Leonard Bernstein Asked About Hemingway, So Martha Gellhorn Set the Record Straight
When the great maestro and composer Leonard Bernstein—who seemed to know everyone—raved about Ernest Hemingway’s ‘tenderness’ in a letter to Martha Gellhorn, Papa’s ex-wife poured out her feelings about the troubled writer: ‘Tenderness is a new quality in him.’ From the rich new collection The Leonard Bernstein Letters.”
Leonard Bernstein to Martha Gellhorn
Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, AZ
7 January 1959
Happy New Year. At long last, a rest—although God knows it takes full as much energy to unwind and force the inactivity as it does to be active. But at least they’re not all pushing from all sides: I have only my own sick silly psyche pushing from inside.
I’m not staying at the above—just using the luxuriousissimo facilities + living with friends. Burtie has been with me, left yesterday, all is calm. We started out last week in Sun Valley. Skied three days on the daisies (and a bit of snow) and then left for the hot glorious desert, horses, tennis, swimming. Lord, if I only had a bit of peace in me—a bit only, it that too much?—how I could be enjoying all this! and Poland? And Alaska? And is here next? Did you do the hols in London? Are you as petrified as I of the lunik lunacy?* What the hell are we fiddling with? When do you arrive in this favorite land of yours for you Okie junket?
I met Ernest Hemingway at Sun Valley last week, and was taken totally by surprise. I had not been prepared by talk, photos, or interviews for a) that charm, and b) that beauty. God, what goes on there under his eyes? What’s that lovely adolescent tenderness? And the voice and the memory, & the apparently genuine interest in every living soul: fantastic. We spoke tenderly of you: he said you were brave.*• His present wife seems to be a professional Ja-sayer, though simpatico enough. The question is not How could you have married him, but How could you have done anything else?
Dearest love to you, every day, always, dearest potato-pipe. I played tennis today & almost wept with nostalgia for our version of tenny.
Martha Gellhorn to Leonard Bernstein
20 Chester Square, London, England
postmark 14 January 1959
I loved your Xmas card, both of you looking so beautiful and so tired and the children so beautiful and benign, like happy little dolls. I am saving my first-in-my-life vote for Alexander who will surely be President unless he decides it’s all a silly joke and he’d rather live.
So much to say but I won’t say it, probably. This is my last letter, anyhow, for some time, because now I am going to start on a novel and that means silence, fasting and prayer. A novel about Poland. Most daring. I was there 16 days; and learned more and felt more than I have, probably, since Spain. Terrifying and wonderful nourishing experience. I was also frightened the whole time, and I am not used to being; frightened for everyone because they are too brave. And all my desperate faith in the human spirit was revived and rewarded, because there they are. Proof.
Shall I say some ominous aunt-like words about peace? I think I will. It is a subject that I have really thought and worked on, you know. So: no one besides yourself will ever help you to get it; everyone, even with the best will in the world, will nibble and shred it. You have to fight for it, yourself, and it is perhaps that most essential fight there is. If you haven’t got (and keep clinging to, through every reverse) a hard kernel of your own private peace, maybe no bigger than a pea, you cannot be, do or give any real thing. Practically, I find it works like this: one learns what conditions one needs, for oneself, to bring back or foster one’s interior nugget of certainty and calm and happiness. For me, it’s absolute solitude and silence, in the country; long walks, no time table of any kind, no telephone, no mail, no newspapers. Long mooning walks, reading, sleeping a great deal. No booze, simply because booze makes me nervous. And then, after a longer or shorter cure of this (depending on how much my peace has been eaten away) I can start to work: and that sets it firmly. I have no idea what you need, but you must, by now, have learned for yourself. No other person gives it, you know, though anyone can take it away. Sex has nothing to do with it either.
The Xmas hols, just terminated, ruined me as usual. I cannot bear any season give over to organized official good cheer, and too many people, plans, parties. So, as soon as I’d put little Sandy on his plane for Switzerland, I rushed off to my usual country hotel for three days alone. Whereupon an old friend (known for 30 years, now aged 74) was in the hospital in London, and I had to take over everything by telephone. That fixed the peace allright. I’m hanging on however, and have now got the telephone here turned off all day, will not accept any invitations nor give any, and I mean by God to come back to myself and to where I really live. You see, I get physically sick when the peace all goes. I think you don’t do that, though I am not sure. But I think you hardly know who you are, or why you are doing what you are doing.
Interested about Ernest [Hemingway]. Tenderness is a new quality in him; but people do luckily change all their lives and the luckiest ones get better as they grow older. His main appalling lack was tenderness for anyone. I longed for it in him, for myself and for others. I’d almost have settled for others. I do not remember his voice as being anything much, but I always was thrilled by his memory. He was interested in everyone but there was a bad side. It was like flirting. (Like you, in fact, he has the excessive need to be loved by everyone, and specially by all the strange passing people whom he ensnares with that interest, as do you with your charm, though in fact he didn’t give a fart for them.) So he would take people into camp; they became his adoring slaves (he likes adoring slaves) and suddenly, without warming, he would turn on them. That was always terrible to see; it made me feel cold and sick and I wanted to warn each new conquest of what lay in wait for him. But one couldn’t; they wouldn’t believe; they were on the heights of joy—for he can be a great life-enhancer and great fun, and his attention is very flattering.
By the time I did marry him (driving home from Sun Valley) I did not want to, but it had gone too far in every way. I wept, secretly, silently, on the night before my wedding and my wedding night; I felt absolutely trapped. When I fell in love with him was in Spain, where for once he did have tenderness for others (not me, he was regularly bloody to me, lustful or possessive, and only nice when he was teaching me, as if I were a young man, the arts of self defense in war. And also he liked being the only man in Spain who took his woman around with him, and I was blonde, very helpful in brunette countries, raises one’s value.) I loved him then for his generosity to others and for his selfless concern for the Cause. That was all gone by the time I married him. I think I was afraid of him though I certainly never admitted it to myself or showed it to him. You will also be surprised to hear that I have never been more bored in my life than during the long long months when we lived alone in Cuba. I thought I would die of boredom. But it was very good for me. I wrote more with him than ever before or since in my life, and read more. There were no distractions; I lived beside him and entirely and completely alone, as never before or since.
I am very glad he now speaks pleasantly of me. I never speak of him one way or the other with anyone. The whole thing is a distant dream, not very true and curiously embarrassing. It has almost nothing to do with me. What I write you here is, as you can understand, secret and between us only and forever.
He ought to be happy and he ought to be gentle; because life has showered gifts and blessings on him; and I hope he is.
Considering this was to be a quick letter, only saying that I love you and wish you well for 1959 and all years to follow, it has rather swelled, has it not.
My darling Lenny.
P.S. Bertrand Russell uses the word “impiety” in relation to luniks and further attempts and he is right.
*A reference to the early years of Space Race, starting with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.
**Gellhorn was married to Hemingway from 1940 to 1945.
From The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone and published by Yale University Press.