M Denise Costello Weighs In on Last Week’s Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Hemingway Documentary

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” — Ernest Hemingway

Photo by the author.

When PBS aired the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on Ernest Hemingway last week, the first thing I wanted to do was reach out to Denise Costello to get her reaction to the show. Costello has been a longtime Hemingway fan who’s not only read more than anyone I know but also has visited most, if not all, of the places he once lived. When I reached out she agreed to share her views and insights.

If you’re a newby when it comes to Hemingway, Ms. Costello’s insights can help you find an entry point. If you’ve read his novels and stories and want more, she can also point you toward some good books about his life and career as well.

EN: Were there any “Aha!” insights that you had that you hadn’t learned about through your readings and visiting the places Ernest Hemingway lived?

M Denise Costello: Not really. I have done too much reading and following and corresponding with other aficionados and scholars to have learned something completely new. Some things I might have forgotten about and then was reminded again, but nothing I can think of was totally new to me in this documentary. These Burns/Novick documentaries are superb, but you can find out more about subjects if you just delve in and research them yourself through books and articles.

I have collected all of the volumes published thus far in the Letters project, but have not begun reading them. However, I have read many of his letters from many biographies and other books about Ernest. The book Letters from the Lost Generation by Linda Patterson Miller was the book that really sparked my interest in Hemingway’s life and works. This was after Amanda Vaill’s book on the Murphys: Everybody Was So Young. He had a large group of friends when he lived in France and they all hung out and had a great time while he was still in his 20s. Many of these friends came to visit him and Pauline in Key West when he was in his 30s.

EN: Was Hemingway’s stature enhanced or diminished as a result of this Ken Burns documentary?

MDC: His stature as a writer was probably enhanced because many people are still not familiar with his work, especially the short stories, in my opinion, and might have been enlightened as to how good some of the stories really are and how they still hold up a century later. Examples are “Indian Camp,” and “Hills Like White Elephants.”

As a person, he was probably diminished somewhat since he treated all four wives horribly at times, as well as his sons and parents. But we were not really given the perspective from any family members other than Patrick Hemingway, his surviving son. Also, the documentary did not really delve deep into how he helped others and how good a father he could be. The surface was skimmed. A letter written in the heat of the moment does not give a full picture of a person, either.

EN: What would you say was Hemingway’s most important achievement?

MDC: I think his most important achievement was changing how writing evolved beginning with his books and stories to a more “modern” method (aka, the Iceberg Theory). The documentary brought forth how genius he was to leave the endings to many of his books as arbitrary and up to the reader to supply what they think happened at the end.

EN: How would you rank his books? What do you feel are his “Top 5”?

MDC: All the collections of short stories I would rank first, then:

The Garden of Eden
The Sun Also Rises
A Moveable Feast
A Farewell to Arms
For Whom the Bell Tolls

EN: What would you say is the best book ABOUT Hemingway if someone were to try to get to know him?

MDC: I recommend the five volumes by Michael S. Reynolds. Those are the most complete covering different time periods of Hemingway’s life. I do not think there is just one book that one should read to learn about Hemingway. His works should be read, as well as a variety of the biographies by different biographers in different eras.

EN: Which of his wives got the best and worst deal in his four marriages? (Optional Corollary: Which do you most relate to?

MDC: I relate the most to Martha Gellhorn because I am not married and cannot relate to the “wifey” roles of Hadley, Pauline, and Mary. Gellhorn was a worker and did not want to live just to serve and take care of Ernest. She had her own dreams and goals.

I think Mary got the worst deal because he was downright mean to her in front of others more than any of the other wives and she had to deal with the most depressed and deteriorating Ernest. She was with him longer than the others. Mary also had to wake up to the sound of Ernest killing himself and then to have to relive and think about it for 25 more years. She dealt with all this and gave up her journalism career, too. Mary also hosted Adriana Ivancich and her mother coming to stay at the Finca for months.

I cannot relate to Pauline at all. She connived to steal Ernest from Hadley and did not seem to have any remorse about it. And then stick to all the Catholic ideas, which was so extremely hypocritical. This after pretending to be Hadley’s friend. Pauline did have many positive traits that enhanced their lives. She also came from a rich family, which led to a car, a house in Key West, and a safari.

Hadley and Pauline got the best of him as he was young and they had lots of friends and traveled much.

EN: Would you say the Ken Burns documentary was a fair treatment of his life?

MDC: Yes, although even at 6 hours long, so much was still left out. He had many more relationships with women that some might be surprised about. An example is his correspondence and friendship with Marlene Dietrich. He also had long-term relationships with one or maybe more Cuban women. And probably more women than we will ever know about.

Related Links

A Visit with M. Denise Costello, Hemingway Aficionado

Hemingway, Ken Burns and the Age Old Question

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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