While Ernest Hemingway and President Kennedy never met, President Kennedy more than once expressed his admiration for Hemingway and his work. In the opening sentence of his own Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, Kennedy cited Hemingway’s description of courage, writing that, “This is a book about the most admirable of human virtues — courage. ‘Grace under pressure,’ Ernest Hemingway defined it.”
Hemingway was among the American artists, writers, and musicians invited by President and Mrs. Kennedy to attend the 1961 inauguration, but the author was too ill to travel.
In a statement released by the White House when Hemingway died, President Kennedy noted: "Few Americans have had a greater impact on the emotions and attitudes of the American people than Ernest Hemingway.... He almost single-handedly transformed the literature and the ways of thought of men and women in every country in the world."
When Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, a large portion of his literary and personal estate remained at his Cuban home, the Finca Vigia, which he had left during Fidel Castro’s revolution. Despite a U.S. ban on travel to Cuba – the result of high tensions between the two countries following the Bay of Pigs incident – President Kennedy made arrangements for Mary Hemingway, Ernest’s widow, to enter Cuba to claim family documents and belongings.
While in Cuba, Mrs. Hemingway met with Fidel Castro who allowed her to take her husband’s papers and the artwork he collected in exchange for the donation of their Finca Vigia home and its remaining belongings to the Cuban people. With Fidel Castro’s personal approval she was able to ship crates of papers and paintings on a shrimp boat from Havana to Tampa.
Mary gathered more material from other places Hemingway had lived and placed the resulting mass of documents and artifacts in storage while she weighed offers from several prospective repositories.
Mrs. Hemingway was later the guest of President and Mrs. Kennedy at the White House dinner for the Nobel Prize winners in April, 1962 where Ernest Hemingway was honored as one of America’s distinguished Nobel laureates. Following this dinner Frederic March read excerpts from the works of three previous Nobel Prize winners, Sinclair Lewis, George C. Marshall, and Hemingway – the opening pages from his then-unpublished Islands in the Stream.
In 1964, at the suggestion of journalist and writer William Walton, a friend of both the Kennedys and Hemingways, Mary Hemingway contacted Jacqueline Kennedy and offered her husband’s collection to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which was then being planned as a national memorial to the 35th President.
Mary wanted the various drafts – many written in Hemingway's "big sprawling hand" – available so people could see the writing process from initial idea "to the point where it is finally published the way the author thinks is the best." And she wanted to give the collection "to some place where [Hemingway] would be to himself and have a little personal distinction."
A 1968 exchange of letters between Mary Hemingway and Jacqueline Kennedy confirmed that the Hemingway papers would be archived at the Kennedy Library. In 1972, Mrs. Hemingway deeded the collection to the Kennedy Presidential Library and began depositing papers in its Archives.
When Mrs. Onassis announced the gift of the papers in 1972, she noted that the collection would “help to fulfill our hope that the Library will become a center for the study of American civilization, in all its aspects, in these years.”
On July 18, 1980, Patrick Hemingway, the writer’s son by his second wife Pauline, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis dedicated the Hemingway Room in the newly opened John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point.