Vie Hors Serie, Fin Dramatique: The Paris Press Coverage of the Death of Ernest Hemingway

By Bittner, John | The Hemingway Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Vie Hors Serie, Fin Dramatique: The Paris Press Coverage of the Death of Ernest Hemingway


Bittner, John, The Hemingway Review


ON THE UNUSUALLY COOL, FIRST MONDAY MORNING IN JULY 1961, business people and tourists walking the Ceamps-Elysees stopped outside the offices of Le Figaro to read from the long display case where the edition de 5 heur was posted. On the front page was continuing coverage of the festering Algerian problem dating back to November 1954 when the struggle for independence by the Muslim Front de Liberation Nationale commenced. The 3 July headline quoted President Charles de Gaulle, who had spoken the previous day in Metz about the crisis. With Algeria and de Gaulle crowding the French news hole, it was significant that a prominent photo on the front page of Le Figaro that morning showed a bearded man with his head slightly bowed, wearing a checked tweed cap. This photograph of Ernest Hemingway during a 1957 visit to Paris, taken by Pierre Lelievre, was positioned near the top of the page just under the masthead. The headline read," Vie hors serie, fin dramatique ..." (incomparable life, dramatic ending....). (1)

On the previous day at 7:30 A.M., Ernest Hemingway had met death in Ketchum, Idaho from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The shot triggered a news event of huge proportions. Virtually every major newspaper in the United States positioned the story prominently on its front page. (2) That could have been expected, especially in America, where a number of factors contributed to the extensive press coverage. For one, Hemingway's death was a violent death. Also, it was an American celebrity death. He had led a well-publicized, exciting life and had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. His death would have made news in the United States regardless of when, where, or how he died. Furthermore, Hemingway was a journalist, and journalists paid him their respects. The location of his death near Sun Valley caused the Sun Valley publicity office--well-stocked with Hemingway photos--to handle press relations. Finally, his death occurred on Sunday morning, the slowest news day of the week, and on the Sunday before the Fourth of July holiday, which in the United States creates a very large news hole. Normal news-producing sources--such as government offices and the courts--are closed.

But in France, the Fourth of July news hole did not exist. For the French press, Bastille Day on 14 July is the major news hole of the month. Hemingway's death was in the United States and therefore not easy to "localize;" there is no evidence that any French reporters were able to cover the event on location in Ketchum and Sun Valley. Moreover, the French crisis in Algiers was testing the mettle of President de Gaulle. Impending Algerian protests and de Gaulle's potential response were major national stories of high news value, even on Sunday. In addition, because of the time difference, the news of Hemingway's death did not reach France until late Sunday afternoon. One might surmise that under these circumstances, with little time to prepare Monday morning papers--then composed using a slow, hot-lead typesetting process-front-page coverage in the daily Paris papers would have been the exception, not the norm. But just the opposite was the case.

In a country where the press was more opinionated and politically aligned than in the United States, and in a city where the press was diversified and highly competitive, Hemingway's death was an apolitical story, attractive to editors during the early years of the Fifth Republic. Although the French press is a free press in the traditional sense, French law dating back to the 1800s permits censorship in a time of crisis. Article 16 of the Fifth Republic's constitution, adopted in 1959, gave the head of state the power to take any action necessary regarding the press. With the war in Algeria as a justification, the Fifth Republic used seizures and occasionally closed newspaper offices.

Hemingway's death proved to be a front-page story editors could sink their teeth into--the death of a Nobel Prize-winning author with strong ties to France. …

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