Sunday, September 13, 2015

24 hours in Chicago, Part 2 of 2

After touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio (that post is here), Dear Husband and I walked around Oak Park in the lovely early fall weather. Unity Temple is still shrouded while undergoing extensive restoration, so DH suggested we come back in a year or two so that he can run the Chicago Marathon, and we can tour this other FLW gem. Of course I agreed! Lunch was at Eyrie, the Robert Morrison student restaurant, which was designed and is run by students. For a seasonal menu that changes monthly, the offerings are diverse, from soups and salads to flatbreads, entrée, and desserts. DH had steak, while I tried the Creamy Poblano and Potato Soup and a house salad with a subtle and delicious dressing.

Then we walked up to the Ernest Hemingway Museum in the Cultural Center, a rather amateur operation doing the best it can in a space that was not designed as a museum (it's a former church). The individual exhibits are mostly well done--staff are particularly proud of the antique doors used as cases--but their layout leaves something to be desired from an aesthetic and organizational angle.

We watched a 6-minute video about Ernest's high school years as well as an hour-long episode from a black-and-white BBC documentary about...what I'm not entirely sure; I put my head on DH's lap and fell asleep for part of it. Despite having read A Farewell to Arms about 15 years ago, I honestly didn't know anything about EM except the joke "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "To die. In the rain." It turns out he wrote poetry, too. 
Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time. 
Lives of football men remind us,
   We can dive and kick and slug,
And departing leave behind us,
   Hoof prints on another's mug. 
~From "A Psalm of Life" (191?). The first stanza is a quotation from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's much more earnest "The Psalm of Life" (1838).

Nevertheless, I picked up the idea that Hemingway wanted to write about the world so clearly, so journalistically, that emotion would naturally follow in the reader. In fact, right out of high school he went to work for The Kansas City Star, whose style rules informed his writing: few adjectives, no extraneous words, active verbs, no passive voice, etc. In 1918, Hemingway signed up as an ambulance driver in Italy and was seriously wounded. He fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse who was older than he; her breaking up with him became the basis for Farewell and for his future relationships. That he wanted to be the dumper rather than the dumpee may have had something to do with the fact that he was married four times. The gift shop--set up in what must once have been a coat closet--sells t-shirts with an arrow pointing up: "Ernest Hemingway's fifth wife."

The birth house is just up the street. A new doctor fresh out of training, Hemingway’s father Clarence Edward fell in love with Grace Hall, the daughter of the cutlery magnate living catty-corner from his parents. When her New York opera career under the bright stage lights clashed with her sight-loss from scarlet fever as a child, she took a European tour and then returned to Oak Park to marry, raise six children, and run a successful voice studio from her father’s house. (Her monthly income as a music teacher and performer was regularly several multiples of Dr. Ed’s.)

One of the things we learned was what American Queen Anne style looks like. Popular from 1880 to 1910, it involves an asymmetrical facade with a wrap-around porch, a tower, bay or oriel windows, front-facing gables, often with ornamented eaves, a wooden or slate roof, and decorative trim like painted balustrades (borrowed heavily from Wikipedia).

The first four Hemingway children were born in this house; the fifth at their Michigan summer cottage; and the sixth at the family’s second home. Young Ernest’s first brush with death came at age six with the death of his maternal grandfather, Abba, whose will decreed that his possessions be sold and the proceeds divided between Grace and her brother, by then a successful lawyer in LA. So the house was sold, and the family moved a couple blocks away.

We heard a lot of anecdotes about the house, like the breakfast table where Abba told the children stories, and about the traveling salesman uncle who lived with them when he wasn’t on the road, but DH and I had to learn later from Wikipedia that both suicide and (apparently) hemochromatosis both ran in the family. Hemingway's father shot himself at the age of 57 in 1928, depressed and worried about his finances. Ernest shot himself in 1961, just shy of his 62 birthday. He had a host of risk factors in addition to the family history: elderly white man with access to guns and two recent psychiatric hospitalizations for psychosis that included dozens of electroconvulsive therapy treatments. He may have been right to be suspicious: the FBI had been watching him for 15 years. Reportedly, he had found out he was also facing the same metabolic genetic disorder that his father had struggled with. 20 years later, his younger brother Leicester ended his life in the same way, after years of diabetes mellitus II and many surgeries. Ernest's sister Ursula and granddaughter Margaux sadly died of drug overdoses in 1966 and 1996, respectively.

I'll try end on a happier note.The photo on the left is one of my favorites. It's from Ernest's father's bedroom, which is decorated today with symbols of his profession as a physician; I didn't realize until later that DH is captured in the mirror, too. On the right is the house's one bathroom, with indoor plumbing; it demonstrates an intermediate phase in Victorian design: rich wood panels but porcelain fixtures and tile floor. The house tour was just right at about an hour long; although there was much more to see at the museum, I doubt we will come back, even though one paid admission is good for two visits in one calendar year.

"The Old Man & the Nazi Submarine Patrols."

There were a couple of these ironic revisions of classic EH titles; this was DH's favorite, as it references the time Hemingway spent during World War II patrolling the Caribbean in his personal fishing rig, since he was too old to enlist with the military again.


  1. Thanks to a Longfellow

    Lives of women all remind us
    They can do all that men can.
    And departing, leave behind us
    Children's footprints in the sand.

  2. Thanks again.
    An old man with no sea.


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