Corey Stoll on Ernest Hemingway’s complicity in his own myth

BOSTON – The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum sits fairly isolated on Boston Harbor. On a cold and clear December day, I.M. Pei”s architecture looks undeniably beautiful, in many ways showing the best of what can be accomplished in America. But the view of the harbor is undeniably stark, leaving one to wonder: What if the man to which it was dedicated had lived longer?

It seems only appropriate that this shrine to the most notable member of the famed yet tragic “essential American family” is also home to the largest collection of letters from the famed yet tragic “essential American author.” Once upon a time, Ernest Hemingway”s widow struck up a friendship with the 35th president and his wife when she needed permission to go to Cuba to retrieve her husband”s belongings. One thing led to another and today, there is more original archived material from and about Hemingway at the JFK Library than anywhere in the world.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Hemingway was also a prolific letter writer (around 2,500 of his letters are at the JFK Library alone). And Hemingway scholar Sandra Spanier has recently edited the first book in a 16-volume collection of them.

Hemingway was, of course, recently portrayed with great effect by actor Corey Stoll in Woody Allen”s “Midnight in Paris.” Stoll made an appearance at the Library last night with Spanier and novelist Ward Just for the most recent Kennedy Library Forum to discuss Hemingway and read several of his letters. The well-attended event showed there is much interest in the legend of Hemingway, but little knowledge about the man – apart from when the two line up.

When Stoll was called to audition for the part, he did not know what it was for. “It”s probably good or I would have over-analyzed,” he says to me after the event. Once he was hired, he respected Allen”s desire for secrecy about his role. “My family only knew I was living in Paris and suddenly taking boxing lessons,” he told the Library crowd.

Allen told Stoll not to watch any recordings or read any biographies, and Stoll says he was not at all concerned about playing Hemingway as he actually was, as that would have been counterproductive. But of course he read plenty of the author’s novels and short stories.

“This was Hemingway in Owen [Wilson]”s mind,” he explains, “and I had to engage with Owen.” When the costume designer presented impeccable designer suits with fine cuff links, Allen rejected the clothes, even though that is actually how Hemingway dressed. “He”s got to be rough,” Stoll says, also noting that his deep voice is unlike Hemingway”s, which was actually somewhat high.

Stoll”s knowledge of Hemingway naturally grew after filming. “Since then, I”ve started learning more,” he says. “It helps in interviews but I hope no one will mistake me for any sort of scholar!”

So who was the real Ernest Hemingway and how do these letters shed light on that? Being just volume one of 16, we only get a glimpse, but a picture emerges of someone who loved his family. Contrary to the perception that he hated his mother, Hemingway would write all his relatives long letters from Europe or elsewhere in the United States, showing deep care for them.

The first letter Stoll read, written during World War I, spoke of a lack of fear of death. Written when Hemingway was just 19, the letter reveals how he would not want his family to be sad at his death. “How much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered,” he writes. Just, a novelist who counts Hemingway as one of his influences, noted that it is remarkable that such a thing was written by someone so young. “It’s as good as anything he ever wrote,” he said.

The second letter Stoll read was about Hemingway”s lost love, Agnes Von Kurowsky, a nurse he fell in love with during World War I. Despite his persona as a rough man who could survive being rejected by a woman, he lamented to one of his best friends how he had “forgot all about religion and everything else because I had Ag to worship.” The heartbreak was palpable, though two months later he was writing about his recent escapades with other women. Yet “Ag” became the prototype for Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms.” So who knows where his heart ultimately lay?

Throughout these letters, Hemingway crafts a persona of a worldly man who cares deeply about people and causes, but also someone who can take on anything. In another letter, he claims to have successfully fought middleweight boxer Henry Cuddy on a voyage across the Atlantic. The extent to which that lines up with reality, however, is debatable, given that that Cuddy was known to be in Salt Lake City at the time.

Alcohol consumption is another place where legend and the man are hard to separate. Allen and Stoll”s portrayal of Hemingway”s use of alcohol could be reflected in his letters. One of them, to Gertude Stein (the famed author and art collector portrayed by Kathy Bates in “Midnight”), recounted an instance where Hemingway claimed to have drank 11 beers after predicting 17 winners in horse racing. While the alcohol consumption was plausible, the gambling was not, again leading one to wonder when the myth ended and the man began. “He was probably trying to entertain,” Just speculated, “and he would have succeeded.”

Regarding the alcohol consumption (which was certainly not healthy, though many Hemingway scholars dispute the characterization “alcoholic” – he was very careful to ensure it did not affect his work), Stoll knew that he would have to portray the man as “a festive drinker, but a social drinker,” he told the crowd. “In his writings there is a constant litany of drinks, not just a character of alcohol but an icy bottle of Capri or a foaming stein of beer. In Owen Wilson”s [character’s] mind, Hemingway would stir up images of alcohol, violence and talking about writing.”

The one person in the film for whom Hemingway had some deference was Stein. And this element, as well as Bates’s portrayal, is an instance where the film did correspond more clearly with reality. “Like with virtually everyone else in his life, they eventually had a falling out,” Stoll tells me. “But she was one of few people whose views he actually respected when it came to writing…and the fact that it was Kathy Bates meant I was no longer the big man on set!”

Hemingway will be played again on screen in the near future, as an older man, by Anthony Hopkins. Stoll told the crowd, only partially in jest, “I”m glad my performance came out first,” but it”s still clear that through his experience on “Midnight in Paris” and subsequent events such as Sunday”s, he has come to know the legend he portrayed and is immensely grateful to have had the chance to convey such a famed character. “I knew this would be a great role for whoever played it,” he tells me, “and I knew it was my best chance for a big break.”

Fifty years after Hemingway ended his life, the myth surrounding the man remains, and by design, “Midnight in Paris” did little to rectify that. “But he”s complicit in that myth,” Stoll is quick to point out. Maybe the letters will do something to correct that – but many of them would seem to only build it up more.

And perhaps that is how Hemingway would have wanted it.

“Midnight in Paris” comes to DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, December 20.

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