Ernest Hemingway was born near Chicago and died in Idaho. He immortalized 1920s Paris and introduced the world to the running of the bulls in Pamplona. He hunted big game in Africa, caught marlin off the Florida Keys, and spent decades living, writing -- and drinking -- in Cuba.
So, why is the world's largest collection of his personal writings is located at the JFK library in Boston?
Karen Adler Abramson is the director of archives at the JFK Library.
“I'm never surprised when people go, "What?! You have the Earnest Hemingway papers, how did that happen?"
President Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway never met, but the two 20th century icons held each other in high esteem. Tom Putnam, the director of the JFK Library, said Hemingway's characters were dealing with questions of fear and war — the same kinds of questions that occupied John F. Kennedy's mind.
“When John F. Kennedy was writing Profiles in Courage he actually wrote a letter to Ernest Hemingway saying 'can I use your definition of courage in my book?' and Hemingway said he could. Hemingway calls courage 'grace under pressure.”
Hemingway was among a handful of artists that the Kennedys personally invited to JFK’s inauguration in 1960. At the time, Hemingway was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic, and could not attend. But he wrote Kennedy a letter expressing his admiration.
“He talked about how moving the inaugural address was ... and he finishes with he knew that ‘our president could take any of the heat to come as he had taken the cold of that day,'” Putnam said.
When Hemingway died in 1961, most of his belongings, including a lifetime of writings, were at Finca Vigia, his home in Cuba. But following Castro’s rise, Cuba was off limits to Americans, including Hemingway’s widow, Mary Hemingway.
The Kennedy administration helped her to bypass the American laws prohibiting Americans to travel to Cuba to get these materials, according to Putnam, and years later, when Mary Hemingway was looking for a permanent home for her late husbands writings, a mutual friend of her and Jackie Kennedy Onasis suggested that the new JFK library might be appropriate home.
“Mrs. Onassis thought that was an exceptionally good idea, she’s a great believer in American arts and culture and Mary Hemingway donated them,” Putnam said.
Mary Hemingway's only condition was that the room be named after Ernest. And so on July 18, 1980, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Hemingway’s son, Patrick, officially inaugurated the Ernest Hemingway room at the JFK Library.
"The room is intended to evoke his home in Cuba," said Abramson. There are paintings that hung on Hemingway’s walls, an Absinthe bottle (empty of course), and plenty of books and photos. And as if that's not enough to rouse the spirit of 'Papa' Hemingway, there's even a lion skin rug (the lion was shot by his son Patrick).
But the undeniable centerpiece of the room is the astounding collection of Hemingway’s words, much of them hand written. The originals documents are housed in the archives and brought out on special occasions and upon request -- but copies of it all of it are right there in the room, waiting to be discovered.
Included is everything from his entire collection of personal papers to the manuscripts for 90% of his stories, novels and non fiction works. "He wrote, 44 different draft endings to “A Farewell to Arms” and we have all 44 of those drafts," noted Abramson. Also in the collection are most of the letters of correspondence between he and Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and other titans of the era.
It’s the largest collection of Hemingway’s writings anywhere in the world.
While most visitors are students and scholars, it’s open to anyone, by appointment – for free. And that, both Putman and Abramson agree, makes the JFK Library the perfect home for Ernest Hemingway.
"It’s kind of a nice story that this Nobel Prize winning, perhaps one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, that all of his papers are at a federal institution and owned by the American people," Putnam said.
Abramson added, "It also does make sense when you think about the Kennedy’s commitment to literature to culture, this collection is emblematic of that."
Watch scenes from the collection: