New Hemingway family letter points to history of depression

Document discovered in River Forest home once owned by author's mom

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By ROBERT K. ELDER

Contributing Reporter

The darkest, most haunting part of the letter comes in the middle.

"I had several seconds of complete blackness a few weeks ago," writes Leicester C. Hall, describing a moment of catatonic paralysis. "I made several attempts to open my eyes. They seemed to be sealed. Finally I seemed to make a final despairing effort … and I came back. No pain, no joy, no grief, mental or physical, during the struggle. I don't know whether it was a foretaste of death or only a dream."

Hall was the uncle of Ernest Hemingway, and the namesake of Hemingway's only brother, Leicester. This newly discovered letter sheds light on the Hemingway family's generational battle against clinical depression. 

Dr. Andrew Farah, author of Hemingway's Brain, calls Hall's letter "fascinating."

 "When we see depression with catatonia, we often are dealing with a bipolar illness," says Farah, who serves as the chief of psychiatry in the High Point Division of the University of North Carolina Healthcare System.

"It certainly confirms and solidifies that understanding that there was a genetic basis for the depression," Farah says.

This letter, along with a small trove of Hemingway family documents, was brought to my attention by James R. Hopkinson, a Chicago attorney, when I toured in support of my book, "Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park." 

Hall likely sent the letter in 1943 or 1944 to his sister Grace Hall Hemingway, the mother of Ernest. Hall identifies himself as 70 years old at the time.

He seemed to have some difficulty composing the letter, which is typed on one and a half pages of his letterhead.

 "My mind, (what is left of it), goes blank when I try to write a personal letter," Hall writes his sister. "For several months I have been carrying around with me in a brief case your last three letters … hoping against hope that I might have some inspiration or mental uplift from the sordidness of existence that I might write something encouraging to you. No luck."

In Hemingway family lore, Leceister Hall was a figure of adventure, entrepreneurship and tragedy. Relatively little has been written about him in Hemingway biographies, but a few details have surfaced: 

Hall was the beloved only brother of Grace Hemingway, and she wrote at least one piece of music in his honor, "The Leicester Waltz." Hall was a graduate of Amherst College, a Greek scholar, an amateur musician and a thrill-seeker who braved the winters of Alaska to search for gold in the Yukon. 

He was a supply officer in an aero squadron during World War I, but he went missing in action in 1918, possibly taken by the Germans as a prisoner of war. By December of that year, however, Hall had been accounted for and was sent back to Allied soil.

When he returned to the U.S., however, Hall found that his wife, Nevada Butler Hall, had died of influenza. After the war, Hall settled in Bakersfield, California, where he practiced law. By 1949, after this letter was written, Hall started to suffer from chronic insomnia.

Legacy of suicide

This letter is notable for another reason. It is evidence of clinical depression on both sides of Hemingway's family. The only previous link had been a family story told by Marcelline Hemingway in her family history "At the Hemingways" (1962), about a suicide attempt made by her grandfather, Leicester Hall's father.

"Clearly, if one parent or one grandparent has depression or bipolar disorder, it certainly increases the risk to descendants. But if you get it from both sides, it is a magnified risk," Farah says.   

The legacy of suicide seemed to permeate Ernest Hemingway's world.

"I'll probably go the same way," remarked Hemingway after his own father's suicide, and upon learning that his first wife's father also shot himself.

How letter was found

"Reading it again, it was just so sad. At first, I had no idea who Leicester was," says Hopkinson, who moved into the River Forest home formerly owned by Hemingway's mother, Grace Hall.

Grace moved into the house at 551 Keystone Ave. in 1936, and lived there until her death in 1951. She used the property's large garage studio to pursue her hobby of painting landscape canvases, a few of which were left behind after the sale by the Hemingway family, along with some furnishings and the letter from Leicester. 

Other artifacts that survived include a first edition of "At the Hemingways" inscribed by Marcelline Hemingway and a small notebook in which Grace catalogued the birthday gifts she'd given Ernest, starting in 1899 ("First gift of Gold Coin, $5").

When Hopkinson bought the house in 1998, the Hemingway family artifacts came with the purchase. 

Hopkinson and his family have since moved out of the River Forest home, but he hopes that the material adds something to Hemingway scholarship and helps people understand the family's struggle against clinical depression.

"I thought it had passed from father to son, but clearly his uncle is suffering from the same despair," says Hopkinson.

And yet, Hall showed bravery in facing his own mortality. 

In a sentiment he attributes to the historian Lewis Mumford, Hall writes that "the greatest glory and triumph a man can have is to face inevitable disaster without flinching." 

It's almost as if he was quoting his nephew Ernest, who said that having guts is "grace under pressure."

Robert K. Elder is the co-author of "Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park" and seven other books.

Reader Comments

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Storer H. Bob Rowley from Evanston  

Posted: March 17th, 2018 5:15 PM

Fascinating story, Rob, it sheds even more light on the darkness in that family that led to great art and great tragedy.

Deborah Preiser from River Forest  

Posted: March 7th, 2018 10:06 AM

Rob: How lucky you were to meet this man who lived in Mrs. Hemingway's River Forest home and be able to add to the history of depression and suicide in the Hemingway family. Love that Mrs. H kept records of her gifts to Ernest.

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