Hemingway's letters to Dietrich archived

BY Advocate.com Editors

April 09 2003 12:00 AM ET

Thirty letters written by author Ernest Hemingway--who was known to battle his own gay impulses--to screen siren Marlene Dietrich--who, as a practicing bisexual, generally gave in to hers--along with several early drafts of his stories and poems have been donated to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the library announced on Monday. Deborah Leff, director of the library, located in Boston, called the donation a "rich addition" to the center, which is already home to 95% of Hemingway's manuscripts and correspondence. Library staff acknowledged that they had only learned of the documents' existence within the past few years. "Here are two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century--one of the great American writers and one of the great actresses, both of them larger than life--and shared among them are these extraordinary, intimate, and loving letters," Leff told Reuters.

The documents, which were given to the library by Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, will be made public in 2007. Riva has kept them since her mother died in Paris in 1992. Peter Riva, Maria's son, has seen the letters and said they depict a relationship of sincere "camaraderie" that was more than friendship but fell short of an all-out physical romance. "You read these letters and you come to understand that theirs was a relationship of firm, fast friendship based on an experience of the world they lived in," he said. "They could bare their souls in a way that was unusual then and probably still is today."

Riva, a literary agent based in New York State, said his grandmother and the Nobel and Pulitzer prize- winning author never escalated their relationship to the height of physical love, but they nonetheless felt great passion for one another. "Marlene was this firm, independent, capable human being who just happened to be a beautiful woman, [and] Hemingway brought to the table the ability to celebrate and understand women in a way that she thought was the right way," he said. "He knew how women ticked."

Hemingway once said about Dietrich: "If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart, if she is there to mend it." Born in 1901, Dietrich became the quintessential blond bombshell. She struggled through the roaring 1920s in local theaters as a singer and small-time actress before her breakthrough as a vamp in the movie The Blue Angel in 1930.

Hemingway became the second-most-translated author in English after Agatha Christie with masterpieces such as The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea, which led to a Nobel Prize in the early 1950s. Like his characters who exhibited grace under fire, he gained a reputation for drinking and womanizing (he married four times) and became a larger-than-life expatriate on the front lines of battlefields and bullfighting rings. He committed suicide at age 61.

The donation comprises 30 letters, cards, and other documents that both Hemingway and his wife, Mary, wrote to Dietrich from 1949 to 1959. They were mailed from Idaho, Kenya, Italy, and other disparate postmarks. Apart from the correspondence, the donation also includes drafts of three Hemingway stories--"Across the River and Into the Trees," "The Good Lion," and "The Story of the Faithful Bull"--and two Hemingway poems, "First Poem to Mary in London" and "Poem to Mary." Peter Riva said it is believed that the other half of the correspondence--Dietrich's letters to Hemingway--may still be in Cuba, where the author lived for several years. An effort is under way to bring more of the author's property back to the United States from the communist Caribbean island nation.

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