-on in his and his friends’ lives. Receipts from bookstores in New York, Paris and Spain revealing what he was reading and when. The telegram from Senator John F. Kennedy asks Mr. Hemingway about his definition of courage as Kennedy works on his own book that will become the 1957 Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage. Years later, another telegram from the now young president-elect to the Mayo Clinic, where Hemingway was undergoing shock treatment, asking him to be at his inaugural followed by the heartbreaking and repeated drafts of a response that Hemingway attempts to write six months prior to his suicide. Those drafts, in his struggling hand, reveal the end of things because in spite of all of his passions, it was writing that sustained him.
There are materials stamped “Restricted,” one by the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, which had me wonder if Hemingway had access to classified information during World War II. Interesting, seeing that he was a reporter. Or was he? More treasure for future researchers.
There are two receipts for checks written by Hemingway in the amounts of $750 each that were for the custom-made ambulance that he was contributing to the Spanish Civil War effort with the accompanying list of how the ambulance should be constructed and what it should contain. One can see the connection between what he learned as an ambulance driver in World War I and what he was asking for in 1937.
Traveling through Hemingway’s artifacts, I have come to recognize the man, his early hopes and dreams, his determination to be one of the “great writers,” his fears of physical and mental illness and, finally, death. Like him I am from the Midwest, Chicago, and I identify with the hungry young man who was determined to take on the world, and who, at a young age, was already too big for Oak Park’s quiet Sundays and perfect lawns.
The letters of Hemingway to friends and relatives while he was recuperating from his war wounds in Italy were of particular interest. His letters show his excitement at surviving and at being decorated and finding the girl he thinks he will spend the rest of his life with. He is at the beginning of his great adventure. The experiences he describes show, with the benefit of time, the template for what was to become the world’s “new” literature. In some of the letters we first meet a young man in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse who cared for him after being wounded and who would play a major role in the “new” literature to come. In just a few letters we see a young man go from hopeful and in love to a hurt and self-protected individual. He begins to sound like the characters of his future work who persevere in the face of heartbreak and death, understanding that “the world breaks everyone.”
COPYRIGHT JFK LIBRARY.
TO HIS SISTER MARCELLINE ON NOVEMBER 23, 1918, HE WRITES FROM MILAN
Dear Old Sister-;
. . . I don’t know what I’ve written you about my girl but really, Kid Ivory I love her very much. Also she loves me. In fact I love her more than anything or anybody in the world or the world it-self.
TO BILL SMITH, DECEMBER 13, 1918 (FROM MILAN)
. . . But listen what kind of girl I have: Lately I’ve been hitting it up-about 18 martinis a day. . . . We went in the staff car up to Treviso where the Missus is in a Field Hospital. She had heard about my hitting the alcohol and did she lecture me? She did not. She said, “Kid we’re going to be partners. So if you are going to drink I am too. Just the same amount.” And she’d gotten some damn whiskey and poured some of the raw stuff out and she’d never had a drink of anything before except wine and I know what she thinks of booze. . . . Bill this is some girl and I thank God I got crucked so I met her.
TO WILLIAM D. HORNE, JR., DECEMBER 13, 1918
. . . Bill I am undoubtedly the most lucky bum in the world. The temptation comes to rave-but I won’t.
AND, ON FEBRUARY 3, 1919 (FROM CHICAGO)
. . . Ag writes from Toro Di Mosta beyond San Dona-Piave that she and Cavie are going to be there all winter. I gave her your love. Bill I’m so darn Lonesome for her I don’t know what to do. All Chicago femmes look like a shot of Karo Corn Syrup compared to 83 Burgundy.
AND THEN THE NEWS AND THE CHANGE. TO WILLIAM D. HORNE, JR., MARCH 30, 1919
It’s kind of hard to write it Bill. Especially since I’ve just heard from you about how happy you are. . . . She doesn’t love me Bill. She takes it all back. A “mistake” one of those little mistakes you know. Oh Bill I can’t kid about it and I can’t be bitter because I’m just smashed by it. And the devil of it is that it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t left Italy. For Christ’s sake never leave your girl until you marry her. I know you can’t “Learn about wimmen from me” just as I can’t learn from anyone else. . . . But Bill I’ve loved Ag. She’s been my ideal and Bill I forgot all about religion and everything else-because I had Ag to worship. . . . All I wanted was Ag and happiness. And now the bottom has dropped out of the whole and I’m writing this with a dry mouth and a lump in the old throat and Bill I wish you were here to talk to. The Dear Kid! I hope he’s the best man in the world. Aw Bill I can’t write about it. ’Cause I do love her so damned much.
TO JAMES GAMBLE, APRIL 18 AND 27, 1919
. . . There is a good deal of news which should be retailed to you tho. First I am a free man. . . . I did love the girl, though I know now that the paucity of Americans doubtless had a great deal to do with it. And now it’s over I’m glad, but I’m not sorry it happened because, Jim, I figure it does you good to love anyone. Through good fortune I escaped matrimony so why should I grumble? . . . At any rate I’m now free to do whatever I want. Go wherever I want and have all the time in the world to develop into some kind of writer. And I can fall in love with any one I wish which is a great and priceless privilege.
TO HOWELL G. JENKINS, JUNE 15, 1919
. . . Had a very sad letter from Ag from Rome yesterday. She has fallen out with her major. She is in a hell of a way mentally and says I should feel revenged for what she did to me. Poor damned kid I’m sorry as hell for her. But there’s nothing I can do. I loved her once and then she gypped me. And I don’t blame her. But I set out to cauterize out her memory and I burnt it out with a course of booze and other women and now it’s gone. She’s all broken up and I wish there was something I could do for her tho. “But that’s all shut up behind me-Long ago and far away. And there aint no busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay.”
TO WILLIAM D. HORNE, JR., JULY 2, 1919
. . . Now for the last month and a half I’ve been up North here and “Ag” doesn’t recall any image to my mind at all. It has just been burnt out. So that is finite per sempre.
Hemingway would take the fears, guilt and heartbreaks of his life and turn them into words that would become literature. Years after being jilted by the woman he loved, Hemingway would write a page in A Farewell to Arms that F. Scott Fitzgerald, after being invited by Hemingway in June 1929 to read it in typescript, wrote on the left-hand margin of the page, “This is one of the most beautiful pages in all English literature.” What Hemingway had experienced, heard and felt years before was now transformed into art:
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I have come to understand through the years of discussions with Patrick, and now through the things Hemingway left behind, that Hemingway believed the world a “swell place” and expressed how sad it would be when he would have to leave it. Death and suicide are woven through a good deal of Hemingway’s work and that’s not surprising, given the century he lived through and what he had seen.
Among Ernest Hemingway’s many endings to A Farewell to Arms I was drawn to one he had rejected. The words seemed oddly his own, not one of his characters’. He wrote,
“That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”
I reflected on those words and thought of all the people I have loved, cared for and lost and how those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows can’t help but think, in spite of its troubles, how beautiful the world is and how sad it will be to leave it.
“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death,” wrote Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, “and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you.”
On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his life, seemingly ending his own story. But thanks to the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library, his story goes on with much more to be discovered and learned.
Finally, it seems oddly full circle from my beginnings in Chicago when on a day after the assassination of a president, and the death of a parent, I heard the name of a writer whom I would come to know through his son and through the writer’s artifacts that now reside in the fallen president’s library.
CIRCA 1954: ERNEST HEMINGWAY LYING DOWN, HIS BLISTERED HAND AND INJURED STOMACH VISIBLE, RECOVERING IN AFRICA AFTER A PLANE CRASH. COPYRIGHT JFK LIBRARY.