TLS to Screenwriter Peter Viertel - 1954
A revealing and richly-packed letter filled with references to Ernest Hemingway’s equally exotic life. This letter, dated July 19, 1954 on Hemingway’s personal Finca Vigia, San Francisco De Paula, Cuba stationery, is dated just six months after Hemingway and his wife, Mary, were nearly killed in a plane crash in the elephant country of Uganda while on safari—their second plane crash in 48 hours! Hemingway suffered a ruptured kidney, a sprained arm and leg, crushed vertebrae, a paralyzed sphincter, burnt scalp and a temporary loss of hearing and eyesight. He and Mary were erroneously reported dead in many newspapers around the world. Hemingway even had the unique pleasure of reading his obituary days later, very much alive, in a cafe in Venice, Italy.
Written to his good friend, author/screenwriter Peter Viertel while Hemingway was recuperating, it reads in full (including misspellings; see below for elaboration on notable references):
Thanks very much for the letters and the telephone call. I’ve sent the dope to Rice. Paul Kohner wrote yest[erday] too and said he would get in touch with Rice after he had been with John. Had a letter from John and will write him. He didn’t say much only that he was still figuring on doing it and what was the best way.
Leland called and I said what we’d agreed; Zinnerman best; better to do Old Man later and with him; same as you said and wrote. Leland wants you to do the script. Has somebody else who has done something which will turn over to you. No dates specified. He seemed sort of cooled on Spence; maybe everybody has. It all sounded as though put-off was The Word. I think it is just as well. None of us want to do it right now and I’m not in shape yet.
What gives with Ava [Gardner] and L.M.? Riddle me that one.
Kohner said John would like to make a picture out of Death In The Afternoon. You should be getting valuable experience now to write a script for it. Don’t catch kidney stones.
Mary is fine, healthy and cheerful and happy (or was until she had to go [o]ver see her father on the last swing around with that disease Winchell wiped out). She’s had an awful time there in Gulfport and she was just getting in really fine shape. The father won’t take medecine, won’t obey doctors and wants 24 hr. nursing service from Mary. She has them both in a nursing home now. The father wouldn’t stay in the hospital. She’s due back late tomorrow night.
How’s your bursitis. I have lion fat that is supposed to be good for anything like that. Do you want me to send some. You rub it on and in but maybe it is good if you eat it too.
Everything about me is clearing up good. Have the blood pressure down to 160 over 70 and it will get further down. Kidneys functioning good. Liver same. They put me on a normal diet and said to drink according to my own judgement. Only thing is I am slow and tire easier than I should. But that is natural and I will train out of it.
Haven’t heard a thing about how Pamplona came out. You probably heard from L.M. since Antonio was fighting. Will probably get the bull papers this week.
It has been hot as hell but every place else worse. Sitting here in a hot July probably accounts for lack of pep, too. Pool wonderful and cool and have been swimming and exercising regularly. When you come down will put you in some big fish. Haven’t been out yet as the big ones are running and I didn’t want to do anything stupid with back.
Hope we can make a good deal on Across.
Excuse dull letter Pete. No news nor scandal here. Nothing but going through old check stubs and cancelled checks and looking for receipts etc. to get to Rice on Aug. 1st so he will have final gen for 1953 ultimate up or down revision on Income Tax. Paid the two first 1954 installments on July 15th. They had given me an extension on acct. of the crashes etc. Then on Aug 15 will pay whatever the 1953 adjustment is. Then on Sept. 15 can look forward to digging up another installment on 1954. I liked it better in Hurtgen or up at Laitokitok or at the shamba. Much better at the shamba; Kwenda na shamba.”
Give our love to Bettina.
This letter is full of rich references to prominent Hemingway associations: Peter Viertel wrote the screenplays for The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea; Alfred Rice was Hemingway’s tax attorney (the writer was plagued by extraordinarily onerous US income tax obligations, payments for which he alludes to later in the letter); “John” is likely either Sturges or Huston here, as both were involved with Kohner and Hemingway at the time; Paul Kohner was the most important agent in Hollywood at the time, with clients such as Ingmar Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and John Huston (who introduced Kohner to Hemingway); Leland Hayward was a powerful Hollywood agent and the producer the 1958 version of The Old Man and the Sea, which was directed by John Sturges, with Fred Zinnemann as an uncredited director; Spence[r] Tracy starred in 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea; Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, was a close friend of Hemingway, and “L.M.” refers to the famous Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, with whom Ava had a sensational affair in the early 1950s—while she was married to Frank Sinatra. Spanish matador Antonio Ordonez was Dominguín’s brother-in-law and main rival in the bullring, and of course Pamplona is famed for their annual Running of the Bulls celebration. The discussion of Hemingway’s health is notable since he was still recovering from serious injuries resulting from the plane crash, and was giving Viertel a condition update. Walter Winchell was one of America’s most prominent newspaper and radio commentators, and the disease referred to is polio (Winchell had spread rumors that the government had “a stock of little white coffins” for the children who would die as a result of their involvement in the Salk vaccine trials, which of course proved not to be the case—though he had nothing to do with its obliteration); “Across” refers to Hemingway’s novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, a book generally regarded by critics as the low-water mark of Hemingway’s career and which never saw the big screen. Hertgen is the Hertgen Forest in Germany, a World War II landmark, and Loitokitok is a small town in Kenya, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro where Hemingway spent much time. Kwenda na shamba is a reference to True at First Light, a posthumously-released safari story. The famous French model Bettina was Peter Viertel’s mistress, having abandoned his pregnant wife Jigee for her (but eventually marrying actress Deborah Kerr).
Three months after this letter was written, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and later guaranteed his renown by committing suicide in 1961.
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(NOTE: Newspaper image is only provided for historical reference to Hemingway’s plane crash.)