Hemingway apparently was mistaken when he said: ‘Nobody in Oak Park likes me, I suppose.’
Ernest Hemingway probably never watched a bullfight here, never shot big game--though a friend says he bagged a weasel once--and never let a drop of rum pass his lips in what was a once a bastion of teetotalers.
“Papa,” as legions of fans would one day come to call Hemingway, was born and bred in this stately suburb on Chicago’s western edge. He left in 1917, at age 18, to begin his adventures, and after his father committed suicide in 1928, refused all invitations to return.
After all, this was the town where his mother reportedly dressed him in girl’s clothing. Here also was the epitome of progressive Republicanism in all its refinement, and dullness.
“He loved action, and because of that he didn’t look back at all,” said Lewis Clarahan, 91, one of Hemingway’s few boyhood pals still living. Legend has it that Hemingway referred to Oak Park as a community of “broad lawns and narrow minds.”
But if Oak Park feels snubbed, it is not showing it. Last week, the town tossed a 90th birthday bash for its native son. Along with films, lectures and stage adaptations of his works, there was a two-day street party to honor his more adventurous side with can-can girls, reggae music and flowing “A Papa Dobles,” the potent rum concoction that Papa enjoyed.
If nothing else, the festivities showed how much Oak Park has changed. After Hemingway became famous, residents here were often appalled at his love for drink, women and foul language.
The celebration also underlined Oak Park’s appreciation of its creative history, which transcends even the immortal Papa. Here, Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked much of his life; Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote “Tarzan.” Playwright Charles MacArthur of “The Front Page” fame began writing here and Oak Park literary circles entertained Carl Sandburg. The Oak Park public library continues to sponsor readings from local authors’ works.
Key West Wins Out
Still, Hemingway’s estrangement from his hometown was strong--so strong that even the post office resisted recognizing Oak Park’s claim to fame. The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park lobbied for a decade for a stamp honoring the Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author. The postal authorities finally agreed, but the stamp was unveiled last week in Key West, Fla., where Hemingway did much of his writing in a house that is now a public museum.
” . . . We just felt that in the minds of the American public, Key West is more identifiable with Hemingway than Oak Park,” said James Murphy of the Postal Service in Washington.
Finally, after some arm-twisting from Illinois politicians, postal officials scheduled a follow-up ceremony in Oak Park, which took place Friday.
“It was a lot of work,” conceded Scott Schwar, the Hemingway Foundation chairman. " . . . I felt the birthday was what we really wanted.”
It was here, after all, that Hemingway received his only formal education, sang in the church choir and probably wrote his first story.
Friend Recalls Story
“I remember him pulling out the last page of a story,” Clarahan said. He no longer could recall the premise of what he calls “Ernie’s” story,” but still remembers the pride with which Hemingway, then 14, read it aloud. “He was sure he had written a good story.” That first reading took place in Hemingway’s third-floor bedroom, his sanctuary from an overbearing mother and a bustling household.
If it were not for a marker on the broad lawn, the author’s ghost might have a hard time recognizing his old home on North Kenilworth Avenue. Still privately owned, the house has been broken up into three spacious apartments. The music room, an annex where Hemingway boxed while his siblings kept watch for a sure-to-be angry mother, has been torn down. And the first-floor room that was the office of his doctor father--complete with a life-size skeleton--is now a front bedroom.
Not everyone here cares whether Hemingway’s ties to their town are remembered. “It’s a lot of fuss about nothing,” said one longtime resident as she rested on a bench beside the memorial to local World War I veterans--among them Hemingway.
But hers apparently is a lonely voice. The town now hopes to have a permanent memorial to Hemingway.
Boyhood Home Sought
The Kenilworth property belongs to an 85-year-old widow who has left instructions in her will that the Hemingway Foundation is to have first purchase rights. The foundation hopes eventually to buy the house and convert it into offices for artists, a cultural center and a rooming house for literary researchers. Schwar said the foundation would like “a varied look rather than a staid museum.”
Hemingway apparently was mistaken in 1952 when he told a biographer: “Nobody in Oak Park likes me, I should suppose.”
At the postage stamp ceremony Friday, A. E. Hotchner, author of “Papa Hemingway” and one of Hemingway’s close friends, said: “I’ve been sitting here wondering if Ernest was alive, if he would be here today. Yes, I think he would be here, for all that’s been said about his feelings for Oak Park. It is deeply ingrained in him. He would have made a lousy speech, but he would have been moved.”