Ken Burns called Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum “a liberation” in allowing him to tell the story of writer Ernest Hemingway in his new documentary.
A trove of Hemingway treasures — including some 11,000 photos, manuscripts, letters, bullfight tickets, even good-luck charms — reside in John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The Ernest Hemingway Collection spans Hemingway’s entire career, and contains 90 percent of all known manuscript materials.
If you tuned in last night to Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Hemingway” on PBS (parts two and three air Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m.), you’ll see those photos and manuscripts presented with the classic Ken Burns effect.
“It’s very, very rare for a writer’s papers to be in a presidential library,” said Hilary K. Justice, Hemingway scholar in residence at the JFK Library.
So how did the archives of a writer who lived in Illinois, Michigan, Paris, Florida, Cuba, and Idaho land here? In a presidential library, no less?
“The story on that is really cool,” Justice said.
Although President John F. Kennedy admired Hemingway’s writing, the two never met, and corresponded only “a couple times very briefly,” she said, adding that Hemingway was invited to Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 but was too ill to attend.
The Kennedys also hosted a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners in 1962, after Hemingway died. Mary Hemingway, his widow, attended and sat next to JFK, Justice said.
When Mary collected her husband’s papers after his death, she had a problem: There was no obvious place for them to be archived because Hemingway had never gone to college, the typical destination for a writer’s works. “She talked to the New York Public Library,” Justice said. “They said they were interested, but she wanted [everything kept together] in its own space,” and the library couldn’t promise that.
“Mary read that [Jacqueline] Kennedy was putting together her late husband’s presidential library, and wrote offering Hemingway’s papers. Mrs. Kennedy accepted,” said Justice. “When I.M. Pei was designing the building, he made space for Hemingway.”
There’s only one other American writer whose papers are kept at a presidential library: Laura Ingalls Wilder. (“She never went to college, either,” Justice said.) Wilder’s archives are in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa.
In filming the documentary, Florentine Films “basically re-created Hemingway’s desk” at the JFK Library, Justice said. “You can’t tell it was the JFK Library, but those of us who were there that day, we’ve seen little snippets: ‘That was at the library! We were there!’ ”
Justice served as an adviser on the film “because one of my areas of expertise is Hemingway and music . . . I spoke with them about what Hemingway’s record collection looked like, what he listened to.” (Bach was a favorite.)
Had Hemingway ever visited Boston?
Justice “can put him in Boston twice,” though he was just passing through.
“His mother had six children. She would take them one at a time to spend a couple weeks on Nantucket. Hemingway went at age 11— took a train from Chicago to Boston’s South Station, to wherever you got the ferry in 1910,” she says. “That’s it. And yet, the JFK is the global center for research on Hemingway. And it’s a treasure.”
The JFK Library is closed due to the pandemic until further notice. For more details about the Hemingway archives and how to view them, go to jfklibrary.org for details.