Ernest Hemingway’s long-lost Los Angeles go to
A lot happened in LA last night. Life ended. Life began. Couples fought, couples made up. A recently transplanted Manhattan-ite said, “All of my friends are here!” I probably fell asleep with a book on my chest.
What record of these events will survive eighty years from now? This depends in part on who keeps a journal, who writes to friends or family members, who posts, who publishes a paper and who doesn’t. For example, Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, reluctantly visited Los Angeles this week 80 years ago. He once recommended the only way to deal with Hollywood to a writer: “You toss them your book, they toss you the money, then you jump in your car and drive the hell of a way back the way you came.”
Then why did Hemingway make an exception in July 1937? It all had to do with a film that he and the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens had made about the Spanish civil war, entitled “Tierra de España” or “The Spanish Earth”. He and a group called Contemporary Historians, Inc. names, including the playwright Lillian Hellman; Author of the USA trilogy (with the Hollywood finale “The Big Money”) John Dos Passos; Poet Archibald MacLeish; and Dorothy Parker (who satisfied all three job descriptions and more) funded the picture out of pocket. The idea was to make a film to raise money for the loyalist cause. Every $ 1,000, they promised, would buy a new ambulance.
Hemingway was fresh from a White House screening for the Roosevelts and only stayed in LA for a few days. He had them counted and raised funds for the cause everywhere.
Ernest Hemingway (left) and Joris Ivens (right) are working on their documentary about the Spanish Civil War.
(Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images)
Hemingway ran the film at the Ambassador Hotel for a starry crowd of 200 people at a cost of $ 5 per well-coiffed head. The German actress Luise Rainer organized a lunch for him in the MGM commissioner. Her compatriot Salka Viertel had invited him and several influential friends to a show-and-tell in their Santa Monica Canyon home on Mabery Road.
Fredric March, the underrated star of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Inherit the Wind,” and “Seven Days in May,” invited some of his politically active colleagues to perform at his home on San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. Most of the loyalist, sympathetic film artist committees were there. Ironically, the benefactors didn’t include Errol Flynn, who was soon to play Robin Hood, who snuck through the bathroom window instead of giving to the poor.
Famous villain Errol Flynn (with Rosalind Russell and Olivia de Havilland) went to a fundraiser for the film – and then ducked.
(Archive Photos / Getty Images)
Sneak previews successfully followed, “The Spanish Earth” had its public premiere the next evening. The author Anthony Powell, recently called from England as a consultant for “A Yank at Oxford” and finally as the author of the dodecalogy “Dance to the Music of Time” from England, sets the scene in his memoirs:
“The film was supposed to be shown in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium [just across 5th Street from] Pershing Square, gardens where the bums gathered at dusk under a subtropical backdrop. … Neon lights shone in front of the hall: HEMINGWAY AUTHOR-SPANISH EARTH. “
The LA Times wrote about the arrival of Ernest Hemingway, right, Joris Ivens, and Mrs. Hemingway (Pauline Pfeiffer) on July 12, 1937.
At $ 1.10 each, whether for Hemingway or Spain, it turned out to be 3,000 Depression-era Angelenos. Almost as many were turned away. The seat hop delayed the show by nearly an hour. Finally at 9 o’clock the lights went out.
“Tierra de España” is not the greatest work of art that emerged from the carnage of the Spanish Civil War (that would be Picasso’s Guernica). Other art about war means more to more people than Ivens’ film today: George Orwell’s prophetic “Review of the Spanish War” and “Homage to Catalonia”; Joaquin Rodrigo’s beautiful, if apolitical “Concierto de Aranjuez” for guitar and orchestra; Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” are both masterpieces; and Hemingway’s own “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.
But “The Spanish Earth”, which will be shown on July 14th at Norton Simon (as part of a series curated by me) for the 80th anniversary, pays back the visit. It is a rare contribution to the documentary from talents far more valued in other fields.
In addition to writing the picture, Hemingway drove through devastated Spain for Ivens, telling it himself in a voice that was all the more effective for his icy understatement. He had found Orson Welles’ original utterance of the text bubbly. “Every time Welles said the word ‘infantry’,” Hemingway grumbled, “it sounded like …” Well, best leave it to the imagination (and google) how it sounded.
Hemingway said unprintable things about Orson Welles’ original narrative and decided to record it himself. A year later, Welles became famous for his radio show “The War of the Worlds”.
(Welles does the live broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” / file)
After the lights came back on, Hemingway spoke briefly of his experience of reporting the war. He told of a skirmish and remarked: “Two people were taken to the hospital, the rest removed with shovels.”
The recording was quick. More than a few ambulances were bought for Spain that night. Californian journalist and historian Carey McWilliams confided his diary impressions of the evening and of Hemingway, who drove ambulances in Italy during World War I before an Italian grenade blew his legs out: “Very tall guy – lame. Stand in front of the stand with feet wide apart. He brought them together once, but then he turned around … so they spread apart again. After he finished the paper, he turned abruptly and walked off the stage. Curious how many faces you will recognize at these meetings – almost becomes a family affair. “Then some of those faces repaired Dorothy Parker’s house.
Dorothy Parker threw a post-premiere party for Hemingway.
Had everything happened that supposedly happened that night, the party could still go on. Somebody should really pull up and see. According to Hellman’s bestseller from “An Unfinished Woman,” a sober but shaky F. Scott Fitzgerald drove her to Parker at about 10 miles an hour. They came to the front door when Hemingway tossed a wine glass into the fireplace. The crash already made Fitzgerald’s system much worse when he saw his former protégé so conspicuously the focus of attention.
It is known that no one on a low-salt diet is able to take Hellman’s word for anything. Other attendees acknowledge that their lover, Dashiell Hammett, took up a fight with Hemingway and called him out over the inability to write memorable women. Hammett knew a thing or two about memorable women after creating two-time Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon and the hilarious wasp Nora Charles in The Thin Man (based in part on Hellman himself) before joining his Last decades there was a long creative silence.
Before Hammett could further delineate his case against Hemingway, he drank himself into an anesthetic. He wrote a check the size of an ambulance before going to the couch.
Let the last word go to the best writer. The next day, Fitzgerald Hemingway wired: “The picture was beyond praise and so was your attitude.” That same week Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “Ernest came like a whirlwind. … I had the feeling that he was in a state of nervous tension and that there was something almost religious about it. “
F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1939 in LA. His life was changed the day after Hemingway’s screening.
One man’s religion is another’s footnote. A day later, Fitzgerald dragged himself to a Bastille Day party at the mansion of humorist Robert Benchley in the Garden of Allah on Sunset and Crescent Heights and looked at British newspaper columnist Sheilah Graham for the first time.
By the time they met, it was more likely that Fitzgerald needed an ambulance than to buy one. He would die of a heart attack three years later in her apartment on Laurel Avenue, allegedly either listening to Beethoven’s “Eroica” on the radio, eating a sandwich from Greenblatt around the corner, browsing Princeton alumni magazine, or all three. Until then, he had given Graham love and anger for a lifetime. All she gave him in return was enough of the peace he needed to write most of his brilliant Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon.
History doesn’t happen in a vacuum bottle. You can look up at least a page or two about Hemingway’s public showing of “The Spanish Earth” in any decent biography. (Two more came out this season. Not bad for a sexist.) You can read about Fitzgerald and Graham in their book about their “Beloved Unbeliever” affair – or “College of One,” their sad outsider. of-print report on the literature curriculum he created for her so she can keep up with him.
Hardly anywhere would you find out that Hemingway’s screening and the Fitzgerald / Graham rendezvous were on consecutive nights.
Ernest Hemingway in 1937, the year he brought his film “The Spanish Earth” to Hollywood.
Hammett, Powell, McWilliams, Hellman, Fitzgerald and all the nameless others. The infinite intertwining of life with life – lost to disease, lost to war, or simply lost to history. As in Tom Waits’ great poetry, cultural historians stagger from diary to letter to selfish memoirs like drunks “using parking meters as walking sticks.”
Inevitably, necessarily, we get the story wrong, or backwards, or worse, and always incomplete. Where are all of the grandchildren of the volunteers whose lives Dashiell Hammett’s ambulance saved? There must be dozens. What did you do last night?
And did you write it down?
Kipen’s “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters” will be published by the Modern Library next year. He is the founder of the Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and one of the Times’ critics in general.
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