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September 27, 2012

Dear Papa: Letters to Hemingway get crucial repair

ANDOVER — The paper conservator’s scalpel picked at the red and black specks, flicking away the fly droppings that had stained Ingrid Bergman’s letter to Ernest Hemingway.

“I shall remember people like you and forget the rest of the world,” the actress wrote to her author friend from Rome in 1950.

Six decades later, an effort to preserve that memory, and others that are part of the writer’s legacy, recently began inside a New England lab.

From mold, to mice, to moisture, the JFK Library and Museum in Boston is trying to save its collection of Hemingway’s incoming letters from different damage that has been degrading the batch as it ages. Box by box, thousands of letters to the author are heading to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover for mending, washing, flattening and other repairs.

The center is a nonprofit that has also treated other parts of the Library’s Hemingway collection, as well as materials including Abraham Lincoln’s family Bible and documents George Washington wrote.

Walter Newman, the center’s paper conservation director, said the goal of the current Hemingway project is to slow down the different processes that are degrading the letters. Experts surveyed the damage about 18 months ago, and restoration work started on a recent afternoon when assistant conservator Claire Grund went to work on Bergman’s letter, among others.

“You can sort of pick them off,” Grund said, her scalpel targeting the insect excrement by the “Yours Ingrid” sign-off in the letter Bergman addressed to “My dear Mister Papa.”

About half of the 7,500 letters in the incoming collection need restoration work. JFK Library’s Hemingway curator Susan Wrynn said most letters are worth around $5,000.

Wrynn estimates the preservation project will take two or three more years and cost at least $300,000. The JFK Foundation is working on raising funds to cover the price.

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