The mid-19th-century Hallett & Cumston square grand piano, sitting in the parlor of the 1890 Ernest Hemingway birthplace home, previously no more than a decoration, is finally tuned. And the house is likewise coming to life with programs inspired by Hemingway himself, beginning with Friday @ Hemingway’s, a monthly event where community members and Ernest Hemingway Foundation members will gather to enjoy the arts, items from the library archives and a drink.
At this month’s inaugural event, OPRF High School graduate and Civic Orchestra of Chicago violinist Cara Schlecker played while her fiancé Christian Ketter accompanied her on piano.
“Hemingway was someone who enjoyed other arts, visual and otherwise,” said Keith Strom, Ernest Hemingway Foundation’s new executive director. “Instead of just coming to the house for a tour, and talking about the past, let’s bring it into the present and showcase local artists. The more people we bring in, the more we keep his message alive.”
Incorporated in 1983, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park consists of the restored Victorian birthplace home, which hosts tours for 8,000 visitors annually, including many international visitors.
The foundation previously had a museum, just to the south on Oak Park Avenue, which closed in October. Many archival items went to the Oak Park Public Library and are housed in the Special Collections section, such as artwork by Ernest’s sister, Marcelline Sanford, and his mother, Grace Hall.
According to Library Archivist Emily Reiher, they received all the “original historic items” from the Hemingway Museum. This swelled the collection acquired from Sanford’s children, which includes items from the Hemingway family’s time in Oak Park — Grace Hall’s music programs, costumes and compositions; family photos and Ernest and Marcelline’s school papers. Through grants, 350 items are digitized and many more are inventoried online.
The foundation’s social events are expanding as well — with a twist.
“We can diversify and become more relevant to the community and then make this a benefit to the membership as well,” Strom said.
The Hemingway Foundation Gala, on May 19, takes place at the Oak Park Public Main Library, with jazz by the Lakeside Pride Orchestra. Event proceeds go to the Scholarship Fund, which benefits a junior at OPRF who is selected based on an essay submission.
New this year will be a guest author, Paula McLain, who wrote The Paris Wife, a work of historical fiction about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson. McLain’s new book, Love and Ruin, is about third wife Martha Gelhorn.
“This is going to be her Chicago appearance on her book tour,” Strom said. “She’ll give a short talk and a book signing. Her new book will be included in the ticket price.”
Other new events are a golf outing in August to raise more funds for high school scholarships and a tennis outing in September.
“The more variety we can provide, the better,” Strom said. “It gives us a diversity [in attendees] and they’ll hear some of our messages.”
Cameron Gearen, of Oak Park, is beginning her second year as Writer-in-Residence and she will be hosting two college essay seminars this summer, another new offering at the foundation.
The member book club has been resurrected, dubbed the Hemingway’s Ernest Book Club. Led by a board member or author, it meets quarterly to discuss a Hemingway book.
If many of these events seem strategically executed, it is due to the experience of the new director, who began in October. Strom’s background is in global meeting management, which allowed him to travel the world for the last 30 years. Having planned events at such locales as the Louvre and the Vatican, he was ready to spend time closer to his family and Oak Park home of 22 years and move to the nonprofit sector.
Looking toward the future, a Hemingway Writing and Learning Center is in the works, with plans to build an estimated $1.2 million building in the backyard of the birthplace home in the next three to four years, according to Strom. It will include a bookstore, exhibit space, courtyard and event space that can be used as a creative writing lab.
The Birthplace Home is at 339 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park. More: hemingwaybirthplace.com.