I recently saw the movie In Love and War, based on Ernest Hemingway’s life. It brought back many memories. Nine years ago this January 22, Oak Park celebrated the Midwest premiere of this movie at the Lake Theatre. That in itself was quite a coup and the occasion was embellished with the star, Chris O’Donnell, arriving in a limousine on the coldest night of the year.
Teenyboppers jammed Lake Street waiting for his arrival. To his credit, he ignored the advice of his managers who told him to go straight inside. O’Donnell said, “These pople have come to see me, and they will,” and he stood outside, shivering, and signed autographs, gave hugs, and answered questions from his fans.
The movie In Love and War is based on Hemingway’s love affair with Agnes von Kurowsky, the Red Cross nurse who tended his wounds in World War I. She was embarassed by their difference in age (she was 28, he was 18) and the movie is supposedly based on her diaries.
Virginia Cassin, former president of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, which sponsored the fundraiser performance, reminisces, “Initially, Chris O’Donnell spent a day in Oak Park to get a feeling for the part. We gave him a tour of Hemingway’s two houses and the high school he attended. We showed him the ‘Dear John’ letter in our museum that Agnes had written to Ernest breaking off their relationship. O’Donnell asked lots of questions, such as, ‘What would the postman who delivered the letter be wearing?’ and ‘Where was the mailbox located?’
The Hemingway Foundation felt it was important to have Chris attend the Oak Park premiere. He said it wasn’t possible because of his schedule. But nothing is impossible to Ginny Cassin. She learned that Chris is one of seven children, and his mother lives in the north suburbs. Ginny, the mother of eight children herself, immediately made a connection with Mrs. O’Donnell and invited all of them to come as the foundation’s guests to see her son’s premiere. What about Chris not coming to Oak Park? His mom said she would take care of that. And, of course, she did!
The publicity was overwhelming … local papers, city papers, television and radio. Local restaurants provided food. There was a red carpet for the celebrities, and Hemingway displays all over the theater. The Lake had donated its services for this benefit to help restore Hemingway’s birthplace.
Hemingway Foundation members were eager to see the film. They had worked so hard to impress the producers and directors on the role that Oak Park played. They hoped the film would be factually correct.
Of course, it was not. Ginny points out that they depicted Clarence and Grace, Ernest’s parents, as elderly, like grandparents. One of the biggest complaints was that Oak Park was filmed in Canada with the boyhood home depicted as a large Victorian, instead of the real house at 600 N. Kenilworth which was readily available. Another discrepancy was that the film had Agnes return to Walloon Lake at the end, which never happened in real life. Ginny says, “We were told that this film would ‘put Oak Park on the map.’ So we were eager to see the credits at the end. We waited breathlessly. We were chagrined! Not one mention of Oak Park!”
We began to understand why Ernest Hemingway took a dim view of Hollywood. Frank M. Laurence, a literary scholar, wrote a book, Hemingway and the Movies, in 1981 in which he delineated Hemingway’s attitudes towards the movies in general, his business dealings with Hollywood, and his theories about film adaptations.
Over the years, Hollywood produced 15 movies from Hemingway’s stories and novels. Film by film, Laurence shows how Hollywood sentimentalized love interests, converted to happier endings, and enhanced “box office appeal” with epic spectacles.
In the case of In Love and in War, however, all was not lost. The Hemingway Foundation made a substantial profit, scores of excited females got their blood presssure elevated, and at least the O’Donnell family knows that Oak Park is on the map!