Hemingway's first love?

Oak Parker's discovery of new letters helps plug gaps in Ernie's biography

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Before Agnes, Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary, there was Frances Coates.

That is Rob Elder's startling discovery, chronicled in last month's Paris Review article, "To Have and Have Not." [theparisreview.org/blog/tag/to-have-and-have-not/]

This is the centennial of Ernest Hemingway's graduation from Oak Park and River Forest High School, and though much is known about one of the world's towering literary figures, few knew that in 1917 when he graduated, Ernie was in love — or at least infatuation.

"It changes a couple of fundamental assumptions about him," said Elder, a 10-year resident of Oak Park, who co-authored the 2016 book Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park with Mark Cirino and Aaron Vetch. "It is biography-changing in that most of his high school classmates said he was uninterested in women. He was more interested in fishing and hunting." 

One of his buddies, in fact, said that if Ernie ever took a woman to a dance, he didn't know who that person was.

"So he was known to be either not interested or unlucky," said Elder, noting that he fell backwards into "this Hemingway detective work" while doing research on the book. As he was looking through papers from Hemingway's high school days, Annette DeVoe, another classmate, was brought up as his standard by which other women were measured. "We knew they had at least dated," Elder said, but there were only references in his notations. In those same notes, however, he also found mentions of Frances Coates.

"So I thought, what if there's more there?" he recalled. "I did some internet sleuthing with my assistant, Victoria Manning, and we tracked down the Coates family."

He reached Betsy Fermano, Frances' granddaughter, who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. 

"I explained who I was and said, 'This might sound weird, but did your grandmother date Ernest Hemingway?' She said, 'Oh, yes.' Then she added, 'We have some letters of his here.' She didn't think they were worth anything because her grandmother was no one famous."

The letters were written by Hemingway from the Milan hospital where he spent months recuperating from injuries sustained during his stint as an ambulance driver in World War I. This was before his romance with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, blossomed. 

"He wants Frances to write so bad that he asks his sister [Marcelline], 'Tell her your brother is at death's door. And that will she please, no excuses, write to him. Tell her that I love her or any damn thing.'" And she did write though that letter didn't survive, despite Ernie's assurance in his reply: 

"Dear Frances, That was an awfully good letter and I shall keep it very carefully because I always have suffered under a great and burning curiosity to know what your handwriting looked like."

Unfortunately, Elder said, "What he doesn't know is that Frances is already engaged."

His sister broke the news to him, apparently none too delicately. If he was heartbroken, however, he rebounded quickly with Agnes although, as we all know, that led to heartache as well.

With the cooperation of the Coates family, the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, and the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Elder was able to piece together some of the relationship between Ernie and Frances during their high school years. 

Coates was a year older than Hemingway and graduated in 1916. They worked on Tabula (then the literary magazine), where Frances was the music editor. She also sang opera, while Ernie played cello in the pit and during one high school production a friend teased him about being unable to keep his eyes on his music because they were fixed on her.

Her yearbook entry gives a possible clue as to her true affections, however, as she included a quote: "Archly, the maiden smiled, and with eyes over-running with laughter, said, in a tremulous voice, 'Why don't you speak for yourself, John?'" 

The man she eventually married was John Grace.

Hemingway sent her two letters after the war, which were stored in a trunk in Betsy Fermano's attic. Fermano told Elder that the two were close but just friends, at least from her grandmother's point of view. 

Nonetheless, she took the time to write a 10-page reflection on their friendship with the famous author and kept photos of him in an envelope as well as his graduation photo in a frame. But though she expressed fondness, a note she penned on the envelope pretty much says it all:

"Ernie's Pictures: And 25 years later ooh! Am I glad I married John!"

Elder said someone should write more about Frances because "she led a fascinating life. She was an in-demand actress and opera singer. She lived in Hinsdale for a long time and was one of the founders of the Three Arts Club. She had this full, rich, artistic life that I think people will come to appreciate."

Elder believes that discovering Ernie's connection with Frances Coates and the letters he sent her will have an impact on future Hemingway biographies.

"It's valuable from a scholarly point of view," he said, "because it changes a couple of fundamental assumptions about him." In his Paris Review article, Elder quotes Sandy Spannier, general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project (which Elder said is up to 17 volumes), as showing another side of the young author. "It's a completely different voice from others we've heard in his letters," she told Elder.

That and the recently released book, Hemingway in Love, by A.E. Hotchner reveal a more sensitive, tender side of the notoriously macho writer.

Elder, however, has "a more nuanced" view of Oak Park's most famous native son. 

"He did care deeply," he observed, "and fell in love with these women wholeheartedly, but he was always setting up the next marriage. He feels badly about that betrayal in A Moveable Feast. He talks about Hadley … and is more kind to her in hindsight, but he treated all of them badly.

"I have always said that he was a fascinating scoundrel, a fascinating, super-talented scoundrel."

Elder, who is now director of Digital Product Development & Strategy at Crain Communications Inc., began his deep-dive into Hemingway a few years back when he was the editor-in-chief of Pioneer Press. He edited a special section on Hemingway's years growing up in Oak Park and discovered so much material in the library archives and at the Historical Society and the Hemingway Foundation that he thought, "Why isn't this a book? And I spent the next two years of my life on it." He also read all of Ernie's work, in order, and all of the biographies.

"It's been an education," he said. "I know more about Hemingway than most people would care to."

But he's a fan, though he acknowledges not all Oak Parkers are. 

"I think because he is such an omnipresent figure, people become jaded or turned off," he said. "But it's still important to understand why he had such an impact, even if you don't prefer some of the writing. I think most of the people who complain about him have not read him. Someone who is omnipresent is easier to hate on.

"I would say to them, go back to the work. Some of it is so modern and resonant. And people forget this. His writing style is now so parodied and copied that people forget when he was writing that way, especially in the '20s, it was a fresh, avant-garde style. … People also might be turned off by the hyper-masculinity. … But when they understand that, at the root of that, is actually a very sensitive artist, and, depending on the biography you read, that hyper-masculinity may have been an overcompensation for being dressed as a little girl until the second grade. When you understand people as children, when you see how they were brought up, it helps you empathize and see them as human." 

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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