BOSTON—They were made for each other: bigger-than-life celebrity artists who appeared invincible in public but navigated through torturous private lives.
The deep friendship of the American writer Ernest Hemingway and the German-American actress Marlene Dietrich lasted from the 1930s to his death in 1961.
And the shape of that friendship was made much clearer last week, when a decade’s worth of his letters to her came to light for the first time.
Like much of Hemingway’s correspondence, these letters are frank, unrestrained, personally revealing, extremely playful and peppered both with testosterone and fawning adulation.
At the time he was an icon of mid-century American manhood. He loved to be thought of as a lover, even when he wasn’t.
Though she had recently become a grandmother, she was an icon of independent womanhood and equally defined by the vamps she played on screen, the burning sensuality of her voice and the peekaboo sexuality that accrues to Hollywood stardom.
By most accounts they never had an affair per se, but their correspondence amounts to a portrait of serious emotional bonding. They skated along a mercurial pond of mutual desire while accepting their fate to play out their lives with others, or, in her case, often painfully alone.
She addressed him as Papa. He called her Daughter or Kraut.
“When he was free, she wasn’t,” said Dietrich’s grandson, Peter Riva, an agent and television producer who helped highlight the correspondence in a recent event here at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “And when she was free, he wasn’t. But both were very expert at the physical passion side of life.”
More often than not, Riva said, their letters were less about sexual attraction than about pumping up each other and easing each other’s pain. (“Nothing is worth being depressed about,” Hemingway once wrote to her, and he, as much as anyone, knew from depression.)
They also shared an extraordinary understanding of what it meant to be an artist.
“They were both,” Riva said, “absolutely devoted to the work ethic of their craft.”
Hemingway and Dietrich met by chance on an ocean liner, the Ile de France, in 1934, as they returned to the U.S. from Europe. She was a star actress, whose career had been launched in Germany (“The Blue Angel”) and continued to shine in Hollywood on the wave of the great migration of German movie makers.
At 35, he was already an acknowledged lion of American literature, the celebrated author of “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and a body of luminous, violent and superbly crafted short stories.
By the 1940s they met again in Paris when he was a war correspondent and she was a top entertainer of American troops, a sequined salve for sore soldier eyes.
On April 2, letters from Hemingway to Dietrich were opened to the public. Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, had given them a few years ago to the JFK Library’s Ernest Hemingway Collection, asking that they be kept under wraps until this year.
There they joined about the same number of letters and telegrams from Dietrich that had been part of the Hemingway archives for years. The JFK’s Hemingway Collection is the largest repository of the writer’s manuscript material and other memorabilia. His widow, Mary, had chosen the JFK in gratitude to President Kennedy, who let her travel to Castro’s Cuba to retrieve her late husband’s papers and other belongings.
With its African game trophies, books and neatly cataloged document boxes, the fifth floor Hemingway room is a regular magnet for researchers and scholars. Now the media have descended, and inquiries have come in from around the world. A photo of Hemingway and Dietrich sat on an easel, and a few telegrams and letters had been put under glass for inspection.
Archivists had photocopied both sides of the Hemingway-Dietrich correspondence into a packet more than an inch thick.
He wrote to her from far-flung places: Nairobi, Venice, Madrid and often from his longtime home, the Finca Vigia (or Lookout Farm) outside Havana, Cuba.
She wrote to him from New York, London, Beverly Hills and a couple of times from Las Vegas (the Sahara Hotel), where she made $30,000 a week wrapping her sultry voice around torch songs and ballads.
Hemingway wrote about his work (“wrote 4523 words last week “), travels, making movies, Hollywood gossip, mundane matters and the weather. (Eleven hurricanes blew through in the beastly hot summer of 1951. He would write in the mornings and stop when the sweat made the paper too damp to continue. The air was so steamy, he told Dietrich, that “all your books grow penicillin on their backs when they’ve been wiped clean the day before.”)
After Hemingway published “The Old Man and the Sea,” in 1952, he mentioned to Dietrich, “The book sells like the Bible or Mein Kampf in Germany. ... I was a lucky (SOB) to write such a good book.”
But then the irony becomes apparent: “Imagine,” he goes on, “how splendid and easy it will be when I have to do it again. Don’t you think maybe we could open the night club instead?”
As it turned out, Hemingway wrote prolifically during the rest of the 1950s—memoirs, articles and three large novels—but the book-length works did not appear until after his death.
Dietrich often signed off with a kiss (or “kuss”) to Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary. And Hemingway often offered in return that “Mary and I love you very much and miss you all the time.” Mary, like Hemingway’s previous wives, endured his real and imagined dalliances, although it often cost him—once a mink coat.
Early on, Hemingway sent Dietrich a manuscript copy of the novel he finished in 1950, “Across the River and Into the Trees,” about a dying colonel’s steamy affair with a young Italian beauty. (“You aren’t in it and nobody else is in it because it is all made up,” he wrote.)
In reply Dietrich wrote that the book “is like a terrible animal lying quietly in your room and you don’t know when it will kill you. ... I read it with one eye and my heart had gooseflesh.”
Each tried to write publicly about the other. A piece that Hemingway wrote about Dietrich for Life magazine was never published. In 1955 Dietrich’s article about Hemingway appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune’s magazine.
“Was touched and honored by piece,” Hemingway said in a telegram. “Tried telephone long letter enroute.”
Turning the pages of the newly collated Hemingway-Dietrich correspondence makes the emotional climax even greater. One of the last entries comes like a bolt.
First you see the envelope. It’s May 16, 1961. It’s addressed to Hemingway at the Mayo Clinic.
Dietrich’s letter to Papa is quite brief, just a few lines, including this:
“What is it?” Dietrich wrote. “Whatever it is I don’t like it.”
There was no response from Hemingway.
And just six weeks later, on July 2, 1961, the American century’s towering writer put a shotgun to his own head.
HEMINGWAY IN LETTERS
Discussions are under way to publish the Hemingway-Dietrich letters as a book, though nothing has been announced.
At the same time a scholarly project to publish all of Hemingway’s letters—nearly 7,000 of them have been collected—has been under way for several years. The first of a projected 12 volumes is scheduled to be published by Cambridge University Press at the end of 2008.
For more on the Hemingway Collection at the JFK Library, see jfklibrary.org.
Also see The Kansas City Star’s Hemingway page at kansascity.com.