Commentary

Ken Burns: Idaho house was both ‘wonderful place,’ ‘final prison’ for Hemingway

New documentary details life of author who sought nature, refuge in Sun Valley area during his final years

April 5, 2021 4:20 am
Author Ernest Hemingway is buried in Ketchum, Idaho.

Author Ernest Hemingway, whose story is told by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in a three-part series on Idaho Public Television, made his final home in Idaho. He is buried in Ketchum and loved the great outdoors. (Courtesy of PBS)

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary series for PBS features one of America’s most famous authors, Ernest Hemingway. The film ‘Hemingway” is divided into three chapters and covers Hemingway’s early days as a boy in Michigan, to young adulthood carving out a journalism career before becoming America’s most famous and world-traveled, modern 20th century author.

Burns and his producing and directing partner, Lynn Novick, also worked with writer Geoffrey C. Ward and producer Sarah Botstein. The three-part film features input from several literary scholars including Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Marc Dudley, Abraham Verghese, and Leonardo Padura. Their spirited commentary is a no holds barred fascinating conversation of what written works of Hemingway’s spoke to them creatively, and others that were not as well received.

In “Hemingway,” a handful of notable actors lend their voices to the film. Jeff Daniels speaks as Hemingway. Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Patricia Clarkson voice Hemingway’s four wives. Actor Peter Coyote expertly narrates the film.

In this film, Burns and Novick utilize the author’s personal letters, photographs, and other writings to give the viewers ample space to decide on how they feel about Hemingway’s actions in his life. Burns notes that the dramas and the controversies aside, Hemingway’s writing stands like a rock in the test of time.

He takes us all the way through Hemingway’s incredible war experiences where his serious head concussions and injuries mounted over time, then through Europe, Africa, Cuba and ultimately to his final destination: his breathtaking Ketchum, Idaho, home.

There in Idaho, Hemingway lived out his final years, as his health waned and his drinking deepened his depression. Not confirming if it was bipolar disease, the filmmakers note that the stigma of his mental illness kept everyone quiet and the writer from getting any real help, worsening his propensity to self-medicate with alcohol and pills. In 1961, Hemingway took his own life at age 61 with a shotgun inside of his home in Idaho.

TUNE IN

The three-part documentary “Hemingway” begins Monday, April 5 on PBS. Check local listings or check Idaho Public Television’s broadcast schedule here.

The first of the series’ three parts is scheduled to premiere on PBS on Monday, April 5. Ahead of the televised PBS event, there were nine scheduled conversations about Hemingway, with Idaho Public Television hosting one of them.

Idaho PBS produced “Hemingway and the Natural World“; the virtual event featured Ken Burns, producer Sarah Botstein, author Terry Tempest Williams and Jenny Emery Davidson, executive director of The Community Library in Ketchum.

In Burns and Novick’s exhaustive, intimate film, the mythology is stripped down and the human side of the writer, warts and all, is explored. Burns presents a truer picture of who Ernest Hemingway was and the linear events in his life that shaped him.

Undoubtedly, he was the epitome of what a 20th century “man’s man” was to the observer. He was a gun-loving hunter, he adored the seduction game and married four women, he was hard drinking and deeply in tune with the natural world. Hemingway was a myriad of contradictions and temperaments. He was also a clever self promoter who deftly bent the truth to his will — some say he lied very well — when it suited him.

Hemingway was loyal to a fault and stood by his loved ones when they truly needed him, and he did soften his macho veneer over time. Once a gung-ho trophy hunter with numerous kills of exotic animals in Africa, he came around later in his life. His last trip there he spent getting to know and understand the people, and appreciated and photographed the vibrant life of the continent without a gun cocked in his hand.

His life appeared always glamorous and in motion, yet it was filled with unimaginable family tragedies. His father, Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway and his mother Grace (Hall) Hemingway were chalk and cheese when it came to their personalities.

His father gave him the knowledge and appreciation of nature, while his mother was an opera singer with failing eyesight and narcissistic nature created a divisive rift between her and her son, Ernest.  His beloved father had always encouraged him to learn to hunt, fish and to be curious about the outdoors.

Unfortunately, suicide ran through the Hemingway family tree. In 1928, Hemingway’s father killed himself. His siblings, Ursula and Leicester, the latter child who had found his father’s body, all killed themselves. And years after his death, Ernest’s granddaughter Margaux Hemingway would kill herself in 1996.

Hemingway’s career begins before age 20

And at the age of 17, Ernest Hemingway began writing for The Kansas City Star. Soon after, at age 18, he was sent to Italy in World War I as an ambulance driver. This detail is significant as the horrors of war left a mark on his psyche. The use of archival news reels, ephemera and photographs mostly sourced from The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston give this documentary a strong historical backbone to continue fleshing out the zigzagging trajectory of his life.

Hemingway built a cadre of famous friends that included notable writers and artists. In his prime, he was assigned to live in Paris writing and filing news stories for the Toronto Star newspaper. There, he basked in the lofty company of Gertrude Stein, and met and befriended Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. His friendship with Stein went south yet his exploits in Europe continued. Author J.D. Salinger became an admired writer and friend. However, the sharp side of critique came to Hemingway when his work suffered later in his life, notably the crushing reviews for the 1950 novel, “Across The River And Through The Trees,” which was excoriated by nearly everyone who had a platform to share their opinion.

Hemingway was a fickle man when it came to fidelity in marriage, except for his last union with Mary Welsh Hemingway. She was a noted journalist in her own right until their marriage demanded more of her caretaking to Hemingway. He often pushed her to her limits with shameless flirtations with the young Italian aristocrat, Adriana Ivancich. Mary Hemingway remained in Idaho after his suicide in 1961 for several decades.

The one impression Burns and Novick’s film leaves with the viewer was that Hemingway was a keen and thoughtful observer his entire life, a man who loved being in the natural world which seemed a comfort to him.

His “overdrinking” flaws aside, he had high emotional intelligence and understood human beings and the fragility of human mortality. His lust for life lead to all corners of the globe, and his storytelling and writers’ discipline for his work honed in the newsroom served him well.

Hemingway penned spare prose that called upon those vivid 20th century adventures he had racked up to fill the pages of his short stories and longer novels. His “iceberg” style of writing looked effortless, but in reality he was masterful at relaying a great deal of narrative without excessive descriptors. Not since Mark Twain had an American writer made such an impact on the entire world.

Eventual mental health decline

This film cuts hard at times, and shares documented and shockingly intimate moments from the life of the real man behind the mythological man of the world. Portrayed in the media at the time as a strapping man gunned up for adventure, Hemingway privately flirted with gender fluidity, role playing and androgyny. Many deeply personal anecdotes are recalled and revisited about Hemingway’s nature, sexual desires and overall character with those he loved.

He was generous and loyal and yet he also had disturbing recorded moments of career jealousy and pettiness and even some unsavory racially charged remarks. The last of the three films shows Hemingway’s mental decline in unvarnished and painfully observed and recalled moments.

Notably an exchange that Hemingway has with his publisher over a request to share a foreword remark for the novel, “From Here to Eternity.” Hemingway’s response is curt and racially insulting, expressing his hopes that the author, James Jones, might kill himself out of shame.

Hemingway’s global reach as an artist was incredible for the times, before social media or digitally instantaneous news feeds. His exploits were documented and his unapologetic approach to life was fascinating to many and off-putting for some.

He loved his wooded boyhood homes in Michigan and Illinois, and southern Florida and the Keys and ultimately pre-revolution Cuba where his home is still preserved.

If not for a 1939 invitation from Sun Valley Ski Resort — which he took advantage of — who knows if Hemingway would have made Idaho his final home.

And so the Idaho house was both a wonderful place, but also the kind of sense of the final prison.

– Ken Burns

America’s mountainous and river-filled wilderness state became a siren for Hemingway once Cuba became too politically dicey to remain. Unquestionably, he adored the scenic world around his Big Wood River home where he lived until his death.

The Ernest Hemingway House in Ketchum was cared for 30 years by The Nature Conservancy. In 2017, the organization gifted the home to The Community Library. Hemingway’s remains lay in the Ketchum Cemetery.

Exclusive Idaho Capital Sun interview with Ken Burns

You really showed such facets of Hemingway that were lesser known, if at all…

Ken Burns: It has been interesting that since the beginning of my professional life, I’ve chosen subjects that people have, they believe, a kind of familiarity with whatever it might be. The Civil War, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, or national parks… the way we tell the stories is trying to say there’s much more to this than you think.

And more importantly, than we think because too often documentaries are the expression of an already arrived-at end. This is what you should know about so-and-so. The last time I checked this was homework, we would rather share with you a process of discovery.

This means that at the very beginning of the project, when we say yes wholeheartedly to it, we set our baggage — whatever it is — whatever preconceptions we might’ve had [aside].

I don’t even remember because it was eight years ago that we said, yes, and we began in 2014, to try to tell a complicated portrait. It’s true of every film we’ve done. And we hold people’s feet to the fire for failings, but we also want to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

And so you’ve got with Ernest Hemingway, this oversized public mask, in the common vernacular, toxic masculinity, that is really wearisome. It must have been exhausting. It was exhausting for him as Mary Karr, the writer, says in our film.

But what you find by triangulating the commentaries of people, the biography of his life, the great writing, and, and then the backstage letters that aren’t as polished as the writing, but reveal the moods.

You begin to see that that edifice was constructed, I think in part, to hide the vulnerability and the sensitivity and the anxiety and the insecurity and the empathy for others.

In some short stories, as we discussed in the film, he’s, in a way, criticizing his own boorish behavior or the boorish behavior of men, he recognizes, that are like him in [in his short story] “Up In Michigan,” which is just an explosive story.

Gertrude Stein thought it was too obscene to print a hundred years ago! Gertrude Stein, no slouch for shocking, didn’t want it. Which is about date rape, or “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of his great masterpiece short stories, a guy tried to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion without the word abortion, by saying, ‘it’s up to you, you decide,’ but he’s of course imposing, as every woman on the planet knows that. And every man has, has probably at some point, kind of imposed that kind of, ‘Oh, this would be equal, but I’m deciding …’ It’s going to trick you into saying ‘yes.’ And it’s amazing. I think that God bless Edna O’Brien for insisting that she read these and talk about these and parse this and many other things and to underscore that androgyny and his ability to get under the skin as she said of, of other people.

Regarding your experts, the literary scholars and writers, which of these people that you called upon for this project? Who educated you the most with their analysis of his written records?

Ken Burns: Well, everybody was so, so helpful and I don’t want to pick favorites, but I think it’s really obvious that Edna O’Brien really had an agenda coming in when did the interview in London. She basically said, ‘Here, I’m going to go talk about this and this. And you’re going to sit and listen!’

So when she wanted to read, she talks about what she wanted to talk about, and ended up providing the film an incredible context. We are unafraid in the film of having these great novels not liked by people. I mean, Mario Vargas Llosa laughs at what he thinks is the pitifully embarrassing aspects of the lovemaking, the earth moving in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And Edna doesn’t like “Old Man And The Sea,” which Llosa thinks is one of the great novels of all time. Right? So that’s OK.

And thankfully PBS gives us the time to do it, giving us no commercials to interrupt it and also providing us the place in which we can do a deep dive and treat our audience with intelligence and know that if Edna doesn’t like “Old Man and the Sea,” we’re not saying that story is bad. Right?

But if Edna says that she loves “A Farewell to Arms” and cries at it. Then you can love it too, and cry at it. And this same with all of that.

I think in a way, Edna is the superstar of it, but I was just writing a note to Stephen Cushman, the literary scholar, who helped us understand how much Hemingway stood out in the modernist era, where everything was complicated. Stravinsky was complicated. Joyce and Faulkner were complicated, but this kid isn’t complicated, but Stephen Cushman said he dared to impersonate simplicity.

In the film, you talked about the burden of his persona. There was no social media then. He didn’t have a publicist helping him craft this mythological macho persona. It was his exploits picked up by the media at the time, and they fueled it…

Ken Burns: He learned how to lie pretty quickly. And that’s what it’s about. Then, of course, it becomes your own kind of Frankenstein monster that you can’t control.

In some ways I described it yesterday to someone, at the end of episode one, John Dos Passos calls him the king of the fiction racket. And so there’s the King in his castle at the beginning of episode two, but he builds a moat around it and the moat keeps people out.  But it also keeps him from getting out.

And so, as the New Republic quote in the early episode two says that having bagged all these other things, he may have bagged and even bigger trophy, himself.

You delve into his personal sexual life with Mary and the whole androgyny thing. I knew about his son but I didn’t really realize the extent that it played in his own personal life. And yet he rejected his son initially …

Ken Burns: Let’s not say sexuality. Let’s just say gender fluidity, because it’s a term that we understand today and people can grasp. He is curious about those lines. And from the very beginning, he’s having Hadley, his first of four wives, as well as Mary, his fourth and four wives … he wants them to cut their hair short and him to grow long. And for them to be his boys and, and vice versa.

That’s pretty interesting for this guy who’s creating this macho thing. With regard to Gregory, it’s a much more complicated thing if he said: This guy has the biggest secret of all of us.

And then when it mushrooms into a huge problem, it cascades into tragedy, because of course, when he’s arrested, he and Pauline, his second wife and the mother of Gregory, get into a huge fight and she has an undiagnosed condition and the tumor ruptures, and has an aneurysm and dies.

So there’s great acrimony between them. Ernest is dismissive and Gregory is irate, but they repair.

And I think that whole sequence in that third episode is interesting for the sense of blood being so strong for him. I mean, he could be in love, but he couldn’t maintain it. He always was blowing up the marriages. He wanted a family, but he was a writer. So he’s off doing things he’s away or he’s locked away writing, or he’s this wonderful dad in the afternoon as Patrick and all the other boys attest in home movies.  So I think that there it’s a really complicated stuff. It’s never one thing or the other, it’s really always neither. And both.

I remember in our “Jazz” series, Wynton Marsalis said, ‘sometimes the thing and the opposite of the thing are true at the same time,’ and that’s sort of making short circuit, but that’s the only way to do it. It’s like the little neon sign I have in the editing room, which says in lowercase, cursive, it says “it’s complicated.” And it means that film makers are so used to saying, ‘Oh, that scene works. Let’s not touch it,’ for the film.

And we go, ‘no, we’re obligated to unlock it and maybe make it less of a scene because of this complication, because of the undertone, because of the contradictions inherent in this human being or this event or this moment.’

That is what our work has been about, from Brooklyn Bridge in the late ’70s, early ’80s. It’s just about, it’s not doing the hagiography and certainly not doing this complete revision.

I made films on Thomas Jefferson, right? We never let him go for the hypocrisy of not freeing slaves when he is distilling a century of enlightenment thinking into one remarkable sentence that begins, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …’ The biggest oops in American history, it seems to me.

You showed that Hemingway had the capacity to evolve his thinking, when he went to Africa the second time, not to kill but to capture life on camera, to appreciate it. And then to your point, making peace with his son Gregory and being by Patrick’s bedside and not leaving, nursing his middle child through that illness. He was a very loyal person.

Ken Burns: And what a contradiction as he sheds wives, when I think it’s that he’s expecting them to be wholly owned subsidiaries of him and that, and then when that happens or when it happens, he’s unsatisfied and he moves on. When it doesn’t happen with Martha Gellhorn, he’s really unsatisfied.

She unnerves him. She is not going to do that. And when he realizes that he loves it at the beginning, he’s attracted to it. He’s supportive of her talent. He then is jealous. I think in some ways after deciding, hiding correctly, not to go to World War II, he then goes, I think, worried that she’s going to upstage him and replace him, if you will.

And that within the dynamics of the marriage and the dynamics of his reputation in the world is something he can’t put up with.

So what happens when he does go, [and] despite the fact that she scoops him on D-Day? Is that he gets the lead article for Colliers. He is the main writer for Colliers, but more importantly, he then gets there and he’s not a journalist, he’s [acting as] a soldier and he fights.

He sees more bad stuff like he did in Italy when he was an 18-year-old teenager. He comes back and the work he does is terrible, because he was a combatant, not a dispassionate journalist writer. It is endlessly interesting the ways in which he both serves himself and the way he failed himself miserably.

Was it the bipolar disease and mania that he had?

Ken Burns: We can’t make a diagnosis. You know, people suggest in the film, they say mania, there’s, suggestion of bipolar [disorder], we just don’t know.

He inherits mental illness, which certainly is a history of depression and suicide and psychotic behaviors. He’s got PTSD. He’s jilted by his first love. It’s got a very complicated relationship, not only with the father who kills himself, but the mother who he is most alike and they have a falling out and it’s never really repaired.

And then he has nine chronic head injuries, any one of which, and certainly the combination could also produce the kind of depression, mania, and psychosis and suicidal actions that would lead to his death.

And on top of that — but wait, there’s more — I sound like a late night commercial [laughs]. He’s an alcoholic and he’s self-medicating, so you’ve got the four horsemen of the apocalypse chasing him down.

You don’t say this one for sure did it, or it was that version of his mental illness. The problem is, people say, what do you want for the film?

And I just kind of go, what do you mean? We’re just trying to tell a story. If you want to tell a good story, you want people to say exactly what you said. I didn’t know. I thought I knew, and I learned a lot of new stuff.

But the other thing is you want people to read, go read, Hemingway, go read other people. It’s great.

But if there’s a real, meat and potato answer to that, it’s, don’t drink too much. Don’t become an alcoholic, and do not feel that there’s a stigma attached to mental health.

The stigma around Hemingway himself and his wife and his closest friends prevented him from getting the help that might’ve saved his life.

And also Lynn [Novick] said yesterday, the other day, we were just talking with someone and she said, and the availability of guns.

This is a completely American phenomenon. You’re feeling super bad in the middle of the night. You get up and you know exactly where a 12 gauge shotgun is and you go and you use it as your implement of escape.

In my research and reading and watching all of the snippets and listening to you at the Television Critics Association meetings and watching the film, Idaho was a happy accident for him.

Ken Burns: He loves the Mountain West. He loves hunting there. He loves the Mountain West. He’s an outdoorsman. He is a great observer of nature. I mean, all that stuff, the big game hunter and the deep sea fishermen, the love of nature. And he wrote about nature really well.

He wrote about human nature, particularly the way men and women interact, get along or don’t get along. And of course, about war.

But yes, I think when he walked out of Cuba and then suddenly realized, ‘Oh, I can’t go back.’

And when you go to Cuba, everything’s there. The booze is still in the bottles. The records are on the record turntable. The pencil scribble marks of his weight are next to the scale in the bathroom. I mean, he just walked out of there fully intending to come back.

The trophies are on the wall and intention; it’s a different kind of thing. And I think by that time, the mental illness or whatever had begun to close in on him. And so the Idaho house was both a wonderful place, but also the kind of sense of the final prison.

The Idaho house did have a lot of keepsakes from his whole life. It really was a repository of his life.  I feel like he would have never gone to Idaho if he hadn’t been invited in 1939 by Sun Valley Resort.  It was just fate for him to find Ketchum.

Ken Burns: Oh, you had shared with me your New England roots. I’ve lived in this house that I am pacing in for 42 years. Right. And I love it, but every year, if there’s not a pandemic going on, I go to Telluride, Colorado, and spend two weeks there, hiking and participating in the film festival, being there with my family.

Yes. It’s, I think he fell in love with that, the mystery and the kind of, there’s vividness to that Alpine experience. I’ve always been in Telluride and said, ‘Oh, it is anywhere in the Mountain West. It’s like a Hollywood backdrop.’ You can’t believe it’s real.

The air is so thin and everything is so clear and crisp that they must just fold this up at night, and I think Hemingway who loved nature and got that from his father. And you could see that extraordinary observational abilities, particularly in the early stories, but throughout the novel about how things are in nature.

And I think that Sun Valley was the final resting place. Here was the exit ramp and he could go, I don’t think he moved there ever contemplating suicide. Though suicide was on his mind. I imagine almost all the time, given his father, given other family members, and given his own ideation.

There will be a number accompanying the broadcast of the film, the national suicide prevention hotline.

NEED HELP?

There are many ways to connect with trained responders at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-8255, text 208-398-4357 or go to idahosuicideprevention.org to chat online with a responder.

And that’s very important. Being a drinker doesn’t make you a great writer. Not all great writers are drinkers. Alcohol sometimes is part of it, but it doesn’t help the writing, and mental illness is common often to great writers and great artists. And that can be treated as well without taking away from the art.

I hope you come to Idaho.

Ken Burns: I’ve been talking about going and I’ve been to Idaho many times, but just not to Boise and the stuff I did go for “Lewis and Clark” filming of course, cutting across top the panhandle and dismounts from Yellowstone to Salt Lake City.

Spent a lot of time in Pocatello. We did a virtual PBS in-person a few weeks ago in Boise, and that was wonderful. But I really just want to come and spend some time there, for sure.

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April Neale
April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and film and television critic. Neale is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, Television Critics' Association, The Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association and Critics' Choice Awards – Film, Documentaries, and Television. Neale has read her original work for NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously worked at industry trade Below The Line. Neale also writes for Monsters & Critics, TV Shows Ace, MSN, Cheapism, MSN Canada, Yahoo, Country Music Alley, Alliance of Women Film Journalists blog, and AOL.

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