The relationship between Hemingway and art historian Bernard Berenson was really “a strange friendship.” Their cultural backgrounds were completely different. They exchanged letters from 1949 to 1957, but never met—although they did nearly meet in 1954.
It seems that Hemingway looked for some help, some psychological support, some inspiration and encouragement in a difficult situation of his life because of his writer’s block and marital problems. In a February 2, 1954, letter, he called Berenson his teacher and his hero. Hemingway, who was very insecure because of his lack of a college education, said Berenson had helped to educate him through his books, explaining, “I had previously neglected being brought up properly.”
The common ground of these two very different personalities was limited. Hemingway had no real interest in old Renaissance paintings–Berenson’s favorite field of knowledge. Berenson sent several of his books to Hemingway but (according to his letter of March 26, 1954) doubted that Hemingway read and understood them.
Hemingway’s letters give a rare insight in his inner life. But the quality of his letters is uneven. They are often chaotic, jumping from one topic to the other, interrupting, picking up again at another point, often trying to be funny at all costs, never elaborating one theme. They were below the cultural level Berenson was used to. Berenson at one point thought some letters were written when Hemingway was drunk.
What was Berenson’s interest in Hemingway? For sure Berenson had a certain vanity, and being so closely associated with perhaps the most famous writer of the time–especially after the Nobel Prize–was important for him. And with the letters flowing, his interest and sympathy for Hemingway were growing. But to call this a friendship seems exaggerated.
Berenson explained that he “craved for affection,“ and Hemingway offered this affection to him. But when in spring 1954 the moment came that Hemingway finally announced his coming, the doors to the Tuscan Villa “I Tatti” remained barred for him. What had happened? In nearly all his letters Berenson had professed his eagerness to personally see and know the letter-writer. But at the end he got cold feet and tried to discourage the visit. He excused himself that his calendar was full and in his villa (with its dozens of rooms) there was no room for Hemingway.
He noted in his diary: “Ernest Hemingway is impending, and I look forward with a certain dread to seeing and knowing him in flesh. . . . His letter seemed written when he was not quite sober, rambling and affectionate. I fear he may turn out too animal, too overwhelmingly masculine, too Bohemian. He may expect me to drink and guzzle with him, and write me down as a muff.”
Hemingway was hurt, disappointed and humiliated. Berenson was known to receive continuously all sorts of guests: writers, painters, musicians, film directors, politicians, and even decorative socialites like Jacqueline Bouvier, later Kennedy. Hemingway could not understand the reason for his being excluded. The letters flowed another two years, but their friendship remained on paper.
Jobst C. Knigge is a German journalist and historian. He has published Hemingway and His Venetian Muse Adriana Ivancic (2012); Hemingway and the Venetian Nobility (2014); Hemingway and the Germans (2018), and Ernest Hemingway and Bernard Berenson: A Strange Friendship (2019).