By Shawn Gilley
July 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Oak Park's most famous native son, Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is busy planning the annual birthday celebration (July 21), but lately they've been getting more questions about his death.
Hemingway's suicide in 1961, did not catch the local newspaper entirely by surprise. An editorial in the Oak Leaves described the news as an "anti-climax [for a man who had] brushed death frequently throughout the years." They also carried a full obituary.
John Berry, chairman of EHFOP, explained that suicide ran in the family before and after Ernest. His grandfather, Ernest Hall, attempted suicide with a Civil War-era .32 caliber pistol but failed because his son-in-law, Clarence, Ernest's father, had removed the bullets.
Ironically, Clarence took his own life in 1928 with that same pistol, Berry said. When Ernest refused to attend the funeral, his mother sent him the pistol. It was not, however, the gun he used in Idaho to take his life.
Hemingway's brother, Leicester; his sister, Ursula; and his granddaughter, Margaux, committed suicide as well.
By 1961, Hemingway was suffering from depression, partly caused by the sudden departure from his longtime home in Cuba, Finca Vigia, following the revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Rose Marie Burwell explains in Hemingway: the postwar years and the posthumous novels that he was also diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a rare blood disease that, left untreated, causes extensive organ damage, especially when compounded by drinking. That condition appears to have run through the family as well.
Redd Griffin, founding director and longtime member of EHFOP, said the organization is not ignoring the anniversary of his death. The foundation has held seminars about the suicide in the recent past. And less than a month ago during a Memorial Day service at the World War I memorial in Scoville Park, Berry placed a wreath by Hemingway's name to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death.
Berry says the lack of fanfare devoted to the anniversary is not a result of shame. "The foundation, for its part, is really focused on the fine work of Ernest Hemingway over a span of highly productive years. It's about Hemingway the writer and his global impact, not so much about a life lived large."
Griffin said the 50-year milestone does afford Oak Park a chance to memorialize Hemingway personally.
In July of 1961, he recalled, "I was on the sidewalk at the northeast corner of North Avenue and LaSalle Street when I saw a front-page story about Hemingway's death in the window of a newspaper vending stand. After working the late shift, I drove with a fellow reporter from City News Bureau to see the house where Hemingway was born in Oak Park. When we arrived at daybreak, the roof and third floor windows of its turret were faintly lit by the sun.
"That is my memorial, that's what is important," he explained. After 50 years, he added, "[Hemingway's] legacy and impact is still very much alive. In fact, it's constantly growing."