In Search of the Authentic Ernest Hemingway

An upcoming PBS documentary prompts a deep-dive into the story behind this rarely published Smithsonian portrait of the legendary writer

Ernest Hemingway by Man Ray
A 1928 photograph of Ernest Hemingway, held in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, was taken in Paris by the artist Man Ray after the legendary writer suffered a life-threatening head injury. NPG, © 2000 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society, NY / ADAGP, Paris

Ernest Hemingway had a version of himself that he wanted us to see—the avid fisher and outdoorsman, the hyper-masculine writer, the man whose friends called him “Papa.” Then, there was the hidden Hemingway—vulnerable, sensitive and longing for connection. The two were not mutually exclusive, and in his work and his life, they often intersected.

More than anything, Hemingway’s external legacy is connected to his revolutionary writing. His declarative writing style was innovative, getting to the truth of the matter in as few words as possible. But his life attracted almost as much attention as his work. The legend came of age in 1920s Paris, a time where a salon gathering might attract such giants as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, and he later took up notable residence at homes in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway published more than nine novels and collections of short stories in his lifetime, many of them examinations of war set in Europe. Among the most famous are For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises and To Have and Have Not. He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea, one of his last works to be published while still living. The following year, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his entire body of work. Out this month, April 5 through April 7 on PBS, is a new three-part documentary series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which delves into Hemingway’s legacy and challenges understandings of the man as writer and as artist. His stark prose, his outdoorsy and adventurous lifestyle and his journalistic and wartime beginnings all helped Hemingway come to represent a kind of orchestrated masculine ideal.

The acclaimed writer “published a string of novels and stories that made readers see the world, because of him, as a different place, more vibrant, more alive, more elemental, and at the same time, more romantic,” wrote his biographer Mary V. Dearborn.Yet something began to go wrong.Ernest seemed to find it difficult to give and receive love, to be a faithful friend, and, perhaps most tragically, to tell the truth, even to himself.”

An intimate 1928 photograph of a 28-year-old Hemingway, taken by the artist Man Ray in Paris and held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, is one of only a few depictions following a serious injury that occurred early in the morning of March 4, 1928. The skylight accident, as it became known, left a permanent scar on the writer's face, and on his psyche.

In the portrait, Hemingway scans the distance; his tie and collar gape at the neck. His face is clean shaven and his alpine hat is perched precariously at the side of his head, as if in the next scene, it might topple off. Man Ray was one of a cast of elite icons who socialized with Hemingway in 1920s Paris. In fact, this photograph was not the only one that Man Ray took of the writer—he captured a number of portraits, including an image of Hemingway in 1926 with his son. In the portrait, a bandage can be seen beneath the clownish hat. Hemingway had returned home at 2 a.m. after a night out drinking with writer Archie MacLeish. He went to the bathroom and found the cord meant to raise the skylight dangling. The writer claims in a March 17 letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, that it was someone else’s fault—a friend had previously pulled the cord of the skylight, instead of the toilet chain, and cracked the glass. So when Hemingway adjusted the cord, the glass of the skylight shattered on top of his head.

In Search of the Authentic Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, an avid fisher and outdoorsman, created a myth of hyper-masculinity, but a new documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick searches for the real man behind the facade the writer built. Corbis Historical, Getty Images

Nearly two weeks after the incident, Hemingway wrote in a letter to Perkins that it had taken “30 thicknesses of toilet paper... and a tourniquet of kitchen towel and a stick of kindling wood” to staunch the flow of blood. The skylight accident was so severe that the Brooklyn Eagle reported Hemingway “spent an hour and a half on the operating table while surgeons tied the ends of four arteries.”

Ezra Pound sent Hemingway a note: “How the hellsufferin tomcats did you git drunk enough to fall upwards through the blithering skylight!”

At the time of the accident, the writer was at a crossroads, according to Frederick Voss, now retired from the National Portrait Gallery after serving as senior historian and curator of the museum’s Time magazine collection. “He was struggling with a novel about a professional revolutionist,” Voss says. “He was in one of his several very dry periods, and he wasn’t making any headway.”

“All of a sudden, he dropped the novel that he was working on that he couldn’t make any headway on, and started writing A Farewell to Arms, which many critics consider his greatest achievement,” Voss says.

Some scholars postulate that the severe injury reminded him of his time in World War I, when his first concussion took place. There, Hemingway volunteered with the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver. While delivering chocolate and cigarettes to the front, he was struck by an Austrian mortar shell. Sent to the hospital to recover, the writer fell in love with an American nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, likely his first great love. Although she seemed to return his advances, when he came home from the war, she told him in a letter that she planned to marry another. These formative events became the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, which begins in the Italian World War I battlefront and focuses on a great love between a nurse and an ambulance driver.

Psychiatrist Andrew Farah, who wrote Hemingway’s Brain, a complex medical diagnosis of the literary legend, indicated that Hemingway's second severe injury may have reminded him of his first. “He was in a post-concussive state where he was confused in delirium and just rambling,” Farah wrote, describing the scene after the skylight fell on his head. “But he remembered what his blood tasted like, his own blood. It reminded him of being in the mud in Italy and what that blood tasted like. And that just unleashed this force.”

In the same March 17 letter to Perkins, Hemingway discussed his two projects—one that would go on to great success and one that he would never complete. His words are prophetic.

“But I would like to write a really damned good novel,” he wrote just as he and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, were boarding a ship in France so Pfeiffer could return to the United States to have their first child.

And if the one I have 22 chaps and 45,000 words of done doesn’t go I will after I get to America I will drop it and put it away and go on with the other one I am writing since two weeks that I thought was only a story but that goes on and goes on wonderfully.

The first one was supposed to be a sort of modern Tom Jones. (Never mention that because I do not invite comparison) but only to name the sort of book) But there is a very very good chance that I don’t know enough to write that yet and whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about—

He would finish the first draft of A Farewell to Arms within six months, according to Voss.

For their documentary series, Burns and Novick relied heavily on a trove of the writer’s many letters, which are being published in a series of books edited in part by Pennsylvania State University’s Sandra Spanier and associate editor Verna Kale. Hemingway’s letters are vibrant, effusive, rapid fire and rarely as meticulously edited as his fiction. They are remarkably unrestrained for a writer acclaimed for his use of restraint. “The prose is so superior and so a reflection of his extraordinary discipline and his own merciless self-editing that the letters provide the relief,” Burns says. “They give you a sense of the real person, filled with anxiety and doubt and vulnerability and anger.”

Getting to the heart of who Hemingway was—and not simply dealing with his mythology and mystique—was the principal challenge of the film, says Burns. It’s one of the reasons why Burns and Novick’s team decided not to use the Man Ray photograph in the film. The skylight accident is introduced as part of a larger narrative: Hemingway had played contact sports and had suffered other major concussions. The injury was one of as many as nine major brain events, including a plane crash and a car accident where his head went through the windshield.

Hemingway may have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition that affects football players after experiencing numerous concussions. Burns and Novick wanted to treat the injury as serious to show the man’s vulnerability; but this photograph of the writer in his Alpine hat gave it too much of a comical air. This is part of the artful selection the filmmakers made in their use of the visuals for the sweeping documentary project—it’s about taking things away, not adding them in, Burns says.

“At any given time, you’re wrestling with what a photograph is saying quite beyond what we may be seeing in the narration or a person reading Hemingway,” he says. “We have to understand the complex psychology of that image. It was a conscious decision to reject it because it lacks the seriousness with which we wanted to treat this second major concussion.”

Still, Burns can recall the photograph from memory. It’s a portrait for which he has an audible fondness, a photograph he calls “fabulous.” The bandage is almost an afterthought to the image’s whimsical, haphazard nature.

Although the photo was taken not long before the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, Scribner's, the book’s publisher, never used the image as publicity, Voss says. And he suspects that Man Ray, a renowned Dada and Surrealist artist and photographer known for his experimental rayographs, didn’t publicize the photograph either.

Yet, to Voss, who curated a 1999 exhibition “Picturing Hemingway” on what would have been the writer's 100th birthday, the portrait perfectly symbolizes the major theme of the wounded warrior in A Farewell to Arms.

At the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, tour guides use the photograph to touch on the writer’s accident-prone nature. People often ask why the writer had so many six-toed cats, according to museum director Andrew Morawski. The answer is succinct: because of how unfortunate he was. Polydactyl, or six-toed cats, are thought to bring luck.

“He’s pretty much right next to a mortar shell in World War I, volunteering for the Red Cross, and 250 pieces of shrapnel go into him,” says Morawski. “He survives two plane crashes, as well as the skylight falling on top of him and the countless other concussions that happen to him over his life.”

In his March 17 letter to Perkins, Hemingway even joked about his susceptibility to injury. “Maybe this will be the last,” he wrote to Perkins of the accident. “Scribner’s could have made money this year insuring me.”

It’s tempting to classify Hemingway’s tendency towards injury the way Pound does, as retribution for a drunken night of debauchery. But the writer’s injuries and brushes with death—until his eventual death by suicide in 1961—have an odd connection to his work. “My wife says that she will see that I’m bled just as often I can’t write,” Hemingway wrote in the March letter to Perkins, speaking of Pfeiffer,judging by the way it’s been going this last week.”

It’s clear to Burns that suffering is material for art, and Hemingway embodies that. There’s tragedy on display in his experiences as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, as an ambulance driver during World War I, as a man married four times.

“Whenever he gets into a kind of placid domestic situation, whether it’s in Paris or Key West, he finds a way to roil the waters,” Burns says. “That’s the person realizing in a kind of interesting way that tragedy, that suffering, that friction offers the possibility of art.”

The Man Ray portrait is one of a few Hemingway images in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. Another is a Waldo Peirce drawing of Hemingway also from 1928, which Burns says he regrets not using in the film. A third is the stirring and iconic Yousuf Karsh portrait of Hemingway from 1957—what Voss calls the post-Nobel Prize, The Old Man and the Sea photograph.

When Karsh went to meet Hemingway in Cuba in 1957, he “expected to meet in the author a composite of the heroes of his novels.” But that’s not what he saw. “I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed—a man cruelly battered by life, but seemingly invincible.”