How Sun Valley Lodge helped Ernest Hemingway become one of America's greatest writers.
September 1939, Ernest Hemingway was riding high. He was in love with an up-and-coming female writer who didn't wither under his larger-than-life persona. He was well along on a new novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, something to rival his great works of the Roaring '20s. And he was headed for a new province, a Western oasis where he could cross the i's and dot the t's on his contract to be America's greatest living author.
A year later, the contract was complete. In October 1940, the Charles Scribner's Sons publishing house released For Whom the Bell Tolls, a 507-page epic about love, war and death. The book—dedicated to his soon-to-be wife Martha Gellhorn—flew off the shelves. In January 1941, when the book had already sold more than 400,000 copies, Hemingway and Gellhorn were featured in a lengthy Life magazine photo essay titled "The Hemingways in Sun Valley—The novelist takes a wife," solidifying them as a bona fide celebrity couple.
The Life story featured photos of Ernest and Martha laughing on a deck of the Sun Valley Lodge, Ernest writing with a pencil and paper, and the couple dancing, dining and drinking at Trail Creek Cabin, the resort's cozy alpine retreat. The introduction gushed praise for Hemingway and his new novel: "His style, so terse and clean, yet vivid and rich, has been imitated by many, but matched by none. His dialog is the envy of all."
In 1941, "Papa," as Hemingway was known to those close to him, was at the peak of his illustrious career. And the novel that got him there was inextricably linked to the mountain resort that used his fame to cut its brand.
Papa finds the 'suite' life
Hemingway was invited to stay at the Sun Valley Lodge as a guest after Gene Van Guilder, the publicist for the chic new resort, determined the famed author and outdoorsman would enjoy the mountains of Idaho and might generate some good press—like the story in the oversized, glossy pages of Life.
Upon arrival in Sun Valley on September 20, 1939, Hemingway and Gellhorn were assigned to Room 206, a plush suite at the end of a long hall. It had a wooden desk where Hemingway could work, and a terrace with views of the mountains above Sun Valley and Ketchum. Papa called it "Glamour House."
Marty Peterson, an Idaho resident and noted Hemingway scholar, said going to Sun Valley in 1939 was an important step in Hemingway's career.
"At that time, Sun Valley was trying to get as much publicity as they could get," Peterson said. "The company was picking up all of his charges. It was a fairly sweet deal. For the first time in Hemingway's life, he was really well-heeled."
Hemingway and Gellhorn settled in quickly and made some close friends, including Lloyd Arnold, the resort's photographer, and Lloyd's wife, Tillie. The Arnolds and Taylor Williams, the resort's chief guide, tried to keep the couple busy and happy hunting, fishing and going out on the town.
But life at Glamour House wasn't all play. Tillie Arnold, in her memoir The Idaho Hemingway, said Papa made it clear from the outset of the friendship that he had to work while in Sun Valley. Recalling a conversation among the men about hunting, she wrote, "Ernest confessed that he had a heavy commitment to a big book he was writing … that his primary interest in coming to Sun Valley was to hole up and work on his book without interruptions."
Peterson concurred. In the fall of 1939, he said, Hemingway was "totally focused" on For Whom the Bell Tolls; he had set aside all other projects.
Papa was religious about getting his work done early in the day, Peterson said. "Hemingway had almost a lifelong routine of writing in the morning and playing in the afternoon," he said.
Lloyd Arnold, in his memoir Hemingway: High on the Wild, said Hemingway took a liking to writing at Glamour House; it provided a nice change from his beloved second home, the tropics of Cuba.
After a day of hunting in the mountains to the north, he wrote: "The following dawn the work on the novel continued as scheduled, we learned at a lingering lunch, and it went better in the mountain cool than it had in months of heat in a hotel in Havana. He said he was on the rough of Chapter 13, and had worked the name Sun Valley into it. We lifted brows. How could he do it, time-wise?" Hemingway grinned and replied, "The freedom of fiction."
Robert Jordan comes to life
For Hemingway, Idaho was an ideal place to work on his epic novel about an American fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The Sun Valley area reminded him of Spain. The hills, the evergreens, the bite in the clean air, all helped engage him in the scene of his novel.
The entire story of For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place in a span of three days in May 1937. Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades, is ordered to blow up a bridge over a deep gorge behind fascist enemy lines. To complete the job, Jordan enlists the help of guerillas who live in the rugged territory. If he and his Spanish comrades can destroy the bridge just as a major loyalist offensive begins, and the offensive succeeds, the estimable fight against fascism will be one step closer to success.
Of course, in true Hemingway fashion, the soldier falls in love—with a beautiful young rebel named Maria. "Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and eyes were the same golden tawny brown," Hemingway wrote. Affectionately, Robert Jordan calls her "rabbit." In Chapter 13 of the novel (written in Sun Valley), the protagonist dreams of a future with Maria but is constrained by the ever-looming shadow of death. "He did not believe there would be any such thing as a long time anymore but if there ever was such a thing he would like to spend it with her … Why not marry her? Sure, he thought. I will marry her. Then we will be Mr. and Mrs. Robert Jordan of Sun Valley, Idaho."
Writing and making friends
Sun Valley was good for Hemingway, emotionally and professionally, Peterson said. Papa liked to explore the frontiers of the world, places where he could work in peace and stay somewhat anonymous.
"In the early years, being in Sun Valley gave him an opportunity to return to his youth," Peterson said. "The locals he became friends with, by and large, were just good, old regular people. He became Ernest Hemingway the person, not Ernest Hemingway the celebrity."
One of those friends was Picabo rancher Bud Purdy, who got to know Papa in the fall of 1940. They often went hunting for ducks at Silver Creek, and sometimes met at one of Papa's favored drinking and dining
establishments—The Ram in Sun Valley, or the Alpine and the Christiania in Ketchum. Papa didn't talk much about his writing, Purdy said, but one day at the Alpine he suddenly did. "He said, 'I had a great morning, I wrote a thousand words and it's worth a dollar a word,'" Purdy said.
When Tillie Arnold was getting to know Papa in the fall of 1939, he occasionally made references to the book he was working on, but rarely elaborated. Eventually, though, Papa opened up. He told Tillie and Lloyd that he had completed 24 chapters of the novel—more than half—and asked them if they would like to read it. They took some of the pages home each night. "We read his chapters avidly," Tillie wrote in her memoir. "It was a very good story and sometimes we would discuss it with Ernest the next evening."
Then, over cocktails, Papa told his group of local friends that he had new insight into a title for the story. "… He retrieved a book of John Donne's poetry and read us the passage that includes 'For whom the bell tolls' … With feeling he said, 'Christ, if a man could just write like that.'"
Meanwhile, work on the big novel continued. Papa even commissioned Bernice Hicks, a secretary at the resort, to type and retype most of the first 24 chapters he had finished. And, Tillie Arnold recalled, Papa and his entourage stuck to their social routine: "drinks at Glamour House and dinner together, usually at The Ram."
The final touches
In 1940—after wintering in Cuba—Hemingway and Gellhorn returned to Sun Valley on September 6. In his first weeks back, Papa was "holed up" in Glamour House, getting the novel ready for publication, Tillie recalled in The Idaho Hemingway. "He had the final galley proofs of his book and he was going over them methodically, making last minute changes and corrections," she wrote.
It was on October 10 that Papa went into the resort's camera shop and announced that he was done, that the galleys were ready to be mailed to Scribner's. Tillie helped him mail the package. The next day, Lloyd took some additional publicity photos of Papa. Scribner's had already chosen a now-famous shot of Papa sitting at his typewriter in Sun Valley to be on the dust jacket of the novel. Now, the publisher wanted a photo to blow up into a life-size image for use in a sales display in New York City.
By all accounts, Papa relaxed considerably after the galleys were sent off. He and a new friend, actor Gary Cooper, hunted and played tennis by day and enjoyed cocktails and dinner at Trail Creek Cabin by night. Cooper didn't stay all fall, but the seeds of a solid friendship were sowed.
The book was published on October 21, 1940. Copies soon arrived in Sun Valley, and by October 25, Paramount film studio offered $100,000 for the movie rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls—the highest price ever for a novel. Paramount released the film in July 1943. The lead role of Robert Jordan was played by Gary Cooper. The beautiful, young Maria was played by one of the leading actresses of the time, Ingrid Bergman.
A place in history
For Hemingway, the success of For Whom the Bell Tolls was a big boost to an accomplished career that had started to wane. His most celebrated novels prior—The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms—were both published in the 1920s. "The book won incredible acclaim," Peterson said. "It was a huge best-seller and it really got Hemingway back on track."
Purdy, who still lives and works where he took Papa duck hunting at Silver Creek, said he wasn't always as "impressed" with Hemingway as others were, mainly because he just viewed him as a good friend—and able outdoorsman—not a celebrity author. He had read Green Hills of Africa and some of Papa's short stories and liked them but never felt inclined toward lavish praise. Then, last winter, he picked up an old, signed copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls that Papa had given him. He read the book and developed a new appreciation for Papa's writing. "I liked it," he said. "I liked the descriptive sentences. It was very different."
Valerie Hemingway, a Montana writer who served as Papa's secretary in 1959 and 1960 and later married Papa's son Gregory, said she sees For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of Papa's top three novels and one of the most important works of fiction from the 20th century.
In 1959, Valerie visited Spain with Papa. "We walked on the bridge that Robert Jordan and his companions planned to blow up and paused at the exact spot where Jordan died, as Ernest described how he devised the final passages," she said. "Hemingway often built his fiction around actual places and incidents, which is one of the reasons his stories are so real and believable that the reader forgets it is fiction."
The glamour lives on
Today, Glamour House is one of Sun Valley Resort's finest suites. Papa's image—and to some, his ghost—looms everywhere. Papa hunting. Papa laughing with his Sun Valley friends.
It has been 60 years since Papa stayed there, but one can easily imagine him seated before the French doors, breathing the cool morning air, clutching his pen and pages. As he appears in the photos of Life, one can picture him laughing on the outside deck with his new wife, prepared to take his throne among writers—hoping the bell will toll no time soon.