Collier's Hired Hemingway to Cover WWII, and Ended Up with a $187,000 Expense Claim

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The Columbia Journalism Review this week published in its online edition my piece on Ernest Hemingway’s coverage of the Western European theatre in 1944 for Collier’s Magazine. In an early draft, I’d called the piece “The Biggest Blown Assignment in American Journalism” because the Hemingway-Collier’s union fell well short of the magic it should have produced.

In the end, the most noteworthy part of Hemingway’s involvement with Collier’s was his expense claim that would have been worth $187,000 in today’s dollars. As I wrote my piece, the expense report became the climax of the story, and the thing that the CJR editors picked up on in the article’s headline.

This article was a lot of fun to write– it’s something I began working on more than a decade ago. I finally wrote it this winter when I should have been working on the second book in The Haight series of murder mysteries. I’m delighted it’s been published.

I came to the piece as I was researching my book Hemingway on the China Front early in the century. It chronicled Hemingway and his third wife Martha Gellhorn (a Collier’s correspondent) traveling to Asia to cover the Sino-Japanese conflict in 1941, and my research took me to one of my favourite places anywhere – the New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth.

That magnificent edifice is home to the archives of Collier’s, which was an extraordinary magazine. People tend to remember its main competitor The Saturday Evening Post, because its title and covers by Norman Rockwell generate such joyful nostalgia. But Collier’s was a huge media empire with a weekly circulation of 2.8 million. It didn’t try to compete with Time on being the first weekly to report the news. It focused on great writing that brought current events to life.

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When I visited the NYPL, the archivist couldn’t find the photocopies of the correspondence between Hemingway, Gellhorn and the Collier’s editors. So she asked me if I’d mind working with the originals. No, I said, I wouldn’t mind at all. So I was handling letters that day that Hemingway had written himself – and they were really well preserved, despite the acid of his prose.

It turned out that just after the Asia trip, Hemingway locked horns with Collier’s Publisher William Chenery and they fired off a few nasty missives to each other. Here’s what struck me: these two men obviously couldn’t stand each other, but Chenery in the spring of 1944 signed up Hemingway to cover the Allied invasion of France, which everyone knew was coming.

I dug into the matter, researching it at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, which has the world’s greatest Hemingway collection.  What I found was a toxic relationship that brought out the worst in Hemingway and the publication.

You can understand Chenery’s initial thinking. One of America’s biggest magazines would hire America’s biggest novelist to report on a timeless historical event. The result should have been journalism for the ages.

But it wasn’t.

Several things converged to work against the Hemingway-Collier’s partnership. A key editor Charles Colebaugh died mysteriously. Hemingway’s personal life was in upheaval. And most of all, the great writer simply wasn’t interested in journalism at that time.

But what he did do was file the greatest expense claim I’ve ever heard of. With a few drinks in them, most reporters have some great stories about expense claims – their own, and other journalists’. But none comes close to Hemingway’s. I think the guy deserved his Nobel Prize just for writing that expense claim.

One thing I’ve learned about researching Hemingway is that there has been more biographical material written about him than any other literary figure ever. So you’re never going to find huge expanses of green field. What I’m proud of with this article is that it has a few nuggets of the Hemingway story that were never reported before – the death of Colebaugh, the expense claim, Hemingway’s disgust with the Collier’s editors.

I’d like to thank the Columbia Journalism Review editors Nausicaa Renner and Ravi Somaiya for working with me on the article. It was a lot of fun.