Ernie Pyle’s Private Hell

Ernie Pyle and Dwight Eisenhower and Grace Metalious are the three main reasons I started this blog back in ought six. Their works were all showing up at flea markets and tag sales and I was getting a lot of enjoyment and erudication from them which I thought I might be able to share with the world.

I was particularly curious why their works had showed up side by side in the collection of a naval officer from New Hampshire who served in the Pacific, along with his copy of None Dare Call It Treason, a post-war anti-Communist Work that my grandfather also owned, as did the grandfathers of many old farts out there.

The answer is in my very first blog entry, titled Journeys Through History and Literature. I just went back and added a comment.

The very first time I ever read a line by Ernie Pyle, I decided I wanted to read everything he ever wrote. I never met him, but I feel like he’s one of my closest friends, and he had that effect on a lot of people, even before the war.

Once the war came, he spoke for the soldiers as no war correspondent ever has or ever will. I posted a photo once that shows Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley looking sheepish because they’re having their picture taken with Ernie Pyle.

There is simply no way to measure the American soldier’s esteem for Ernie Pyle, which he earned with his columns. He was the first American to own a Volkswagen. The 101st Airborne captured it in Tunisia and gave it to him “for sweating it out with us at the Kasserine Pass.” The army later made him give it back. Figures.

Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt were early fans, when he first wrote an aviation column and then went on the road with his wife Jerry, and then later when he reported from London to a neutral America about the blitz. I think his column This Dreadful Masterpiece is the most masterful use of the English language I have ever seen — on a par with Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.

Ernie was a one of the many hard-drinking, free-thinking journalists in Washington in the 30s, and he and Jerry ran a kind of beatnik/hippy crash pad before there was such a thing as beatniks or hippies. Visitors remember waking up to Jerry playing the piano.

Ernie served out his time as reporter and city editor, and through some serendipitous circumstances got the freedom to go on the road. At some point their drinking, particularly Jerry’s, became a serious problem. And then, I read that word (in Lee Miller’s biography of Ernie): methedrine.

From then on, in my opinion, Ernie was fighting a losing battle which he knew he couldn’t win, but fought on bravely anyhow.

His friend and one-time boss Lee Miller put it all in his biography of Ernie, letter after letter, futile gesture after futile gesture, and while I’m glad he did from my own point of view, because I really wanted to know all about it, even for a fanatical fan like me it became a bit tiresome.

But it showed the amazing volume of Ernie’s personal correspondence, on top of his professional writing, his columns for Scripps-Howard, which were printed on the front pages of newspapers all across the county.

He and Jerry got divorced, and she went to the sisters in Colorado to recuperate for the bajillionth time, and she did so well that they got married again — by proxy! While he was still overseas. You could do that in wartime.

But the actuality was vile treatment and vitriol every time Ernie came home, culminating in a bloody suicide attempt in their home in New Mexico. It was simply a nightmare — like Lincoln’s, but a lot worse.

Ernie died tragically at the very tail end of the war in the Pacific, and Jerry survived him by only a few years. To her credit she gave Lee Miller access to all their letters. Miller included them in his biography, so they are there for future researchers.

I think someone could make a brilliant libretto from a story like this.