Two Unpublished Ernest Hemingway Letters Shed Light on a Heartwarming, Previously Unknown Incident in His Life

The Raab Collection unveiled today two powerful and revealing Ernest Hemingway letters that touch upon writing, life, filming The Old Man and the Sea, fishing, travel, and, perhaps most importantly, death and the afterlife, including his near-death experience in two airplane crashes. They also shed light on a touching and interesting episode in the life of Hemingway. They were held by the recipient and her family since they were written in 1955 and are apparently unpublished. Raab intends to sell the two this spring; they have never before been offered for sale. 

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba 1946. (National Archives) 

Hemingway wrote both letters while living at Finca Vigia, his estate outside Havana, Cuba, to an American college student named Mary Lou Firle, whom he had met earlier that year. Mary Lou cherished the letters, tucking them away in an upper-floor closet, which saved them from ruin when Hurricane Sandy slammed into her family’s Long Island house in 2012, flooding the home. 

“These letters, and the people behind them, let us behind the curtain of the daily life of Hemingway and the people he inspired and touched,” said Nathan Raab, leading expert, principal at The Raab Collection, and author of the recent book, The Hunt for History (Scribner, 2020). “It was a pleasure to find them and to learn about Mary Lou’s life.”

Typed letter signed. July 29, 1955, Finca Vigia, Havana, Cuba. “I don’t think August is a good time to take a vacation in Cuba. It is cooler here in the hills than any place except the sea but last night it was so hot I couldn’t sleep….I am working terribly hard on my book and am on page 526. I have to concentrate on it all August heat or no heat as must start photography at sea of fishing for The Old Man and The Sea. Have had to interrupt several times to organize on this. It is a tough job with many problems; some very difficult. There will be people here that are working on that and the house, unfortunately, will be full in August and September when the actual photography starts. Peter Viertel will be back from Europe with the script which he and I worked on the first two weeks of June. We have a chance to make a great picture with patience, fortitude and very much luck. You need an awful lot of luck when working with the sea and with fish…. Must stop now and get to work as I have to take two men who are studying the problems of the film out all day tomorrow and I must get in a good day’s work today.” 

A dare with her boyfriend and a cold call to Hemingway’s house

In January of 1955, Mary Lou, a second year student at CCNY, traveled to meet up with her boyfriend Morris, a naval officer on a ‘liberty stop’ in Havana. While there, she told her friends, she intended to find a way to meet Ernest Hemingway. After Morris shipped out, she cold-called Hemingway, who, due to his misunderstanding, which she encouraged, thought she had been referred by a mutual acquaintance. He sent his driver to pick her up, and they spent an afternoon together. She helped him entertain, toured his home, and the two decided to stay in touch. He even promised to send her animal skins from a recent hunt. Hemingway playfully gave her the nickname the “Black Kraut,” because of her resemblance to Marlene Dietrich, whom he called Kraut, along with her suntan and German ancestry.    

Later that year, Mary Lou wrote to the author to ask about a trip to Cuba that summer. Hemingway, who was filming The Old Man and the Sea, sent back a lengthy reply.

After two recent plane crashes, the Nobel Prize winner ponders life and death 

In October of 1955, Mary Lou again reached out to Hemingway. He responded with another typed letter, this one referring to his fear of flying, manifested in his recent, nearly deadly crashes while on safari, as well as big game hunting, hurricanes, and a commentary on death and, remarkably, his belief in the afterlife. He urged her to be careful. “No second thoughts will help you and when you are dead you are dead for a long time.” 

Typed letter signed. October 6, 1955, Finca Vigia, Havana, Cuba. “Thank you for writing and I wish to congratulate your mother and your new step father if they would like that. I hope they are happy. With a good daughter like you they should be….Please be careful about aircraft. If I ever see you will tell you how and why. It is one of the great pleasures of life but you pay off accordingly. No second thoughts will help you and when you are dead you are dead for a long time. Maybe we are only alive when we are dead but I have not believed that for a long time. Excuse me if I am pedantic about aircraft but everybody is pedantic about something….I am very proud of your new house and that you made it yourself, I hope without hitting yourself too many times with any blunt instrument, and I will send you the skin of a good African beast when I receive them….In return will you see Mr. and Mrs. Bob Brown and tell them that I have not written because it has been a tough year in many ways but that we are winning good and I have all my stuff; worse even that Mr. Podres and am on page 613 and do not have to do any more photography on the picture until April 15 and not think about it until March first. Have been working so hard and so long I must take some kind of vacation but not until this wicked month of October for hurricanes is over. We are not yet out of the woods but I know the woods ok….”

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