Ernest Hemingway, at his home in Cuba, Finca Vigía, where he wrote...

Ernest Hemingway, at his home in Cuba, Finca Vigía, where he wrote a pair of letters that remained hidden away in a Long Beach attic for decades but will be up for auction later this spring. Credit: U.S. National Archives

Private letters, hidden away in a Long Beach attic for decades, share much with the bigger-than-life author at the time he wrote them — weathered by the years but steadfast, able to survive when all hope was nearly lost, and brimming with a sense of hope and wonder, but also, a fear of death.

Ernest Hemingway dispatched the letters in 1955 from his beloved Cuba to the then-Mary Lou Firle, a City College of New York student from the Bronx who was also a fan of his work, after the two had become friends by accident.

Nearly 62 years after Hemingway's death and five months after Firle died in October, the pair of letters — typed out, single spaced and folded in red, white and blue-striped airmail envelopes, with two Cuban stamps and a Havana postmark, are being put up for sale.

Firle's husband, Morris Silberberg, 91, who sold the letters to the Raab Collection, a Pennsylvania acquisition and dealer of historical documents, had played an indirect role in his future wife's unlikely friendship.

What to know

  • A pair of letters from Ernest Hemingway, tucked in a Long Beach attic, are going up for auction.
  • Hemingway wrote the letters in 1955 to the then-Mary Lou Firle, a City College of New York student he had befriended.
  • In the letters, he ruminates on travel, frustrations over film adaptations of his work, the perils of air travel and mortality.

Silberberg recounted his meeting with Hemingway in a recorded conversation with antiquities dealer Nathan Raab.

A visit to Cuba

Before the Long Beach couple got married, Silberberg was an ensign in the U.S. Navy stationed in Cuba when his future wife arrived for a visit. It was January 1955. Firle brought along a copy of Hemingway's "Farewell to Arms" and joked that since she was not far from Finca Vigía, his estate outside Havana, why not see if he'd sign it?

Silberberg eventually shipped out but Firle stayed behind. She figured out how to get Hemingway's telephone number, summoned up some courage, and what began as a lark was suddenly an actual conversation. Firle mentioned a friend, a professor at Fordham University who Hemingway also knew. He mistakenly believed Firle was someone else.

“She didn’t mean to trick him, but before she could finish her sentence, he assumed she was his friend," Silberberg tells Raab on the tape. “I think she did make an impression on him. She was an attractive young woman and outgoing. She could carry on conversations with people.”

In the letters, Hemingway discusses his travels, frustrations about the film adaptation of his final major work, the novella, “The Old Man and the Sea,” and includes cryptic references to two plane crashes he survived in Africa.

“Maybe we are only alive when we are dead, but I have not believed that for a long time,” Hemingway wrote, the tone spare and direct, as if lifted from one of his novels or short stories. 

“Excuse me if I am pedantic about aircraft," he continued, "but everybody is pedantic about something.”

In one of the letters, Ernest Hemingway ruminated over mortality, his...

In one of the letters, Ernest Hemingway ruminated over mortality, his frustration at turning his works into motion pictures, and the risk of air travel. Credit: Courtesy of The Raab Collection

Outlasting Sandy

Superstorm Sandy flooded the Silberburg home but the letters, tucked away in the attic, withstood the deluge — a stroke of luck for literary history.

The correspondence unspools as another intricate piece of Hemingway’s life story, said Sandra Spanier, a Penn State literary professor and general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, which has chronicled about 6,000 letters from Hemingway to about 1,900 recipients.

She said the recently uncovered letters match Hemingway’s prose and conversational style, complete with errors marked up with relics of the glory days of print: copy editing symbols.

“It’s very exciting to see letters like these come out of a family’s attic and we know there are letters out there yet to surface,” Spanier said. “They are charming letters, they show a side of Hemingway people don’t necessary know about. It shows his less familiar face. He was known for chest thumping and a he-man persona. These letters show he could be very generous and kind to young people who sought him out.”

In response to news from Firle that her mother had remarried, Hemingway sounded like a proud relative.

"Thank you for writing and I wish to congratulate your mother and your new step father. … I hope they are happy. With a good daughter like you they should be."

And a man who had crashed twice and lived to tell about it, had friendly advice, written as only he could.

"Please be careful about aircraft. If I ever see you I 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."

Hemingway sounds exasperated by film adaptations of his work following disappointment over the 1932 film version of "Farewell to Arms," starring Gary Cooper.

He mentions his weariness during filming of the "The Old Man and the Sea," which starred Spencer Tracy as the Cuban fisherman at the heart of the story.

Firle had written asking to visit again that July but Hemingway, in one of his letters, advised against it. He was juggling between finishing a manuscript and dealing with delays adapting his final work into a motion picture.

An envelope for one of Hemingway's letters sent in 1955...

An envelope for one of Hemingway's letters sent in 1955 to the then-Mary Lou Firle. Credit: Courtesy of The Raab Collection

“I am working terribly hard on my book,” Hemingway wrote, noting several delays on the set. “It is a tough job with many problems … We have a chance to make a great picture with patience and fortitude and very much luck. You need an awful lot of luck when working with the sea and with fish.”

The legendary big game hunter also promised to one day bring his new friend the hide of a "Beast."

Spanier said the manuscript Hemingway mentioned was likely his final posthumously released book, "True at First Light," an account of a 1954 African safari he took with his wife.

"I’m really happy people like this family valued these letters. Mail from someone like Ernest Hemingway is a very special thing. This young woman had a friendly conversation with someone who recently won the Nobel Prize in literature and he took time to write to her…," Spanier said. "He was truly a great writer and made a deep impact on English prose to this very day."

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