It’s a sultry summer day when I disembark at Oak Park from the Green Line train rumbling in from Chicago. The main street is lined with posters of a familiar face tacked on lampposts — a black-and-white portrait of a young, handsome man with piercing eyes. In this leafy suburb, in an elegant Queen Anne-style home, writer Ernest Hemingway was born.
I arrive at the Hemingway Birthplace Museum, along with a handful of other tourists. They’ve been part of my entourage, tramping through the neighbourhood to see the wondrous architecture of Oak Park’s other illustrious denizen, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Hemingway’s tiny home is just one of the few mausoleums which are speckled around the world, even as far as Cuba, that are dedicated to the writer.
These memorials have sprouted up wherever he laid his head and built his hearth, except that the Oak Park residence is special. It is the home where Hemingway fell in love with words.
A green signboard at the tip of the manicured garden announces that it’s Ernest Hemingway’s birth place, dated 1899. The sepia-toned home with a grand slate-grey turret and a lovely wraparound porch belonged to his maternal grandparents. Built in the style of the time, it was designed by architect Wesley Arnold in 1890 for Ernest Hall, Hemingway’s grandfather.
The second of six children of the multi-faceted physician Clarence and a talented opera singer and music teacher Grace, Ernest spent six years of his life here. With grandfather Hall’s death, the family moved to a prairie-styled home close by, a private residence now. After the Hemingways left , its ownership passed to six different families over the decades, becoming unrecognisable. In 1992, nearly a century after his birth, The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park stepped in. A few years and a million dollars later, the house was carefully restored to its 20th-Century glory, a pilgrimage for bibliophiles.
From the tiny reception, I step into the living room, the beating heart of the Hemingway House. It has the palpable cosiness of a Victorian boudoir, replete with a bright red carpeted floor, striped and floral wallpaper, his mother’s piano and grandfather’s writing desk. At the end of the room is a tiny square dining table, set for supper with porcelain crockery and silverware. Over here, the widowed grandfather Hall, who loved his grandchildren, regaled the wide-eyed tots with great yarns. This storytelling stirred the love for words in the young boy, says Pam, our guide. Ernest’s boyhood flights of fancy were stoked further by Grace’s uncle, Tyley, a travelling salesman who entertained the caboodle with colourful tales of his trips across the length and breadth of America.
The Hemingway household was a smorgasbord of interests. An affluent household, the larder was amply stocked, the kitchen was fitted with a luxurious Charm Crawford kitchen stove, and it was the first household in Oak Park to get electricity. The library’s shelves wobbled under the weight of books and Clarence’s oddball wildlife taxidermy specimens. Quite the performer, Ernest would act out the poems and stories he read from the books stacked in the room.
Up a narrow staircase, is the bedroom Hemingway was born in — a study in white and lace. There is a tiny cot and a floppy-eared crocheted bear napping on it. The passage outside the room is filled with family photographs one of which has a mop-haired Ernest with his grandfather. These are images of an idyllic childhood, unbeknownst to the tragedies that would later bear down on them.Clarence, suffering from ill health and losses in business, would take his own life. This tragedy was to be repeated down the family line, including by Ernest himself. But in the Oak Park home, watching the dappled sunlight filter through the gossamer curtains, you remember the hopes and dreams of a loving family with heart and a great deal of soul.