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Bernice Kert, 81; Author Wrote About the Women Who Loved Hemingway

July 26, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Bernice Galansky Kert, a biographer who started researching her first nonfiction book at the age of 50 and wrote about the female companions of two larger-than-life men, has died. She was 81.

Kert died of respiratory failure Saturday at CedarsSinai Medical Center, said her daughter Elizabeth Kert.

"The Hemingway Women: Those Who Loved Him -- the Wives and Others," which detailed the tangled relationships of Ernest Hemingway, was published in 1983.

A decade later, her account of a woman who walked a delicate tightrope in her marriage to John D. Rockefeller Jr. appeared in "Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family."

"I always knew I wanted to be a writer," Kert told The Times in 1983, "but as a young woman I lacked the single-minded zeal necessary for a literary career."

Life also got in the way.

She married an Army doctor at 21, had three children and supported her husband's consuming career as a Beverly Hills cardiologist. Serious writing was sidelined until her youngest child entered first grade.

At 40, she started writing fiction, eventually selling several short stories and completing three unpublished novels.

Along the way, she took a class on "The Art of Fiction" from Robert R. Kirsch, who was then The Times' book editor. She was inspired by a note she had taken on a lecture about Hemingway and his four wives: Nothing definitive had been written about the women in his life.

In its 1983 review -- headlined "The Old Man and the She: Ego in Ernest" -- The Times called "The Hemingway Women" "a compelling group portrait" and said Kert had presented "the most complete portrait so far" of Grace Hall, Hemingway's mother.

For her next biography, Kert wanted to focus on one woman in an area she didn't know much about.

She chose Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller. Only one slim biography had been published on her, in 1950. A Guggenheim fellowship funded Kert's research.

The Times' 1994 review said she had an "eye for offbeat biography" and praised Kert's richly detailed portrait of Rockefeller, daughter of a prosperous U.S. senator, who married into a family whose assets made hers look like petty cash.

The author was born in St. Louis to Gus Galansky, a wholesale grocer, and his wife, Mary.

As a senior majoring in English at the University of Michigan, Kert won the university's Avery Hopwood Award for young writers, an honor also given to playwright Arthur Miller, among others.

After earning her bachelor's degree in English in 1944, she taught English as a graduate student and sold her first short story, "Look at Me, Lorrie," in 1946 to a new magazine called Seventeen.

But her career was put on hold after she married Morley Kert, who joined the university's department of cardiology.

"When my husband decided to move to California, I was a little wistful because I would have made teaching my career," she told The Times.

They moved here in 1948, and her husband built a private practice while doing clinical research at UCLA.

When Kert traveled for research, her husband or one of her children often went with her.

"She was always supportive and a feminist before her time," said her daughter. "She always encouraged me to read the New York Times and wear nice clothes."

In addition to her daughter, Kert is survived by another daughter, Kathryn Kert Green; a son, Charles; a sister; and eight grandchildren. Her husband died in 1990.

Services are scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 Centinela Ave. in Culver City.

The family has asked that memorial donations be sent either to PEN Center, 672 S. Lafayette Park Place No. 42, Los Angeles, CA 90057, or to the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, 630 W. 5th St., Los Angeles, CA 90071.

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