A fresh look at Papa: New Ken Burns documentary explores the different sides of Ernest Hemingway

  • Ernest Hemingway on the fishing boat “Anita,” circa 1929. A new documentary by Ken Burns describes him as “an intensely American writer.” Image courtesy Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/PBS

  • Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, on their boat. Image courtesy of A.E. Hotchner/PBS

  • Ernest Hemingway recovering from wounds from artillery fire in Italy during WWI. He would use the experience as the basis for his 1929 novel “A Farewell to Arms.” Copywright by Henry Villard. Image courtesy the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/PBS

  • Hemingway, in an undated photo, is seen at work at Finca Vigia, his home in Cuba. courtesy Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/PBS

  • Hemingway and his third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, on their way to China in 1941 during World War II. IMAGE COURTESY OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM/PBS

  • Ernest Hemingway stands with his sons Patrick, left, John “Bumby,” and Gregory in the Bahamas after a 1935 fishing trip. Courtesy Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/PBS

  • Ernest Hemingway and first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chamby, Switzerland, in 1922. Image courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

  • Ken Burns says Ernest Hemingway “is like an iceberg. There’s only a small part you really see.” Image courtesy Evan Barlow/PBS

  • Above, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, sit on the steps of Finca Vigia, their home in Cuba, circa 1950s. courtesy A.E. Hotchner/PBS

Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2021

He was the famous writer who chronicled the ravages of war and the romance and history of bullfighting, and who did so with stripped-down prose that bucked literary conventions of the time and became a highly influential style.

He was the avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt, fish and camp, someone who also liked his whiskey and became a national symbol of rugged masculinity.

But as the newest film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick relates, Ernest Hemingway was a more complex figure than his public persona suggests. There were times in his life when he experimented with gender fluidity; he came from a family with a history of mental illness and battled depression and premonitions of death as he aged; and he could write about women with a sensitivity and understanding that belied his macho image.

In “Hemingway,” a three-part documentary series that airs on PBS beginning April 5, Burns and Novick, the film’s co-producer and director, have fashioned an in-depth look at the writer who was a literary star by his late 20s, but began a slow decline less than 20 years later, one that led the man who’d come to be known as “Papa” to put a shotgun to his head in 1961, shortly before his 62nd birthday.

It’s a portrait that juxtaposes his triumphs as a writer and his undoubted physical courage — he was famously wounded while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I and then became a correspondent on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War and World War II — with less appealing aspects of his personal life. He was married four times and could be emotionally abusive to his last two wives in particular; he became estranged from one of his sons; and some of his fiction and personal letters revealed racist and anti-Semitic content.

Hemingway could also show bursts of terrible anger. In 1944, while pursuing his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, who was married at the time, Hemingway took a photo of her absent husband, threw it in the toilet of the Paris hotel room he and Welsh were staying in, and fired a machine pistol into the toilet, blowing the porcelain to smithereens and flooding the hotel’s hallway.

“You don’t want to sensationalize anything, but you also don’t want to shy away from trying to make a complete picture” of Hemingway, said Novick during a recent phone call from her home in upstate New York. “There’s so much focus on his public life and image that it really invites a kind of detective work” about his personal life.

Telling his personal life

Novick says Hemingway became a prisoner to some extent of his own legend, sometimes fabricating tales about his derring-do, like the one that he personally liberated the Ritz Hotel in Paris from the Nazis in August 1944 while serving as a war correspondent. Actually, the Germans had already left.

Speaking from his studio in New Hampshire, Burns recalled that years ago he’d scribbled down a short list of topics he might explore following his landmark series on the U.S. Civil War in 1990; baseball was one topic and Hemingway was another. A project on the writer got pushed aside for various reasons, he said, but Novick, who worked with him on his 10-part series on the Vietnam War in 2017, encouraged him to get back to the writer.

Burns, a 1975 Hampshire College graduate, says he’s glad he did. Hemingway, he said, “is like an iceberg. There’s only a small part you really see. We know he liked to fish and hunt and drink and brawl, but there’s so much more below the surface. The celebrity profile can mask both the real person and his great ability as a writer.”

Burns notes that he’d read a number of Hemingway’s novels and short stories in the past but that taking on the new film revealed to him what he calls “the humiliation of what you don’t know. There was a lot to learn about him, a real voyage of discovery.”

What really stands out is “how revolutionary his writing was,” Burns said. “This was the era of modernists like James Joyce and William Faulkner, in all their complexity, and [Hemingway] takes fiction in a completely different direction.”

As one of the interviewees in the film, the writer Tobias Wolff, puts it, “It’s like he changed all the furniture in the room … we all have to sit in it.”

The Irish novelist and short-story writer Edna O’Brien, now 90, is also a fan, in part because of what she says was Hemingway’s ability, despite his hyper-masculinity, to see things from a female perspective. Speaking about his acclaimed novel “A Farewell to Arms,” she says parts of the book “could have been written by a woman. Now, I regard that as a compliment … because it’s the androgyny in a man or a woman that allows them, even if briefly, to put themselves into the skin of the other.”

In the 1929 novel, set during the Italian campaign in World War I, O’Brien says Hemingway writes convincingly about “the boy’s stuff, the man’s stuff, the horror of war. But when people put the book down, what will they remember? They’ll remember a woman dying in childbirth.”

A conflicted man

Though Hemingway’s been the subject of a number of biographies, Burns and Novick suggest many viewers of the new film might not be familiar with the dark history of his family. Four members of that family, including his father, eventually committed suicide, and Hemingway had a difficult relationship with his mother; he later said that he hated her, and the two became estranged.

Born outside of Chicago in 1899, Hemingway as a young boy was sometimes dressed as a girl by his mother so he could be a “twin” to his sister, and years later he would explore elements of that gender fluidity with Welsh, his fourth wife, sometimes wearing women’s clothes with her in private, while she cropped her hair short (as did two of Hemingway’s other wives). Hemingway and Welsh also gave each other opposite-sex names.

“I think his sexuality was somewhat complicated and evolving,” said Burns.

Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, became an intermittent cross-dresser as a teen and young man; he also began sex reassignment surgery in the 1990s and sometimes used the name Gloria before dying in 2001 at age 69.

Another revelation in the film is the number of serious head injuries Hemingway suffered in the 1940s and early 1950s from car crashes, losing his footing, having a skylight fall on him, and most famously from two back-to-back small plane crashes in Africa; newspapers around the world reported he and Mary had died after the first one.

Literary scholar Susan Beegel provides a light moment in the documentary when, speaking of Hemingway’s larger-than-life presence, she says “Who else gets in two plane crashes in two days in Africa, has the word go out all over the world that he’s dead, and reads his own obituaries?”


But Burns and Novick posit that the cumulative effect of all these injuries, coupled with Hemingway’s heavy drinking, led to serious problems for the writer in his last decade — depression, paranoia, headaches, hallucinations, blurred vision, an increasing case of writer’s block — and likely exacerbated a certain mania he already had. He underwent electroshock therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in an unsuccessful attempt to cure his depression.

“I was really struck by how rapidly he seemed to age,” said Novick, who first became interested in Hemingway after visiting his home in Cuba, known as Finca Vigía. “At 40 or even 45 he pretty much looks his age, but by 50 he looks like he could be 70.”

Yet Hemingway could rally on occasion. After publishing his 1950 novel “Across the River and Into the Trees” to the worst reviews of his career, he won a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize a few years later for “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway said health problems would prevent him from speaking at the Nobel Prize award ceremony, but he did send a short speech to be read that served as an eloquent summary of his writing philosophy and his clipped prose style.

The writer and photographer Michael Katakis, who’s also the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, says Hemingway’s work endures because of its universality. “He keeps speaking to us because his writing is basically human, with all that we are — the dark, the light, the passionate, the petty, the ugly, the beautiful, the kind, the cruel … and I think he was able to do it because he so loved the world.”

Jeff Daniels voices Hemingway in the new documentary, reading from his books and letters, and Patricia Clarkson, Mary-Louise Parker, Keri Russell and Meryl Streep handle voice-overs of his four wives. The late U.S. Sen. John McCain gives one of his last interviews in the film, talking about his love for Hemingway’s 1940 novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The film also includes plenty of archival footage and photographs.

It’s just one of several documentaries Burns has been working on. A film on Muhammad Ali screens this fall, and another, on the U.S. response to the Holocaust during WWII, is scheduled for 2023. Making those films has been a challenge during the pandemic, he said, with members of the production team forced to work separately and some interviews and archive searches difficult or impossible to do.

“We’re all looking forward to the point when we can get back to working together,” he said. And if the pandemic cooperates and the stars align, perhaps he can offer a special screening of “Ali” at Hampshire in the fall. “That would be great,” he said.

For more information about “Hemingway,” including film trailers and profiles of the filmmakers, visit pbs.org/kenburns/hemingway/.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.