Hemingway and Biography

In this virtual event series, filmmakers and special guests explore the writer’s art and legacy. Conversations on Hemingway: Hemingway and Biography was presented by WETA and Georgetown University. It features Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Amanda Vaill, Howard Bryant and Paul Elie.

AIRED: March 18, 2021 | 1:04:44

- [Man] I hate the myth of Hemingway, it obscures the man.

(upbeat music)

- His talent is stunning.

- He went against the grain.

- [Man] It's hard to imagine a writer

who hasn't been influenced by him.

- In order to have something new to write,

he had to have something new to live

- [Woman] And he fell in love quite a few times.

- He's complex and deeply flawed, but there he is.

- [Man] Hemingway the man is much more interesting

than the myth.

- [Advertiser] "Hemingway" starts Monday April 5th

at 8/7 Central, only on PBS.

- Good evening.

I'm Sharon Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA,

the PBS station in Washington, DC.

I'm pleased to welcome you to Hemingway and Biography.

This event is part of conversations on "Hemingway".

The virtual event series that is taking place in advance

of the upcoming film from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The three part documentary "Hemingway"

will air on PBS stations throughout the country

on April 5th, 6th and 7th at 8:00 PM Eastern time.

I would like to thank our partner for tonight's event,

Georgetown University,

president and wonderful friend, Jack Digioia.

I'm also very grateful to the films funders

whose support ensures that people everywhere

will see "Hemingway" and truly treasure it.

Our gratitude extends to the Bank of America,

The Annenberg Foundation,

The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations,

members of the Better Angels Society.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting,

and the Public Broadcasting Service.

WETA has been Ken and Lynn's production partners

for more than 30 years.

It is one of my greatest honors

to work with these esteemed and beloved filmmakers.

During our panel discussion tonight,

you will hear from Ken and Lynne, from author Howard Bryant,

and biographer, screenwriter and journalist Amanda Vaill.

Moderating the conversation will be Paul Elie,

senior fellow at the Berkeley Center

at Georgetown University.

Ken and Lynne have created an intimate portrait

of the visionary work and turbulent life

of one of the greatest literary figures

that our country has ever produced.

To give you a taste of what we'll be airing

on your local PBS station in just a few weeks,

here is the introduction to "Hemingway".

Thank you very much.

(cool music)

- Hemingway was a writer

who happened to be American.

But his palette was incredibly wide and delicious

and violent and brutal and ugly.

All of those things.

It's something every culture can basically understand.

Every culture can understand falling in love with someone,

the loss of that person, of how great a meal tastes,

how extraordinary this journey is.

That is not nationalistic, it's human.

And I think with all of his flaunts,

with all the difficulties, his personal life whatever

he seemed to understand human beings.

You see, I'm trying in all my stories

to get the feeling of the actual life across,

not to just depict life or criticize it.

But to actually make it alive

so that when you have read something by me

you actually experienced the thing.

You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly

as well as what is beautiful

because if it is all beautiful you can't believe it.

Things aren't that way.

It is only by showing both sides,

three dimensions and if possible four

that you can write the way I want to.

(cool music)

- [Narrator] Ernest Hemingway remade American literature.

He paired storytelling to its essentials.

Changed the way characters speak,

expanded the words a writer could legitimately explore

and left an indelible record of how men and women lived

during his lifetime.

Generations of writers would find their work

measured against his.

Some followed the path he blazed,

others rebelled against it.

None could escape it.

He made himself the most celebrated American writer

since Mark Twain, read and revered around the world.

- It's hard to imagine a writer today

who hasn't been in some way influenced by him.

It's like he changed all the furniture in the room, right?

And we all have to sit in it.

To some, we can kind of sit on the edge

of the arm chair on the arm or do this,

but he changed the furniture in the room.

- [Narrator] The value of the American

declarative sentence, right?

The way you build a house brick by brick out of those.

Within a few sentences of reading a Hemingway story

you are not in any confusion as to who had written it.

- I can't imagine how it's possible

that any one writer could have so changed the language.

People have been copying him for nearly a hundred years

and they haven't succeeded in equaling what he did.

- If you're a writer, you can't escape Hemingway.

He's so damn popular that you can't begin to write

till you try and kill his ghost in you or embrace it.

And I think, identify that most about Hemingway's

that he was always questing.

The perfect line had not happened yet,

there's always a struggle trying to get it right

and you never will.

- [Narrator] For three decades

people who had not read a word he'd written

thought they knew him.

Wounded veteran and battlefield correspondent,

big game hunter, and deep sea fishermen,

bullfighter aficionado, brawler, and lover,

and man about town.

(cool music)

But behind the public figure

was a troubled and conflicted man

who belonged to a troubled and conflicted family

with its own drama and darkness and closely held secrets.

The world saw him as a man's man,

but all his life he would privately be intrigued

by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women.

There were so many sides to him.

The first of his four wives remembered

that he defied geometry.

- He was open to life, he was open to tragedy,

he was open to feeling.

I liked that he fell in love,

and he fell in love quite a few times.

He always had the next woman

before he left the existing woman.

- [Narrator] He was often kind and generous

to those in need of help.

And sometimes just as cruel and vengeful

to those who had helped him.

- [Jeff] "I have we've had the illusion

it was more important or as important to be a good man

as to be a great writer.

I may turn out to be neither, but we'd like to be both."

- [Narrator] Hemingway's story is a tale older

even than the written word.

Of a young man whose ambition and imagination,

energy and enormous gifts,

bring him wealth and fame beyond imagining.

who destroys himself, trying to remain true

to the character he has invented.

(cool music)

- One of his weaknesses I was going to say failing.

And it was a great pity.

It's a great pity for any writer.

He loved to an audience.

He loved an audience and in front of an audience

he lost the best part of himself

by trying to impress the audience.

- I hate the myth of Hemingway

and the reason I hate the myth of Hemingway

it obscures the man.

And the man is much more interesting than the myth.

I think he was a terrific father sometimes.

I think that he was a loving husband sometimes.

I think he was like so many people

except this enormous talent.

Hemingway is complicated, he's very complicated.

- [Jeff] "The great thing is to last and get your work done

and see and hear and learn and understand.

And write when there is something that you know,

and not before, and not too damned much after."

(cool music)

- Good evening, everyone.

I'm Paul Elie, an author and senior seller

with the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University,

our host for this evening.

And we're lucky to have with us, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,

co-directors of "Hemingway".

Howard Bryant, biographer and senior writer at ESPN

whose books include "A Biography of Hank Aaron".

And Amanda Vaill, biographer, editor and writer of the PBS

American Masters, a documentary on Jerome Robbins.

Thank you all for being here.

We're so lucky to have you together as a group.

- Thank you, Paul.


- Our topic tonight is Hemingway and Biography.

And what we just heard in the opening clip

is an account of just how important biography was

to Hemingway even while he was alive.

He was not only the most famous American writer

before he got too far along in his career

but the most celebrated American writer since Mark Twain.

Celebrated outside of the literary world in magazines,

in newsreel footage, in still photographs,

in legend that's even characterized at the time as myths.

All that looms so large

that as you put it in the documentary,

he winds up being a person who destroys himself

trying to remain true to the character he's invented.

All this is to say that Hemingway as a living writer

was engaged with biography to invoke something of a cliche

among biographers now.

He was a writer whose most complex character

was the one he created himself.

What was the challenge for you two

making a film, to make a biography Hemingway

that takes account of the complexities of biography

that are so tightly wound into the life itself?

- Well, Paul, let me start.

And I certainly want Lynn to add to this.

I think it's important to say first off

that all biography is failure.

I mean, the person that's closest to us in life

remains inscrutable to the end.

How can we presume to reach back a century or two

and divine who someone is.

We're obligated to try,

and that's what we were trying to do here in our own forum.

I think the great impediment of this,

which is of course trying to pierce the veil of this image

that is self created and created by a culture

that is willing to go along with the myth of self creation

is that once you get past it

you're actually able to touch and triangulate

with that mythology, with the extraordinary writing,

and with the vulnerability of the person,

the complexity of the person,

exactly what you should be doing

with engaging that complexity.

You're not pursuing biography

to find something out that simple, that ABC,

it is so complex.

I have not met anyone in my life

let alone the subjects of the films

who have chosen to make that in any way comes off

as a simple thing.

So what the calculus is for us

is to spend as much time as we can wrestling to the ground

the complexity of this and tolerating the undertow,

tolerating the ability to hold intention.

Sometimes divergent views about the same thing,

the same moment.

And that was our great mission.

And Lynn can talk more about it.

That was the struggle.

- Absolutely I'm not sure we fully succeeded

in like Ken is saying that you never quite get there,

it's the journey in a way.

He was so self-created but he was a real person.

Somewhere behind there there's human being,

Ernest Hemingway.

And how you figured out who that is,

especially because he so often blurred the lines

in his fiction

so that when you read a lot of his work

there's a character that could be him

or has a lot of similar characteristics

or similar experiences.

And maybe it's a different name.

It's not kind of a post-modern exercise,

but yet is he Jake Barns, Is he Fredrick Henry,

is he Nick Adams?

You know, these are iconic American literary characters.

Each of them had a little bit of Hemingway in them.

And there's generations of biographers of Hemingway

that I've tried to connect the dots

and trace the breadcrumbs back

to figure out was he in this place at this time

as this character in the novel or the short story?

And we sort of, we tried to get our arms around all of that

but not to get kind of sucked into

the fact-finding mission in a way of unpacking all of it

and trying to get to some deeper truths of knowing him

on an intimate, emotional level if that makes any sense.

And we got to that partly through his son, Patrick

who very graciously agreed to be interviewed twice

for the film and from his letters.

So he reveals himself in his letters

in a way that is kind of in the moment.

So you're following him through the trajectory of his life

through the letters and then through the images.

So you look at him and you see him at all different stages

of life, and you like you kind of see

through his eyes into something.

And of course we project onto that, we all do,

but still, looking into his eyes

at different times in his life,

I did feel like I got access to something,

got a little closer.

And hopefully in the accumulation of the film,

we feel we got somewhere.

- And I think also that the writers who come in,

an international cast of writers help corral

or triangulate or whatever the word is.

And then of course having biographers

and the dual threat of Amanda

and others that are in the film

who really actually helped us center

our pursuit of him, is just invaluable.

And I can't say enough and I have the opportunity

to say so publicly to Amanda.

- Yes exactly.

- Ken and Lynn, I've heard both of you speak

at the process of making the film

and you mentioned notes in the file,

but Hemingway going back to the '80s.

Then you mentioned your process of really bearing down

and producing the biography.

And you both use the description of subtractive

rather than additive to describe your process.

This reminded me of Hemingway's a notorious iceberg theory

of fiction.

Hemingway said that a fiction operated

kind of like an iceberg,

only an eighth was above the surface

but the seven eighth were below the surface

made the iceberg what it is,

made the fiction have the power that it has.

Had that comparison occurred to you

and what is it that the seven eighth that you left out

or that's not onscreen for us?

What is it that that brings to the biography

that audiences are gonna watch in a couple of weeks?

- I mean, yes, yes.

The short answer is yes.

That's exactly our process.

I think with Hemingway,

he's hoping that you're going to infer or intuit

all the things that he left out.

And I'm not sure that that's possible,

so there's many examples of that in his work.

And I don't think we're hoping that either.

We're hoping that what you see on screen,

the six hours that we ended up with,

working with Jeff Ward, our writer and Sarah Pots

and our producer and our team of editors and producers

is really the distilled version of the story

that we could come up with that made sense

and works as a film.

So we're very much aware of what's below the surface

and that's how we got here.

So I'm curious to hear from Amanda and Howard

too about their process,

because they go through the same thing we do

with just enormous amount of material on.

- There is an invitation in the work

that is that what is unspoken.

I'd say it's nine tenths is underwater.

I mean, so much is suggested that in a way the baseline

for the film is listening to this extraordinary literature.

Even when it goes off the rails and you write some rec,

there's something there that you can hold on to.

And then if you're dealing with the mythology

you have of the letters

and all of the other kind of commentary something happens,

but it begins with what is unspoken in that

and how much you are pulled into the mystery of that.

It's very much like music.

It's not the notes, it's the intervals.

And the pace and rhythm of "Hemingway"

and what's unsaid so much is inviting.

We were having a discussion the other night

and we were in the middle of something

we stopped to watch a clip.

And at the end, it ended with this spectacular letter

about Hemingway and gender and his wife Mary in Africa,

and everybody just at the end just covelled.

It just stopped the thing because

even though everyone there had not heard this passage before

it was breathtaking.

And you had to stop and admire someone

who could put words together like that.

I liked that invitation

- Howard and Amanda

I saw you nodding when I mentioned the iceberg theory.

So I'm guessing that it doesn't belong to novelists

or even documentary makers alone,

that we as biographers have some claim to that approach

or that experience, is that right?

- Oh, absolutely.

I think first of all, there's so much that you leave out

that you must leave out, but it informs what you write.

And even if it doesn't make it onto page,

you've done the work, you've been there with your subject

and what you've researched, what you have understood

that ends up informing what does go on the page

or on the screen.

- Yeah, no question, no question.

And I think that it's a great exercise to watch.

And in the film, it talks very much

about how Hemingway studied other writers.

And I think that we do this as well

when you're reading the different ways

that you're trying to approach a biography.

I remember going to the movies

and watching the Mr. Rogers biography, the film.

And I remember walking out of that film thinking

I don't really know anything more about this man

but what I do know is that this was a biography

about the public man, right?

This was about his public life.

It was a biography of the Mr. Rogers

that we all remember from television.

And so there's so many different approaches

that you wanna take.

Are you telling a story about the public person,

about the myth, about the persona?

Are you trying to get beyond the persona?

Are you trying to find a level of humanity

in the person that squares with the humanity and the writing

or vice versa?

There's so many different ways

that you can sort of approach what you take on.

And I think obviously we're all at the mercy

of our sourcing.

We're all at the mercy of what, how much information

do you have, what can you get?

And I think that's also one of the, really key things

that you're going to have to wrestle with

before you put anything on the page

because if you're not comfortable with that,

you're a complete mess.


I was gonna say no.

And also one other thing

about that is that I think Ken and Lynn,

you guys have done this so many times obviously

when you did it with Jackie Robinson as well,

because you had Rachel.

So to have Patrick in this film as well

and to have the letter as into anybody

who has written in their journal and you go back

and you go, oh, I wrote this 25 years ago.

So how do you take what that person had said and written

about in that time and try to interpret it,

not just for all of us as audience,

but for yourselves as you're creating?

- I thought you did such an extraordinary job

in this film of using that written record.

People always will say, well you can't show someone writing,

oh you can't show somebody's thinking,

but in fact you do show Hemingway's process

in a way that's really extraordinary to me.

I was really thrilled to see it.

- Yeah this was a writers' film.

- Let's go, that's great, wonderful.


- Thank you, if that was the great struggle too Amanda

was how you tick the words on the page.

And what's so interesting is having access

to the manuscripts and to the physical letters.

Then gives you a chance to use some of the digital tricks

that we have.

And rather than manipulate them

we could remove some of that.

And as you see, the very first shot of the film

is the opening paragraph of farewell to arms.

One of the most famous opening paragraphs

of any novel ever written.

And you're seeing him making the corrections.

The ghost of Ernest Hemingway is making the corrections,

and all we're doing is reapplying what we took off.

But in that you've removed a veil, at least one veil

and put yourself a little bit closer

to the subject into the process

because it is all about process here,

particularly with Hemingway.

- And what you did by doing that is so much like

what a written word biographer does.

When I went to the Hemingway collection

and went through his manuscripts and his letters,

it was the same feeling you've given the viewer,

that feeling of discovery and adventure.

Fair is the word, there's the page,

there's the man jumping off of it at you.

You did that.

It's quite amazing.

- Yeah, and I think that's one of the keys.

It's not simply that it's also as always

it's what you choose to emphasize, right?

That's the key when you walk in and you've decided

that you're going to be the person to take on this project.

Are you emphasizing the right things?

When I walk out of the library of Congress

did I choose the right gems?

Are they all gems...

And these are the questions obviously,

which is what keeps everybody up at night

in terms of trying to create something new.

Do I have something that is unique?

Am I interpreting the information properly?

Am I interpreting the period properly?

And so when you go through this, you really want to

I think the hardest part with that

which you really wanna do is you wanna try to pull yourself

as far away from it

but also have enough trust in what you're doing

that you believe that you know this material.

Do I know what I'm looking at?

And can I interpret what I'm looking at in a way

that illuminates this person,

and that illuminates my subject?

- I mean, I'll just say our process

because we can't become the experts.

We rely on the experts, advisors

and people who've spent their lives dedicated

to scholarship of Hemingway

so we can actually ask them for some help

because it's an overwhelming archive,

especially in this topic.

Thousands of letters, thousands of photographs.

It's a very collaborative process with our advisors as well

to kind of at least they check us and they will remind us.

Like Sandy Spammy

or who's the head of the Hemingway letters project

came to us at a meeting.

She was reminding us of some stuff we didn't know about,

that happens all the time.

Some particularly interesting letters

between Hemingway and Micheal (indistinct)

that we haven't come across yet

'cause they hadn't been published yet

but she knew about them.

So we're very grateful for that kind of (indistinct).

- (indistinct) I'm working on several biographies right now.

And I had a consultants meeting on the next film coming out.

Howard was there.

Howard had some very powerful comments.

And so we imported him to this barn and filmed him

and put him into a four-part eight hour

biography of Muhammad Ali that will be out this fall,

which has all of the same pitfalls,

all of the same resistance to kind of easy

and fast isle judgments.

It requires a great inner compassion

on the part of the investigator to do that.

And I think Howard enriched our film is very unusual

as Lynn knows to film somebody at the end

and have them fit in.

The body tends to reject the new Oregon,

but not Howard.


- And need for a biographer to master material,

you two are making a visual biography of a writer.

And I was so struck watching the film

and then watching the clips tonight

that things that I know through Hemingway's writing

about them say Paris through certain parts of the fiction

and the moveable feast is now there before our eyes

through still photographs,

he probably lived it and so forth.

And in a way takes me as a viewer back behind the myth

to see a young man without all that subsequently happened

to him kind of weathering his character.

That puts in mind the second clip.

Could you tell us what we're about to see?

- Yes, we wanted to pick a scene

from relatively early in Hemingway's adult life

which is after he's been to world war one,

he has married his first wife Hadley

and they have just gone to Paris

to start a whole new life together

and he wants to be a writer.

He's a foreign correspondent at the time.

And he was a young man on the cusp of everything

that we think of later to happen to him anyway.

(lively music)

- [Narrator] "January, 1922.

Dear family.

Hash just came in and says to send lots of love to you

and tell you about our apartment.

It is at 74, Rude to Cardinal Lenoir.

And is the jolliest place you ever saw?

We rented it furnished for 250 francs a month, about $18.

It is the most comfortable and cheapest way to live.

And Hash has a piano.

And we have all our pictures up on the walls.

And an open fireplace.

It is on top of a high hill

in the very oldest part of Paris."

The newlywed Hemingway's first real home

was a fourth floor walk up in the Latin quarter.

Each evening accordion music drifted up

from the working man's dance hall next door.

His friend and mentor Sherwood Anderson

had persuaded Ernest that for a young writer,

Paris was the place to be.

One could live cheaply there.

And the left bank teamed with revolutionary artists

and writers from everywhere.

Pablo Picasso and Juan Miro, Igor Stravinsky, and Eric Sati,

James Joyce and Gertrude Stein who remembered Paris

as the place where the 20th century was.

Ernest was just 22 years old, working as a correspondent

for the Toronto Star, otherwise unpublished and unknown.

But sure what Anderson had written letters of introduction

to three influential friends, generously describing him

as a quite wonderful newspaper man,

whose extraordinary talent was sure

to take him far beyond journalism.

- He's tall.

He is as handsome as a movie star.

He has dimples.

He has a swashbuckling quality to him,

but he has this kind of Midwestern sweetness

at the same time.

The fact is that if you would walk into a room

people loved him the minute they saw him.

And that gives him a kind of confidence

that you can do anything

- The charm and allure of a movie star.

This is what you see in Hemingway Amanda.

Charm, allure, notoriously difficult to capture

once a person has gone.

What's it like to try to get that elusive quality

in a biography decades after the fact?

- Well, I think, you know

you have to go to whatever source material you have.

And when I was writing about this very period

of a bit when I was writing a biography

of Gerald and Sara Murphy

in which Hemingway was most definitely a character,

I went back to their letters

to the memories and memoirs of people who had known them.

And what you end up with is a lot of voices speaking to you

and telling you what these people were like.

And to me, it's absolutely extraordinary

the power of documents you don't need to have

although it's great to have films and even photographs.

Photographs give you a very special sense.

However, I mean, there's that wonderful picture

that you will show in the film here of Hemingway and Hadley

looking at each other and he's got that, you know,

in their profile and there's both so young and gorgeous

and American looking and you just love them.


And you know, that's what happens there.

These people become real to you.

You hear their voices,

they're in your head,

you end up talking about them

as if they were people you know.

And your family gets bored with you talking

about these people that they have never met.

And all you can do is talk about them.

It's sort of like when people fall in love with somebody

and they have mentioned ideas,

they always want to talk about the person

that keep mentioning their name.

Well, that's you, the writer and the biographer

and your subject.

You can't stop talking about them all the time.

You keep working it into everything you have to say.

You know, it's kind of pitiful.


- Well, I actually thought when I was looking at

and watching the film,

one thing that I thought was really interesting

in terms of the creation of it,

it's when you deal with a figure like Hemingway,

in some ways it's almost like dealing with a Jackie Robinson

or an Abraham Lincoln

where it's like, okay, what new can I pull out of this?

But on the other hand, it's not

because people know the work,

but they don't know the person.

And so for me is not being a Hemingway scholar at all

but having read and trying to understand

the person behind the work and understanding the man

in his time and all of those things.

What I really enjoyed

what are all the things that I didn't know?

The journalism and being a teenager,

working at the Kansas City Star,

I mean when you start looking at his actual arc

of when he was writing it and at what age he was writing,

it's remarkable.

And you start thinking about comparing,

obviously can't compare your time to his

but couldn't write two paragraphs when I was 18 years old

never mind writing for the Kansas City Star.

And then also, obviously I think it's very difficult today

to consider those times back then

especially now that you're looking

as over a hundred years ago.

The enormity and the effect of world war one on people

(indistinct) we don't even really have wars anymore.

If anything wars are digital now, right?

So you push a button and you do things,

and you kill lots of people by not leaving your house.

But when you look at the footage and you see the physicality

and people talk about Hemingway as a physical person,

the images of world war one and trenches

and him being wounded,

and you start to think about

here's a person who was as physical as to his words.

Like he lived a very physical life.

And now you start put those things together

and now you can start to see how it squares

with what you're reading on the page.

And in a lot of ways, whenever I read Cormac McCarthy

I think of Hemingway's very short typed sentences,

extremely violent, extremely very physical

in that way as well.

And I just think throughout this story,

throughout these three parts, the number of ways

that he is in such a physical presence.

The way that he actually lived

was just really really important.

- Those things that you mentioned Howard,

at one point every literary minded, American

knew those things.

Hemingway went to bull fights and hunted in Africa

and was a big game fishermen and had a place in Key West.

That's much less well-known now.

And then I'm imagining that offers you

a certain kind of advantage as biographers

that the ubiquity of Hemingway,

the public figure is not what it once was.

So you can kind of move in and do something different.

Is that right?

- I don't know.

In the course of doing it a dear friend of mine

sent me some stuff from the late '40s and '50s

kind of pulp tabloid, 5 cent lurid books about Hemingway.

And so I think that there was essentially a cult there

and it was probably easier for us now

that that's the excitement about it has (indistinct)

but at the same time, we live in an even more

a horrifically celebrity culture of bold face names

that you're not exactly sure why they're even famous at all

and you kind of lose track

and then just presume there's the haves and the have nots.

You know, the keyword I was thinking

was something Amanda said about voices.

It's just for us a perpetual collection of voices.

It may be the voice of us,

the disciplined third-person narrator

that Jeff Ward in this case I wrote

and we worked on a little bit.

It may be the voice of Hemingway.

It may be the other voices of Hemingway in letters

and other stuff.

It may be the commentary of scholars and critics and writers

and biographers.

It may be the voices of other people in his life,

but that chorus is what permits you to aggregate

as I think Amanda was suggesting,

the kind of sense of the person,

or as good as sense of the person as you get

and particularly the time and the place.

And then the visual dimension are different kinds of voices,

but I don't wanna get into how photographs speak.

That should be all other conversation that we have.

- I was struck watching the film.

We think of Hemingway as an American writer

but just how much of it took place abroad.

And there's a very international flavor

to his life that I'm not sure I'd totally registered.

Did you make a specific effort to bring out that aspect?

- It didn't take much effort

because he actually didn't live in the United States

for most of his adult life.

I haven't done the exact math,

but he lived 20 years in Cuba

and that's the longest he lived anywhere.

And he was frequently and he lived in Europe

for a number of years.

Then he was in Spain a lot.

So even though he seems an iconic American Meyer

and we started off sort of thinking about the film that way

we quickly realized that, you know

he transcends that label in his life

and his interest in a way too.

So it was really important to us to visually represent that

but also to hear, as Ken was saying from writers

from around the world to kind of get a sense of

what does it mean if you grew up in Ethiopia,

if you live in Spain,

if you are from Japan or from Ireland.

I mean, we began to understand his influence and fame,

actually both by just sort of triangulating

with perspectives from around the world.

It was super interesting.

And I think in a way he sort of embodies

this iconic American male,

I'm not gonna say ideal, but archetype,

but he also critiques it.

And so that's kind of part of his story

and the story we were trying to uncover.

He understands some of the pitfalls of that pretty well.

- What are the ways in which you break that down?

I think is by showing that this person

who created the literary ideal of rugged male individualism

was almost never alone.

The romance, one tumbling into another.

And some of that comes out in the next clip.

What is it that we're about to see?

- Oh yeah, so Hemingway was married four times,

as we said in introduction.

And the first clip was with his first wife.

We're now jumping over wife number two to Martha Gellhorn

who was his third wife

and who was a very serious writer and work correspondent

in her own right.

And they had gone to Spain to cover the Spanish civil war

as Amanda so beautifully covered

in her incredible book, "Hotel Florida".

And so now they're back home and we just wanted

to sort of show.

Any challenges of biography when you have

complicated subjects that don't always present themselves

in the most positive light, let's just say.

- [Meryl] "The only serious complaint

I have about matrimony

is that it brings out the goodness in me.

And has a tendency to soften and quiet

the hell on wheels aspect.

Then finally, I become bored with myself.

(gunshot firing)

My man is another hell on wheels character.

And what is so Christ at art

is that two people cannot live together

with any order or health, if they are both hell on wheels.

So for the mutual good, they must both calm themselves.

And that is a moss

but I have not yet found out what to do about it.

Ernest and I really are afraid of each other.

Each one knowing that the other is the most violent person

either one knows.

And knowing something about violence

we are always mutually alarmed

at the potentiality is of the other.

So when we are together, we take it fairly easy.

So it's not to see the other

burst into loud, furious flame."

- [Narrator] Martha Gellhorn had no intention

of staying home with her husband as Pauline had.

And at first he encouraged her work.

- [Jeff] "I can't really write it all the way you can.

Well and easily and good.

I just nail words together like a bloody carpenter,

and it is so tough to do.

You are my hero and always will be

and I will be good and try to live up to my hero.

Thank you very much for having come to Key West

and for having married me."

Gellhorn's view of herself and her talent

was every bit as exalted

as her husband's view of himself and his.

"We two are great people."

She wants told him.

"We can shake the world."

But the couple found it hard

to keep their volatility smothered for long.

She began to travel more and more on assignment

and he began to resent it.

- Martha was a woman who would not back down.

Martha was a woman who could give

as good as she got verbally.

Martha was a woman who had her own life

that she wanted to live in career she wanted to pursue

and nobody was taking that away from her.

- They were great in the Spanish civil war

where there's bullets and shells flying every which way

but put them together in a house,

and it was just a disaster.

(cool music)

- [Narrator] After Gellhorn returned to Cuba

from a lengthy reporting trip,

she was convinced that Hemingway's adventuring

aboard the pillar was pointless,

just an excuse to fish and drink with his friends

while the rest of the world was at war,

and she did not hesitate to say so.

He was in fact not writing at all

and was drinking more and more heavily.

Beginning with a scotch and soda at 10 in the morning

and keeping at it all day.

He was angered by her criticism

and now sometimes dismissive of her writing.

"I'll show you, you conceded bitch."

One of his sons remembered hearing him shout.

"They'll be reading my stuff long

after the worms have finished with you."

- That clip is hard to watch and hard to listen to.

He thanks Martha Gellhorn.

He calls her his hero.

And yet he imagined some both dead and him triumphing

while her work is, you know

as it were consumed by the worms.

This is a person who is aggressive and someone say abusive.

What are the responsibilities of the biographer

to treat this material in 2020, 2021?

And did you have to consider, you have a free hand

with the estate and so forth?

- We did.

And in fact, I think in retrospect now

it was very brave of them and Patrick does speak

and permit us to go where it wanted.

But we set that absolute condition

that we would speak our minds about what we saw

and report all the things that we saw, and it is abuse.

It gets a lot worse.

This is nowhere near the worst scene.

In fact, you're dealing with somebody

who's able to hold her own in the face of it

in a way that perhaps Hadley and Pauline

and his fourth Mary weren't able to

though they tried pretty hard.

We were able, of course, part of this in the voices for us

is bringing alive, not just Peter Coyote

reading Jeff Ward's superb script,

but Jeff Daniels reading the voice of Ernest Hemingway.

And we have Carrie Russell and Patricia Clarkson

and Mary Louise Parker, and a young up-and-coming actor

named Meryl Streep, who is just,

I'm absolutely confident that she's going places

who is reading Martha Gellhorn

to give you that kind of little bit of that Hudson Valley

lock jaw that Martha had.

And that I think Meryl can obviously do so beautifully.

It was important to us to just represent what it was.

And I swear to you as you know, Paul,

it gets a lot worse than this.

- Permission aside,

there's the whole challenge of committing

to the subject of the biography as worthy of attention,

worthy of years of the biographer's life

and a certain cohabitation let's say,

and yet a person that the biographer has to watch

and show behaving badly.

Howard, we've discussed this off camera.

This is a theme for biographers right now.

What is it like to see it in active material

that's a century old such as what we just saw?

- Well, I think that the importance of it is

the fact that you're seeing it now

'cause I'm not sure how much you're gonna see it

in the future.

The idea of control is so powerful today.

I think when when we were talking about this on Monday

I was saying that Ernest Hemingway were alive,

he would be the executive producer of his own biography.

He would have the control.

He would be the person who gets to determine what you see.

So you essentially get to see propaganda.

And that the key for all of this

obviously I agree with Ken

when we talk about biography being failure because it is,

because you're only going to get your interpretation

of what you see and you can't have that sort of God complex

even though you're supposed to.

But when you start looking at the material

from the standpoint of the actual individual

controlling themselves, it's even worse.

So I think the hard part Ken's right, it does get worse.

And it's when I remember watching that

I remember watching the scenes with Martha Gellhorn,

I remember having read a piece about those two in Harpers

way back in the early '90s.

And I remember thinking that that level of volatility

brings out the best and worst of people

especially when they're in the same field.

The level of competition, the level of drive,

the level of ego, all of these things.

Sometimes when you're in the field, it fuels you

but then all of a sudden we're still competitors.

We're still, even though you may be Ernest Hemingway,

you're still competitive.

And how can you compete against your wife?

And how can your wife compete against you?

And here we go.

I thought it was a brilliant brilliant moment in the film.

And I was gonna say what I really sort of enjoyed

about the volatility of that

was the challenge of telling a story in 2021

about 1940 and about 1945, about the war,

about the way that men and women

were treated and treated each other back then,

how men treated women back then.

And what choices were you going to make as filmmakers?

Were you going to try to tailor it to 2021?

Or were you going to let us see what we should see?

I think that the balance in the film was really terrific

in a lot of ways, because by the end spoiler alerts.

There is a balance and that balance comes from the voices.

It comes from the people who get to do the speaking

and they get to explain.

And I think it's also because there are so many women

who are on camera

who are giving you the interpretation of the years.

So in other words, yes.

Product of his times 100%, but doesn't get to escape.

I think that's the power of what this does

and how the last thing I wanted to see in watching this film

was a protected Hemingway.

He got to live in his time as a giant

and now having been dead for 60 years, he can handle it,

this is what it was.

Go ahead Ken, sorry.

- No, I didn't mean to interrupt you.

I just wanted to add something Paul to your question

that I didn't address.

And Howard did really well.

This took six and a half years.

We didn't know what 2021 looked like and nor do we care

because I think when you're in the business of biography

particularly with some significant historical distance

you're obligated to stay in the story

and try to navigate all of its complexities.

What I've known from doing this for a while,

what Lynn knows is that when you finally get

towards the end and lift your head up,

you suddenly realize how much it resonates in the present.

And if you speak to the present control not withstanding

Howard, if the subject is in fact the executive producer

that's a different sort of set of things.

But if you do that, you are liberated in little ways

by the constraints,

so that maybe in six and a half years from now,

it will still be relevant.

You know what I'm saying?

And not playing to particular themes.

- Well, it's also real, Ken.

I mean this is the other piece of this.

When you're watching these films,

it's like it was really interesting

that you asked me to be part of this.

And when you were working in the film last year

when Lynn called

because I really didn't have any interest in it

to be honest with you.

And part of the reason

was because I thought Hemingway was a pig.

I thought he was a bore.

I thought he was the great white man

that I had no interest in reading about.

When you read the killers,

and I think you have that in the film.

The way he talked about black people

and all of these things, I'm like this.

And the thing about it is that he was a wonderful sportsman

and he was the Hemingway in Africa,

Hemingway in the war, Hemingway in Spain,

all of that stuff struck me as outmoded.

And I didn't really have a lot of interest in it.

And yet the way you presented it, it was brilliant.

It got me interested in him.

It also made me think about time

and what it takes to do these films.

There was a time when it was a Hollywood (indistinct)

to slap them in the face when they were hysterical, right?

This is what it was back then.

We don't do that anymore.

And because we don't do that anymore

that doesn't mean that it didn't happen then.

And how do you deal with those sort of uncomfortable moments

of history in the way that he writes on the page?

The way that people wrote on the page back then.

And so you take all of these different components,

you take them from the personal life,

you take them from what's on the page,

you take them from the times

and you do have an obligation to not care necessarily

about how we're going to view it today

because now you're doing your subject a total disservice.

We have to be able to look at these things as they were.

I'm good with them.

- Amanda will remember that at one point,

a certain clarity and biography was

derighted as pythography, not so long ago.

- Oh yes, Janet Malcolm said that she wrote a famous piece

about biographers as essentially burglars

who go through people's belongings

for their own personal gain.

And I'm going to actually on that, on that note, kind of.

I wanna return to something Howard said

which was that he felt that in the future

it might not be possible to do biography

in the way that this film has been done

or the way certain biographies of Hemingway have been done.

I'm not sure that that is true.

I've always had an argument.

I have a very dear friend

who is a biographer, Karl Wallace.

And then Karl believes that an authorized biography

is not worth doing

because you always be constrained by the estate

of the people or by the people, the subject.

And I have always believed

that unless you have the permission

to come into the house, not be a burglar

but walk into the house and go through the files,

you won't get the good stuff.

But you also have to know

you've got to feel pretty damn bulletproof

when you're doing it.

And you have to think, I will not be corrupted,

I will not be seduced by my subject

or my subjects executors or whomever.

And you both were working with the Hemingway estate

which is one of the most zealous

in protecting what they think of as the image

of their patron saint.

And you managed to get them to let you tell the story

in a fully rounded way.

You have to get their trust, but you also have to tell them

that you're not gonna write a hagiography.

- Right.

I mean, this is such a great point

because we just can't say enough

about the Hemingway family in terms of this project.

They had zero input into this film

except for Patrick being interviewed multiple times

and spending time with us talking about his memories

and things that he remembered but off camera,

just like as background, essentially.

But after that, his take was,

"You guys know what you're doing."

And sort of like what Howard was saying

Hemingway can handle it, let the chips fall where they may.

"Just tell the story you wanna tell

and I'm sure we're gonna not love every minute of it,

and that's okay.

We trust you to try to do the best you can

and we can't wait to see what you come up with."

And that was a great gift to have that sort of...

And then they opened the door to let us have access

to the archives and the manuscripts

which without which we couldn't do the story actually.

So doing it without that would have been probably...

I don't know if it really would have been worth doing.

I don't know what the movie would have really looked like

but I think, in preparing for the project,

reading many of the Hemingway biographies,

there's sort of two camps.

This is not true for all of them,

but often it's, I'm not gonna name names,

there are people who seem

to have a very strong feeling negatively about him.

And then the story kind of slots into everything

that happens is ending up a very negative

and portrayal of a very ugly person

who just is awful in every way.

Or there's a great artist and everything he does is okay

because he's a great artist.

I don't wanna generalize,

there's some great biographies,

but I think we really came in with an open mind

that it could be yes and it could be all of the above.

So weren't trying to prove a point

about what a jerky he was

or what a genius he was or what a great guy he was

but just a fully dimensional person.

- I was gonna say so and that's why I feel

like this is a writer's film, I really do.

And I felt like anybody who has tried to put words together

knows this is what it takes.

And we all know when it comes to

there is a certain narcissist inside of all of us

that feel that you have something

to say that someone should listen to,

imagine being at his level

and imagine having that level of talent

and imagine believing that you have not just the talent

to take on, not just one form, but three forms.

I'm going to be the best short story writer.

I'm going to be the best novelist.


It's off the charts.

And so what does that you need to,

you're not gonna be a saint for that.

I mean, there is going to be an enormous amount

of volatility, there's going to be...

I just thought it was such a poignant film as well

because by taking all of that on

he doesn't win all of these battles.

For everything that he was the world got to him as well.

He doesn't have the last word in this film.

This is what legacy is all about, right?

I'm in the sports world,

and so we see the word legacy get mangled every single day.

You score 10 points and then says

I'm just trying to protect my legacy.

You don't have control over your legacy.

Legacy happens after you're gone.

Legacy is what you leave behind.

And he doesn't have the last word on all of these things.

And that's why I think it really does sort of speak

to the challenge of telling the story of somebody

in totality.

And I think that if you're gonna tell that story in totality

there's gonna be some roads that are extremely rocky.

- All of this sets up.

We have time for at least two audience questions

and they went to pose them together

because they speak one specifically in one, generally

to this very set of questions.

Hanson from Pensacola asks,

"At what point did you feel moving comfortable

having the assurance to make the film?"

And Jennifer from Jersey asks,

"What do you want us to take away

from the film about Hemingway?"

- The first is pretty easy.

We never go in with any confidence

as I hope we've described.

We've said yes in a wholehearted way,

but we don't go in with our preconceptions

that we're there to tell you here's,

what you should know about Hemingway.

We are looking forward whenever it is that we finished

to share with you our process of discovery.

And then if you are doing,

as Howard suggests one could in our film

then there's not really anything

we want you to get out of it

except we don't want you to drink too much.

Alcoholism is a really,

let's not even laugh about it, right?

Please don't be an alcoholic.

It really destroys yourself and your family,

and it's a horrible, horrible disease.

If you have mental illness, please get help.

Do not be shamed by it.

This is a person for whom mental health

would have held a kind of stigma,

no one talked about it

and the kind of interventions that might've taken place.

There's so many demons that contribute

that there's no retrospective pathology

that could reveal what did him in

but it's a lot of different things

and having a different relationship to alcohol

and self-medication as a result of that

and having a more open thing about mental health

if you have suicidal ideation,

which he had from a very early age

and watched his father die.

Then please there will be numbers and the film to get help.

And that's it.

What you take away is what you take away.

- I was gonna say also Ken,

what I thought was really true

was you talk about the myth of Hemingway

and the trope of the drinking writer.

And that's something that we all go through

in terms of feeling like this is part

of the rite of passage.

If you're going to be a real writer,

you have to be a hard drinking, hard driving person.

And when I was watching the film,

I was thinking imagine what his outcome could have been

had he not.

- Yeah, exactly.

And let's not forget that that's also,

if you wanna take something away is do good work.

Do work really, really hard, be disciplined

have a discipline, do that.

I mean, he's a wonderful example

for as long as his demons didn't overtake him

of somebody who was dedicated to his craft

in an extraordinary way.

There are 47 endings that he got rid off,

experimented with for a farewell to arms,

that's amazing discipline.

- Lynn (indistinct) as far as the question of

what a viewer might take away from the film,

would you like to add to or amplify anything

that Ken just said?

- No, I mean, we really try to just let the story speak

for itself actually.

And I mean, the only other thing I would say is just

there's a great insights and joy to be heard

from reading Hemingway.

His greatest works are eternal.

So for all the problems we've been discussing

and some of the serious challenges

of looking at him from this 21st century lens.

The greatest of his works really do stand up

and we hope that the film opens the door

to an audience if they didn't know his work to discover it

and if they did to spend some more time with him.

- I know I'm emboldened to reread Hemingway

and read some of the work that I have read already.

This has been tremendously stimulating.

Thank you, Howard.

Thank you, Amanda.

Thank you, Ken.

Thank you, Lynn.

Thank you to Ms. Rockefeller and President Digioia

and our hosts and my colleagues at Georgetown.

For more information on "Hemingway",

Ken and Lynn's latest documentary,

and also if you want to register

for the final conversations on Hemingway event

which is next Wednesday, go to pbs.org, Hemingway events.

And "Hemingway" will premiere April 5th,

and then run also on April 6th and 7th

on your local PBS station.

Again, thank you very much

for a very stimulating conversation.

- Thank you, Paul, thank you, Howard,

thank you, Amanda.

So great to be with you.

- Thank you all, that's great.

Thanks a lot.


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