Vast archives bring ‘Hemingway’ to life

Mart Pratt

BOSTON (AP) – A new documentary on Ernest Hemingway – powered by vast but little-known archives kept at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston – is shedding new light on the acclaimed novelist.

Hemingway, by longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premiering on PBS on three consecutive nights from yesterday, takes a more nuanced look at the author and his longstanding reputation as an adventurer, outdoorsman and bullfight-loving misogynist who struggled with internal turmoil that eventually led to his death by suicide at age 61.

The truth about the man many consider America’s greatest 20th-century novelist – whose concise writing style made him an outsized celebrity who became a symbol of unrepentant American masculinity – is much more complex, Novick said.

“We hope this film opens up opportunities to look at Hemingway in different ways,” said Novick, who has co-created several other documentaries with Burns including The Vietnam War and Prohibition. “There is a complexity beneath the surface.”

That complexity would have been nearly impossible to detail without the largest-in-the-world Hemingway collection that ended up at the JFK Library, thanks to Hemingway’s and Kennedy’s widows.

ABOVE & BELOW: This 1918 photo provided by the John F Kennedy Library Foundation from the Ernest Hemingway Collection shows Ernest Hemingway on crutches in Milan, Italy; and Ernest with a marlin at Havana Harbour, in Key West. PHOTOS: AP

Ernest Hemingway with his first wife Hadley Hemingway in Chamby, Switzerland

Although the two men never met, they admired each other and corresponded briefly. Hemingway was even invited to Kennedy’s inauguration but couldn’t make it because of illness, said Hilary Justice, the Hemingway scholar in residence at the library.

When Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, was figuring out what to do with her late husband’s effects, she asked Jackie Kennedy if they could be housed at the JFK Library.

The archives contain Hemingway’s manuscripts – including The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls – personal correspondence and about 11,000 photographs.

Much of the material used in the documentary has not been widely seen in public, if at all, Novick said.

Burns had been to the JFK Library on multiple occasions for several functions, but had no idea about the extent of the Hemingway archives until they started researching the film, which has been in the works for years.

“The Hemingway collection was central to the process,” Burns said. “It helped us understand just what a disciplined writer he was.”

Much of the documentary deals with Hemingway’s complicated relationship with the women in his life, from his mother and sisters to the nurse he fell love with while recovering from wounds suffered in World War I to his four wives.

“So much of what he did in life was about love: running to it, running from it and ruining it,” Burns said.

While considered the archetype of American manhood, the truth about Hemingway’s masculinity was more complex, the filmmakers found.

As a child, Hemingway’s mother treated him and one of his sisters as twins, often dressing them in identical outfits, sometimes as boys, sometimes as girls.

He explored gender fluidity both in his books and in life, letting his hair grow as his wives cropped theirs short.

“We wanted to push back against this idea that Hemingway didn’t like women,” Novick said.