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Time takes a toll on the letters of Hemingway
Question of the Day
ANDOVER, Mass. — The paper conservator’s scalpel picked at the red and black specks, flicking away the fly droppings that had stained Ingrid Bergman’s letter to Ernest Hemingway.
“I shall remember people like you and forget the rest of the world,” the actress wrote to her author friend from Rome in 1950.
Six decades later, an effort to preserve that memory, and others that are part of the writer’s legacy, recently began inside a New England lab.
From mold, to mice, to moisture, the JFK Library and Museum in Boston is trying to save its collection of Hemingway’s incoming letters from the different types of damage that have been degrading the batch as it ages. Box by box, thousands of letters to the author are heading to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover for mending, washing, flattening and other repairs.
Walter Newman, the center’s paper conservation director, said the goal of the current Hemingway project is to slow the different processes that are degrading the letters. Experts surveyed the damage about 18 months ago, and restoration work started on a recent afternoon when assistant conservator Claire Grund went to work on Bergman’s letter, among others.
About half of the 7,500 letters in the incoming collection need restoration work. JFK Library’s Hemingway curator Susan Wrynn said most letters are worth around $5,000.
After Hemingway’s 1961 suicide, President John F. Kennedy made arrangements for the author’s fourth wife, Mary, to go to Cuba during a U.S. ban on travel there. Cuban leader Fidel Castro let her reclaim some of her husband’s documents and possessions in exchange for donating Hemingway's villa outside Havana and other belongings to the Cuban people.
Mary Hemingway shipped crates of documents on a shrimp boat to Florida, also retrieving papers from other places her husband had lived, before offering the collection to Jacqueline Kennedy for her husband’s presidential library.
The papers started arriving in Boston 40 years ago, when library officials stored them in a dark vault where they could control temperature and humidity levels. But that didn’t keep iron gall ink, a corrosive and once-common writing agent, from eating through the paper some of the letters came on.
It also couldn’t reverse mold growth or repair rodent nibbles on letters that spent years in storage in humid spots like Key West, Fla., or Cuba. Letters penned on acidic paper also began falling apart as their fibers aged.
“His documents were kept in so many places over time. There are so many things that have happened to them,” Ms. Wrynn said. “The deterioration just continues, so if you don’t become proactive at some point, you have the potential to lose information.”
Among letters needing repair are some from the writer’s family, childhood cronies, and war and fishing buddies. Besides two of Bergman’s letters, correspondence from Hollywood stars Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper will undergo work, as well.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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