Kathryn Longwell was just Ernest Hemingway’s type: a beautiful singer with a stunning, sultry voice.
So when the 19-year-old Hemingway returned home from World War I with a broken heart and a limp, it was Longwell that he took on romantic canoe trips along the Des Plaines River.
“We’d paddle for miles,” she told Hemingway’s younger brother, Leicester, years later, “and other times we would come to my home and read stories he had written, while eating little Italian cakes that he brought from the city.”
Longwell was a transitional figure in Hemingway’s romantic life and the audience for some of his earliest short stories. Yet, Longwell receives only a few sentences in Hemingway biographies, when she shows up at all. Hemingway was so taken with her that he gave her his Italian officer’s cloak — a gesture that so enraged Hemingway’s mother that she demanded its return.
No photos of Longwell appear in Hemingway’s yearbooks, because she was two years younger than he was at Oak Park River Forest High School. Even fewer stories survive.
But who was Kathryn Longwell?
Since co-authoring the book “Hidden Hemingway” in 2016, I’ve been collecting stories about Oak Parkers in the author’s life, starting with the women he dated. That, in itself, was challenging because those stories run counter to the established narrative of the young Hemingway as an awkward teen uninterested in women.
Even his school friend Lewis Clarahan said that Hemingway “did not care to date and seemed to avoid girls.”
But in scouring Hemingway archives in Oak Park, I found that to be untrue. He clandestinely dated classmate Annette DeVoe, and drafted a passionate poem to her, declaring his love and praising her “sensuous loveliness” (although it’s unclear if he gave her the poem).
Hemingway was much more open in his pursuit of Frances Coates, a singer like his mother (and Longwell). He would be relegated to “just a friend,” despite his social dates with Coates to cafes and the opera — and at least one canoeing trip.
Hemingway also wooed Longwell along the Des Plaines River. Both attended OPRF High School, although they didn’t seem to overlap much in their extracurricular lives. She was her class vice president and participated in no fewer than nine activities, including opera, French Club, Drama Club and the Girls’ Rifle Club.
Whatever their connection, Hemingway wrote Longwell a postcard in April 1919, after he recovered from shrapnel wounds he sustained while serving in the American Red Cross.
While convalescing in Italy, Hemingway fell in love with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who would later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley, the nurse in “A Farewell to Arms.”
Only a few weeks after his return to Oak Park from Italy, von Kurowsky called off their romance. Hemingway didn’t wait long before trying to mend his broken heart by dating Longwell.
The early stories he read to her could have been drafts of “The Mercenaries,” “Cross Roads” and “The Current” —stories in which Hemingway was already exploring themes that would resonate throughout his career: betrayal, personal morality and the cost of violence.
Some recent sleuthing at the Oak Park History Museum and the University of Chicago archives helped me find her son, Peter Davis, 86.
“My mother was rather close-lipped” about Hemingway, Davis remembers. Davis thinks that, after an embarrassed Hemingway retrieved his Italian cloak at the insistence of his mother in 1919, he might have given Longwell one of his war medals instead. But if there was a medal or other correspondence between them, they have been lost.
Only fragments of family stories survive, including the time when Davis’ father, Howard Grenville Davis, was still courting Longwell, he visited her home.
“On the piano was a picture of Ernest Hemingway,” Davis says.
If his father saw Hemingway as any sort of rival, however, the elder Davis prevailed when he married Longwell in 1927, after she graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago.
Newspapers and yearbooks from the 1920s portray Longwell as a popular chanteuse. In 1921, she performed in “The Joy of Singhai” at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall.
The college newspaper, the Daily Maroon, praised Longwell, writing that she “sang the best of the evening’s music in the best of the evening’s voices” when she performed “Chinatown Blues” and “Cherry Blossom Bungalow.”
In college, Longwell lettered in field hockey and was active in the Women’s Athletic Association.
Longwell’s niece, Mary Jean Stephen, remembers her “aunty” as “tall, with dark hair and very striking-looking. She was very forceful; she was not anyone who retreated to the background.”
Stephen remembers her concise speech and that she was always dressed impeccably in handmade French fashions.
“Aunty had this very sultry singing voice in the style of a nightclub singer. A beautiful, low voice,” Stephen remembers.
Her husband, who went by his middle name, Grenville, served as his wife’s accompanist on piano when they held soirees at their home. The couple lived in Oak Park, Riverside and Winnetka, before moving to North Carolina.
“They had wonderful parties and they were the entertainment,” Stephen says. “You wouldn’t miss one.”
Kathryn and Grenville were business partners as well as musical ones. In 1936, they founded the Grenville Davis Company, a successful office products and commercial furniture business, which the family still runs today. Later in life, Kathryn was a dedicated hospital volunteer and died near Tryon, N.C., in 1974 after a shift at a local hospital.
It’s unknown how much contact Longwell had with Hemingway after 1919, although Davis also remembers a visit to Cuba with his mother in the 1950s, “before Castro.”
“I know my mother talked to [Hemingway] on the telephone,” says Davis, but “we didn’t get to meet him.”
As for the reason Hemingway and Longwell broke up, that also remains a mystery, although it was likely because Hemingway travelled to Michigan in the summer of 1919 and the two simply went their separate ways.
Neither of his parents talked about Longwell’s courtship with the budding author, Davis says.
“I’m glad she didn’t marry Ernest Hemingway, believe me. What a crazy life.”
Oak Park resident Robert K. Elder is the author or editor of eight books, including “Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park.” Visit HiddenHemingway.com for more details.