Hemingway Collection at the JFK Library

Three wars, four marriages, two plane crashes, and many homes.

Ernest Hemingway didn’t travel light. His baggage included a modern art collection, books, drinking accessories, an impressive gun collection, and the heads and pelts of his hunting kills. Always on the move, he schlepped it all through three wars, four marriages, two plane crashes, and many homes. His writing style itself left a tremendous paper-trail as everything he wrote went through dozens of drafts. The last page of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten 49 times. Fortunately for future generations, Hemingway never threw anything away.

“Courage is grace under pressure.” President Kennedy used Hemingway’s definition of courage as the epigraph to his own book Profiles in Courage.

The final home for much of Hemingway’s stuff and 90% of his papers is the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston Massachusetts. Some of the collection is on display (at least until December 31st, 2016) in an exhibit, Hemingway Between Two Wars, while the rest is in the Hemingway Collection, a wing of the Library archives.

Last month, I was lucky enough to visit both.

The first Nick Adams story, written on Red Cross stationary while he was recovering from a war wound.
First draft of A Farewell to Arms

The Hemingway papers came to the library as a gift from Mary Hemingway, his last wife. Much of what is now in the library’s collection had been left in Cuba, where the Hemingway’s had been living until shortly after the revolution.

Following Hemingway’s death, Mary appealed to Jackie Kennedy, whom she knew through a friend, for special permission to visit Cuba to get back her dresses and her late husband’s personal effects. The president (who was a big fan of Hemingway) arranged a secret unofficial visit for Mrs. Hemingway.

A fan letter from an American soldier. Signed, “Jerry” Salinger.
Hemingway ran up an expense account (read: bar tab) in excess of $13,000 while on assignment for Colliers in WWII. They disputed the charges.

Castro’s government (also fans) allowed Mary to reclaim the family’s belongings but she was ordered to leave behind items of “cultural value” this included Hemingway’s collection of artwork, by Juan Grís and others, but did not include her husband’s letters and manuscripts.

These papers stayed in garbage bags in Mary Hemingway’s garage for the rest of her life. She willed them to the Kennedy Library where they are preserved as a resource for scholars and fans who ask nicely to have a look.

Good luck charms: a penny, a .32 caliber bullet, bits of shrapnel taken from his leg, and a ring made out of a bullet fragment.

The archivist told me that Hemingway’s is the most legally complex literary estate in America. For example, his publisher limits the number of Hemingway stories that can appear in a single anthology to two. That’s why some collections of America’s greatest short stories don’t include the work of America’s greatest short story writer. There have been academics who’ve had their thesis denied for lack of permission to quote just a few lines from the archive. During my visit I was able to touch paper which had once rolled through J.D. Salinger’s typewriter, I had to put my phone away while I did so.

Telegrams between Hemingway and the Kennedy White House. Kennedy pledged support for the arts and invited the Nobel laureate to his inauguration. Hemingway was undergoing shock treatment for depression at the time. He struggled to write just a few words to the young president to whom he had been a model of courage. Hemingway died by suicide six months later.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notes on an early draft of A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway added, “Kiss my ass.”