Hemingway aficionados celebrate with style, sobriety

John Callaway discusses the Hemingway influence

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The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park celebrated their namesake's 106th birthday Thursday night with cake and sparkling grape juice and an engaging, extremely personal talk by John Callaway.

Callaway is best known as the longtime host of WTTW's Chicago Tonight, but his history as a journalist goes back a half century to the mid-1950s, when he dropped out of college and came to Chicago with 71 cents in his pocket, knowing no one.

He did, however, know Ernest Hemingway, who served as his model?#34;in good ways and in bad?#34;for many years. The young City News Bureau cub reporter copied Ernie's short, direct, declarative sentences when he filed his reports. Unfortunately, he also copied his drinking habits.

In effect, Callaway delivered an remarkably effective, anti-drinking message, recounting his wastrel ways with refreshing, even confessional honesty, yet with a sense of humor and with a grace of which no doubt his spiritual mentor would have approved.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, he frequented dives like Riccardo's and Figaro's with a journalistic/literary crowd and impersonated the "romantic disillusionment and heroic dissipation" of The Sun Also Rises. He was Jake Barnes, looking for his Lady Brett, even though he had a wife and two kids at home.

That marriage didn't last, and neither did the next. His third wife attended the talk in the auditorium of The Art Center, above the Hemingway Museum on Oak Park Avenue. No doubt she has heard all these stories before.

"I was deep into the throes of alcohol," Callaway said. "I had found my Left Bank."

At the age of 37, he stopped drinking because he got into television and simply became too busy and was too tired at the end of the day.

For awhile he blamed Hemingway for the personal wreckage caused by his habits, but eventually realized he had simply married too young. "I had to meet all the unattainable women I should have dated before marriage." What it came down to, he realized, was "I just wanted to get out of the house."

You can tell a lot about a peson by his heroes, Callaway said, and as he sobered up, his views of his hero changed as well.

Now when he reads The Sun Also Rises, "I'm less romantic about the booze. I want to get the characters into a rehab program." He says he once quantified the consumption and found that Jake Barnes' unofficial intake over the novel's two weeks tallies 62 drinks and 35 bottles of wine.

"That's my only contribution to scholarship this evening," he quipped.

Yet Callaway remains impressed by Hemingway the writer, and as he learns more about his life, including the influences in Oak Park that shaped him, he feels more compassion for this larger-than-life figure.

Callaway said he knows now that Hemingway was subjected to many positive forces during his life in the village, "yet he spent the rest of his life running away from them."

During the Q&A, he said, "If you want to be a world class journalist, avoid journalism school. Get the broadest and deepest liberal education possible and combine that with an understanding of economics and a street education."

He was also asked whether he would have liked interviewing Hemingway.

"That's a very daunting prospect," he replied. "The only one more difficult would be Richie Daley." But Hemingway didn't like to be interviewed, he noted.

"He wanted his writing to speak for itself," Callaway concluded. "I want his writing to speak for itself."

The evening included an awards presentation for the fifth annual Hemingway essay contest, won, for the second year in a row by recent Whitney Young graduate Eleanor Sharp.

The birthday toast and singing were led by Barbara Ballinger, director of the Hemingway Archives at the Oak Park Public Library, whose birthday also happens to fall on July 21.

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