And the Author of: Ernest Hemingway — The Life & Death of a Giant
In July 1961, the prolific writer, and friend of Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Singer was holidaying, with his wife, Lady Jane, in Mexico City, when the phone rang. Kurt describes that call in the foreword to his book, Ernest Hemingway: The Life and Death of a Giant. It was a long distance call from Hollywood:
“ Mr Masamori Kojima [Singer’s editor] was on the line. His voice was urgent.
‘Kurt, have you heard the news?’
‘ What news?’
‘ Hemingway is dead. He shot himself, but it is not determined yet if it was an accident…or suicide.’ ”
Singer was hugely shocked, finding it hard to talk. He certainly wasn’t listening to Kojima who was still talking, and it was business talk telling Singer that, as he already had a few chapters written, could he get on with the Hemingway biography as quickly as possible, making sure it was the first biography of the famous novelist to appear post mortem.
Singer writes that, with Hemingway only two hours dead, he felt like a prostitute “…a sort of ghoul feeding on the remains of a dead hero.”
“ Are you there, Kurt?”
“ Yes, I’m here.”
“ Now, don’t let us down. People will want to read a biography of their hero Hemingway. It’s a job you have to do now.”
“Yes. I won’t let you down.”
And with that he slammed the receiver down, had a stiff drink and, with his wife, went to the bullfight, thinking Hemingway would approve.
Kurt Singer was something of a literary polymath, intelligence officer, editor and political activist. Let me quote from the LA Times obituary:
“ Kurt Singer was an anti-Nazi activist in the 1930s, and a spy during World War II whose dozens of books include works on espionage and biographies on subjects as diverse as Hitler henchman Hermann Goering and actor Danny Kaye.
The prolific and eclectic writer was born in Vienna and grew up in Berlin, where he became increasingly worried about the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
With his first wife, Hilde Tradelius, he began publishing an anti-Nazi underground weekly in 1933.
The Nazis soon put a price on his head, and he fled to Stockholm.
Working as a journalist for Swedish and Swiss publications, Singer helped found a pro-Allies newspaper and a committee to free anti-Nazi leader Carl von Ossietzky from a concentration camp.
With Kurt R. Grossman, he wrote a biography of Von Ossietzky that he believed helped win the Nobel Peace Prize for the humanitarian.
In Sweden and later in the U.S., the writer functioned as a spy, providing information for the Allies about Russian and Nazi activities in Scandinavia.”
As Singer writes:
“ To avoid extradition, I was able to arrange a visa to the U.S. as a correspondent for a Swedish newspaper. We left from Petsamo, a town in north Finland, on the ship named Matilde Thoren; Hilde and I and our six month old baby arrived safely to Ellis Island in New York.
“ I lost all contact with my mother and her parents, who vanished into the concentration camps. I have no idea how they died. A surviving cousin told me that 66 members of our family were killed by the Nazis.”
His life story is about putting that life at risk all day and every day in his opposition to Hitler and the Nazis, as he would later with communism.
Reading the short stories, and perhaps more importantly, A Farewell to Arms, was a way of staying sane and hanging on to hope when the very idea of hope was slipping away as the gangsters in their mountain top lairs planned the annihilation of millions in the flames of the crematoriums.
It was also a story, once in the US, he determined to tell, often through articles, and, perhaps more importantly, through the lives of others, not least Ernest Hemingway, whose work, as stated above, had been a rigorous comfort for him in those most dangerous of times.
His biography of Hemingway was first thought of in 1958 when he visited Hemingway in Cuba:
“ To see Hemingway at work, I visited Cuba. Like him, I fell in love with its laughing, emotional, tragic yet hopeful people, and so fully understood why Ernest Hemingway chose that crocodile-shaped island as his home for so many years.
“ Much of Cuba’s constant emotional paradox is found in Hemingway’s characters and heroes. The restlessness and violence of that isle in the Caribbean appealed to this man who had seldom seen a quiet, normal, serene life. There was colour and action everywhere…fiestas, cockfights, music, murders of passion and the great fish to pull from the sea. These were the clues to the inner man.”
These are also clues to the inner man that was Kurt Singer, who seldom found much serenity himself, and whose biography of Hem is a tour de force of concentrated, sustained, passionate writing that brings out, page after page, the power and danger of the man that was Ernest Hemingway, and to no lesser extent, Kurt Singer.