Vast archives at JFK Library help bring 'Hemingway' to life

Full Screen
1 / 5

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

In this July 1934 photo provided by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation from the Ernest Hemingway Collection, Ernest Hemingway poses with a marlin at Havana Harbor, in Key West, Fla. A new three-part documentary about Hemingway, which relied heavily on the archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, debuts April 5, 2021, on PBS. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston via AP)

BOSTON – A new documentary on Ernest Hemingway — powered by vast but little-known archives kept at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston — is shedding new light on the acclaimed novelist.

“Hemingway,” by longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premiering on PBS on three consecutive nights starting April 5, takes a more nuanced look at the author and his longstanding reputation as an alcoholic, adventurer, outdoorsman and bullfight-loving misogynist who struggled with internal turmoil that eventually led to his death by suicide at age 61.

The truth about the man many consider America’s greatest 20th-century novelist — whose concise writing style made him an outsized celebrity who became a symbol of unrepentant American masculinity — is much more complex, Novick said.

“We hope this film opens up opportunities to look at Hemingway in different ways,” said Novick, who has co-created several other documentaries with Burns including “The Vietnam War” and “Prohibition.” “There is a complexity beneath the surface.”

That complexity would have been nearly impossible to detail without the largest-in-the-world Hemingway collection that ended up at the JFK Library, thanks to Hemingway's and Kennedy's widows.

Although the two men never met, they admired each other and corresponded briefly. Hemingway was even invited to Kennedy’s inauguration but couldn’t make it because of illness, said Hilary Justice, the Hemingway scholar in residence at the library.

When Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, was figuring out what to do with her late husband’s effects, she asked Jackie Kennedy if they could be housed at the JFK Library.

The archives contain Hemingway’s manuscripts — including “The Sun Also Rises" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls” — personal correspondence and about 11,000 photographs.