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Ernest Hemingway was a young man when he left Oak Park and it was many years before they realized how much they liked him. His family still lived in a handsome house on Kenilworth Avenue when The Sun Also Rises was published and the Tribune reviewed it using words like “trivial” and “degraded.” Grace Hall Hemingway was ashamed to show her face at the Current Books Study Group after that. I would give a trip to Havana to see her sashay into one of her old hangouts like the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club next week when Oak Park throws him a 100th birthday party with a bull run and a conference of scholars and two black-tie dances that would make any mother proud.
Never mind that he said Oak Park is a place with “wide lawns and narrow minds” and always told people he hated it there. He said he ran away from home too and that was a lie. After his work had spawned a whole scholarship industry an explanation came to light. He associated the town with Grace, they said. That was not a happy thing because he usually referred to her as “that bitch.”
“I hate her guts and she hates mine,” he wrote his publisher.
“She forced my father to suicide,” he said. But some of the scholars thought it was the frilly dresses he disliked. The ones she put him in when he was a baby and she wanted to pretend he and his older sister were twins. Lots of little boys wore dresses then, but those photographs can still be a hard thing for a man to meet head-on. It also bothered him that she was a musician and artist and had her own summer cottage and went to California to give concerts and tried not to spend all her time cooking and cleaning even with six children, they said.
Nor did it help that she kicked him out. He had gone to the war in Italy as a Red Cross ambulance driver and got himself wounded and come back in a fine fake uniform that made it look like he was a soldier and then just hung around exaggerating his exploits. After more than a year of this, Grace wrote a letter advising him to “stop trying to graft a living off anybody and everybody.
“A mother’s love seems to me like a bank,” she wrote. “You have over drawn.”
“Pack up,” his father urged in a separate note.
“Nobody in Oak Park likes me,” Hemingway later said.
For a while it seemed to be true. He had played varsity football, starred in the class play, edited the school paper, and managed the track team, but his classmates at Oak Park and River Forest High School told an interviewer for Life that he was conceited and a sloppy dresser and not too popular.
“I was smaller than he was, but I could always lick him,” one of them bragged. “He was always yellow. He always tried to be the big shot and never was.”
“The wonder to me and to a lot of other Oak Parkers,” one of his teachers said, “is how a boy brought up in Christian and Puritan nurture should know and write so well of the devil.”
The Oak Park Hemingway knew was straitlaced and proud of it, holding herself aloof from her brawling neighbors Cicero and Chicago. Swearing and sex were taboo. Gambling and liquor were illegal. The scholars are damn sure this is why he wrote stories about people who swore and fornicated and smoked and gambled and drank too much. But if they ever asked him about it they would see a flash of the old bad quick temper.
“If I had written about Oak Park you would have a point in studying it,” he told Charles Fenton, an early biographer. “But I did not write about it. I gave Oak Park a miss and never used it as a target.”
That was one true sentence, but sometimes he went a step further. Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, first visited Oak Park long after they had been divorced. When she arrived at the imposing house on Kenilworth Avenue she sat in stunned silence for a moment.
“Son of a bitch,” she finally said, so the story goes. “He told me he grew up in a slum.”
The Hemingway Centennial Celebration begins Wednesday, July 14, and continues through July 21–Hemingway’s birthday–in Oak Park. Call 708-848-2222 or see the festival sidebar in Section Two for a complete schedule of events. –Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Schumann.