What Hemingway left in Sloppy Joe's Bar 80 Years Ago

Part of the most significant cache of Hemingway materials uncovered in 60 years are in a new archive recently opened to scholars and the public at Penn State University

By Robert K. Elder

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Published: Wed 28 Sep 2022, 11:08 PM

Last updated: Wed 28 Sep 2022, 11:33 PM

In an untitled, three-page short story, Ernest Hemingway casts F. Scott Fitzgerald as a scrappy boxer who leaves the ring battered and disfigured but ultimately victorious.

He sketches out a novel he’ll never write, “A New Slain Knight,” calling it a “picaresque novel for America” that will follow his protagonist through a prison escape, a bank robbery and noirish double-crosses.

Wearing his American Red Cross uniform and smiling at the camera, an 18-year-old Hemingway huddles in a trench with Italian soldiers during World War I, just days before he was wounded by a mortar shell and machine-gun fire, an experience that inspired him to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

And in a notebook entry from 1926, there is a three-page meditation on death and suicide — 35 years before he took his own life.

The items, part of the most significant cache of Hemingway materials uncovered in 60 years, are in a new archive recently opened to scholars and the public at Penn State University. Called the Toby and Betty Bruce Collection of Ernest Hemingway, the material includes four unpublished short stories, drafts of manuscripts, hundreds of photographs, bundles of correspondence and boxes of personal effects that experts say are bound to reshape public and scholarly perception of an artist whose life and work defined an era.

Carl Eby, the president of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and Society, said he was “truly floored” by the bounty of material from an artist best known for the taut, understated writing of works like “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” dispatches from World War II and the Spanish Civil War and his larger-than-life persona as a hard-drinking, hardworking outdoorsman.

“Hemingway reinvented modern American prose and the short story. His best work is deeply moving and rich in meaning and psychological complexity,” Eby, who is a professor of English at Appalachian State University, said. “He seemed to live on an epic scale, in fascinating times, in fascinating places, and because he was mythologised during his own lifetime, his public image to this day — for better or worse — retains all the allure and power of the mythic. There’s enough new material here to generate new biographical and interpretive insights for years to come.”

For years, most Hemingway scholars could only salivate about the Bruce collection, uncertain of its exact contents or even location. What they did know was that in 1939, after his second marriage crumbled, Hemingway, a notorious pack rat, left his belongings in the storeroom of Sloppy Joe’s Bar, his favourite watering hole in Key West, Florida. He never returned to collect them.

After Hemingway’s death, his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, went through the material, packed up what she wanted, and gave the rest to longtime friends, Betty and Telly Otto Bruce, known to his friends as Toby. Toby Bruce was part of Hemingway’s inner circle for years, not only as his right-hand man, but also as his contractor, mechanic and sometime chauffeur.

The trove of materials spent decades uncatalogued in cardboard boxes and ammo storage containers, surviving hurricanes and floods. Years ago, Betty and Toby’s son, Benjamin Bruce (known as Dink) and a local historian, Brewster Chamberlin, began creating an inventory of the haul in consultation with Hemingway scholar Sandra Spanier. It was here, amid bullfighting tickets, checks, newspaper clippings and letters from his lawyer, family members and friends like writer John Dos Passos and artists Joan Miró and Waldo Peirce, that they discovered a stained brown notebook. Inside was Hemingway’s first known short story, about a fictional trip to Ireland, written when he was 10 years old.

When that find was revealed in 2017, Dink Bruce told The New York Times that he hoped his family’s collection would find a permanent archival home. Spanier, the general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project and an English professor at Penn State, thought so too. For the next five years, she worked to bring the archive to the university, which purchased it in October 2021 for an undisclosed sum.

“I did have a sense of responsibility to make this happen, both as someone who had incredible affection and respect for Dink and Brewster, but also as a scholar,” Spanier said. “This is a gold mine for a scholar.”

The archive spans Hemingway’s life and even stretches past his death. In one box, labeled “Ernest’s baby treasures” in his mother’s handwriting, is a lock of his hair, his leather baby bootees and the head of his favourite toy, “Doggie,” which he slept with until age 6 1/2. In another folder, a telegram asks Toby Bruce to be a pallbearer at the author’s funeral. There is also Hemingway’s American Red Cross uniform — the one he wasn’t wearing when wounded — which rests in a box meant for a wedding dress.

“In terms of just being a fan, it gives me chills to touch his WWI uniform or to page through his letters,” Spanier said. “Just to touch the paper, there’s an electric connection that you get there personally, as well as intellectually as a scholar.”

In one newly discovered letter from the summer of 1945, Hemingway writes to Bruce about his son Jack, nicknamed Bumby, who had recently been released from a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.

“He is in o.k. shape. The wounds were plenty bad. One in the shoulder you could put your fist into. Another through fore-arm and another through shoulder,” Hemingway wrote. “He had six months of nothing but soup and a hell of a time all around.”

The most haunting piece of the archive comes from a notebook dated March 6, 1926.

“When I feel low I like to think about death and the various ways of dying and I think probably the best way, unless you could arrange to die some way while asleep, would be to go off a liner at night,” wrote Hemingway, then 26 and just seven months away from publishing his blockbuster novel “The Sun Also Rises.” While scholar Carlos Baker quoted this section in his 1969 biography, “Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story,” the notebook itself was hidden away for years. What Baker didn’t include in his book is just as revealing.

Hemingway, in his tight penmanship, explores various means of death for three pages, writing: “For so many years I was afraid of death and it is very comfortable to be without that fear. Of course it may return again at any time.”

All of it is tempered, perhaps, by a pencil notation that Hemingway wrote later: “This is [expletive].”

Hemingway wrote these passages two years before his father killed himself, suggesting that the author’s own suicidal ideation started earlier and was perhaps deeper than scholars previously knew. In 1961, the Pulitzer- and Nobel-Prize-winning writer killed himself with a shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, just weeks before his 62nd birthday.

The collection isn’t all darkness.

In a series of photos from February 1936, Hemingway referees sweaty teenagers in a boxing match during a goodwill exhibition between Cubans and Americans for Key West’s “Week of Joy” commemorating Cuban independence. In another, he grins in a candid shot with fellow author Sinclair Lewis ( “Babbitt,” “Elmer Gantry”) during a chance meeting in 1940. He can be seen beaming in the negatives from his wedding to his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, on Sept. 3, 1921, in Horton Bay, Michigan.

The collection not only allows access to things Hemingway wrote and touched and wore — it also allows scholars to see through his eyes.

There are dozens of tiny, 2-by-3-inch snapshots that Hemingway took on his 1933-34 safari in British East Africa (now Kenya) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). With his Graflex camera, Hemingway captured giraffes on the African plains, a pair of wary-looking elephants in the brush and an unguarded shot of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, surveying the landscape with their guides. Hemingway chronicled the trip in a series of articles for Esquire magazine, and it served as the basis for his 1935 nonfiction book “Green Hills of Africa.”

“It’s a little flash of time travel. History comes alive for a minute,” Spanier says. “You can see exactly what he was experiencing on a given day.”

One of the most amusing finds is the short story about Fitzgerald as a fictional pugilist. The upstart Kid Fitz wins his match and “appeared in good condition after his gruelling battle,” Hemingway writes. “His only marks were a strangulated hernia, a missing nose and two black eyes.”

The archive is opening during a moment when Hemingway is enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance. Last year, he was the subject of a lavish, three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and Simon & Schuster has been releasing expanded library editions of his work. Hemingway continues to inspire movies, comic books, podcasts and TV shows. His last unfilmed novel, “Across the River and into the Trees,” was shot in Venice during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and stars Liev Schreiber. And Robert Zemeckis, the director of films including “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away,” has agreed to direct a limited television series based on Hemingway’s life that is being shopped to studios and streamers.

While future scholars will mine the archive to discover secrets and insights, even a cursory review of the materials is impressive. Spanier, the Hemingway scholar at Penn State, said the process of annotating and dating items “has been just like an Easter egg hunt.”

There’s a check for $10 to Arnold Gingrich, the co-founder of Esquire magazine, to settle a boxing bet. Hemingway’s entire fishing log from 1934-35 — which includes what he was doing, what he saw, and who he was with — is here, too. The archive includes two partial typescripts for his 1932 non-fiction work about bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon.” In an excised passage, Hemingway imagines a reader who questions if it’s appropriate to write about an amusement like bullfighting with the threat of civil war in Spain, when other writers were turning their attention to politics.

It’s all enough to keep scholars and the Hemingway-fascinated busy for decades.

“It fleshes out his genius as an artist, but also his everyday life,” Spanier said. “Usually, he’s a one-dimensional character in pop culture, but this archive adds a depth and nuance and complexity to our knowledge of Hemingway, so he’s not such a cartoon character. The artifacts all illuminate each other. Every object tells a story.”

– 01This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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