According to the adage, the best training for a writer is an unhappy childhood. Both Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway qualified, but for markedly contrasting reasons. As Tolstoy put it in another famous saying, “[H]appy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Scott Fitzgerald grew up embarrassed by his mother and alternately proud and ashamed of his father. Edward Fitzgerald came west to strike it rich, and in a way he did, for in St. Paul he met and married Mollie McQuillan, the daughter of an immigrant from Ireland who had amassed a small fortune in the wholesale grocery trade. On his own, Edward did not do well. First, he failed in the wicker furniture manufacturing business that brought him to St. Paul. Then, after a decade in sales with Procter & Gamble in upstate New York, he was fired in 1908, in his mid-fifties. It was too late to start over. The Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul in mild disgrace. McQuillan money supported them. Edward Fitzgerald was given an office to go to but no further responsibilities.
Contemporary reports agree that Scott Fitzgerald's father was small of frame, good-looking with his Vandyke beard, possessed of perfect manners, and invariably well-dressed: in appearance, every inch the gentleman. But he came from “tired old stock” in Maryland, and lacked the drive to succeed in business. He also drank more than was good for him.
Scott did his best to reason away his father's failures. Edward was “caught” in the panic of 1897, he wrote, then became a victim of the “rush to weed oldermen out of business.” All his life Scott remembered the times he had spent with his father in boyhood. The walk downtown on Sunday morning to get their shoes shined before mass. His father's instinctively correct gesture, at a party where he knew no one, of introducing himself to the oldest woman there. The “Confound it!” oath he would utter in moments of supreme exasperation. Byron's “The Prisoner of Chillon” recited from memory. Civil War tales from his Maryland boyhood (Edward was twelve when the war ended) that Scott inflated into his father's having functioned as “an integral part of the Confederate spy system.”
Though he grew up in some of the nation's northernmost cities, Scott was on the side of the Confederacy from the beginning, as on the side of lost causes and underdogs generally. Among his juvenilia are two stories and a 1913 play that spin improbably romantic tales of Southern gallantry. One of the first stories he remembered reading was about a struggle between the large animals and the small animals, whose leader was the fox. The small animals won the first battle, but the sheer size of the elephants and lions and tigers eventually overwhelmed them. Scott identified with the small animals. “I can almost weep now when I think of that poor fox,” he wrote at twenty-one. Even as a young boy, he thought, he must have sensed “the wearing-down power of big, respectable people.”
As much as any American writer, Scott Fitzgerald was extraordinarily aware of social gradations. In 1928, he recorded his version of St. Paul's social hierarchy. At the top were “two or three nationally known families,” followed by third-generation families whose grandparents had brought “a vestige of money or culture” from the East. Next in line were families of the “big self-made merchants” who had arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, ranked in descending order by nationality: American-English-Scotch, German, and Irish. Finally there were well-to-do “new people” whose background was cloudy and “possibly unsound.”
Edward Fitzgerald belonged among the new people, but his background set him apart, for he brought with him instead of wealth the prestige of a very old American family. Scott was proud of his father's roots, which connected him to the early days of the republic and such Marylanders as “Caleb Godwin of Hockley-in-ye-Hole, or Philip Key of Tudor Hall, or Pleasance Ridgley.” His own name paid homage to this background. He was christened Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, in recognition of his relation to the composer of the national anthem. The famous Key had been his “great-uncle,” Scott wrote in 1935, probably reflecting received legend in the Fitzgerald family. Actually, Francis Scott Key was his second cousin, thrice removed.
A notable fact about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as about Scott's parents, isthat they never owned a home, never sank roots. But his father's childhood home was the place he came to love the best. Maryland was “the loveliest of states,” he thought. He felt comfortable there; everything was “civilized and gay and rotted and polite.” It was where his “great-grandfather's great-grandfather was born,” where he went to live in the 1930s, where he chose to be buried.
At the head of his mother's side of the family, Grandfather McQuillan exemplified the self-made merchant class that Scott thought of—with a measure of snobbery—as “straight 1850 potato famine Irish.” Actually P.F. McQuillan emigrated in 1843 and took the steamboat upriver from Galena, Illinois, to St. Paul in 1857, where he started his grocery business. He was “in trade,” though Scott sought to minimize the condescension inherent in that phrase by making the point that at least his grandfather had pursued a career as a wholesale rather than a retail merchant. There was some money on his mother's side, some breeding on his father's. The combination left him uncertain about his own status.
He summed up his feelings in a 1933 letter to John O'Hara, another writer with an Irish heritage and a strong sense of social insecurity:
I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions. The black Irish half of the family had the money and looked down upon the Maryland side of the family who had, and really had, that certain series of reticences and obligations that go under the poor old shattered word “breeding.”…
As a result, Fitzgerald added, he had developed “a two-cylinder inferiority complex.” Even if he were elected king of Scotland, he maintained, he “would still be a parvenu.” Unlike his father, he did not know how to act in challenging social situations. His youth had been spent “alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.”
Edward Fitzgerald was thirty-seven and Mollie McQuillan thirty—ages that placed them on the brink of permanent bachelor and spinsterhood—when they married in February 1890. Their only son Scott was born six years later, on September 24,1896. He was his mother's third child, but the first to survive. His two older sisters, one and three years old, died only three months before his birth. “I think I started then to be a writer,” Fitzgerald observed, by which he meant something about the effect upon him of the way his mother, in the aftermath of her emotional trauma, coddled and cosseted him. It made him different from other youths, more self-absorbed and more emotionally vulnerable.
To Mollie, her good-looking baby boy must have seemed a gift from God, the more so when, three years later, she lost another female infant only an hour after birth. (The Fitzgeralds tried once more, and in July 1901 produced Scott's sister Annabel, his only surviving sibling.) It was no wonder that in the Fitzgerald household every childhood sniffle was a cause for alarm. Nor did Mollie's overprotectiveness disappear over time. In a 1923 article, Fitzgerald criticized just such a mother, whose every moment was tortured by groundless fears that her daughter was on the verge of a breakdown or that her son wasn't getting enough rest. Like the “Mrs. Judkins” of this article, Mollie Fitzgerald's perpetual worrying drove her children to distraction.
Mollie also liked to dress up her son and show him off. Master Scott would be summoned to accept the admiration of the visitors, and proceed to astound them with a delivery of Brutus's “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Alternatively he would recite a poem or sing a ballad. “He used to sing for company—God!” a mature Fitzgerald wrote of his boyhood self, stabbing the pen through the page in disgust. Yet there was no doubt that he had a strong theatrical bent, both personally and professionally. In his adolescence he wrote plays and acted in them, reserving the best parts for himself. At Princeton he threw himself into the Triangle Club musicals, both as author and sometime chorus girl. One of the great disappointments of his career came in 1923 when his comedy, The Vegetable, bombed in Atlantic City. Twelve years later, he wrote his agent Harold Ober that he wanted “to try a second play. It's just possible that I could knock them cold if I let go the vulgar side of my talent.”
Fitzgerald might have been inclined to forgive his mother all her solicitude had she been more attractive. But Mollie was, unfortunately, rather dowdy in appearance and lacking in social graces. She did not smile to please others, only when she was amused. She said whatever came into her head. She wore preposterous hats. Her shoes did not always match, for she had the eccentric habit of breaking them in one foot at a time. The neighborhood children in St. Paul were rather frightened of her as she strode along, dour expression on her face and umbrella in hand. At home, she ruled the family, and for good reason. “Where would we be,” she could point out, “if it weren't for Grandfather McQuillan?”
Which gives rise to another question: where did Scott Fitzgerald's genius come from? Not from a mannerly but unenergetic father, surely, and not from a mother whose tastes in reading ran to the sentimental rubbish of the time. As a boy, Scott dreamed of himself as a foundling, descended from royalty and unaccountably left at the door of unworthy parents. This was juvenile arrogance,and uncharming, but in fact the elder Fitzgeralds had little in common with their talented son. Neither of them approved of his decision to become a writer. They thought of authors as “distinctly peculiar,” if not downright disreputable. In a February 1926 letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald disparaged his parents for the handicaps they had bequeathed to him. “My father is a moron and my mother is a neurotic, half insane with nervous pathological worry…. If I knew anything I'd be the best writer in America.”
One of the unfortunate qualities his mother ingrained in him was an unrealistically elevated social ambition. Scott's first spoken word was “Up,” Mollie recorded in his baby book, and that was the direction she hoped he and his sister Annabel might go. Edward Fitzgerald's failure in business and Grandfather McQuillan's Irish Catholic roots worked against the rise, but Mollie saw to it that Scott and Annabel mingled with those at the top of St. Paul's hierarchy. Scott attended St. Paul Academy, the city's leading private school, before being sent east to the Newman school and Princeton. He went to Professor Baker's dancing school with the children of the leading families. His father belonged to the University Club in town and to White Bear Yacht Club in the suburbs, but unlike the boys he went to school with and the girls he flirted with, Scott had to ride the streetcar out to White Bear for summer outings. The family could not afford a second home at the lake. The Fitzgeralds lived, in fact, in a succession of row houses on or near Summit Avenue, St. Paul's most elegant residential boulevard. Every year or two, they moved from one such rental property to another, within walking distance of, yet worlds removed from, the mansions nearby.
Another important legacy from his mother was a sense of himself as superior to others and hence not subject to discipline. Throughout childhood Mollie Fitzgerald forgave her beautiful baby boy all misbehavior. No matter what Scott did, he was just her “bad brownie.” So thoroughly did his mother spoil him that, as he later commented, until he was fifteen he “did not know anyone else was alive.” His youthful cockiness and propensity for showing off did not sit well with other boys. In his Ledger, Scott recorded a series of childhood humiliations. No one came to his birthday party. Boys at a potato roast told him to go away. He was “desperately unpopular” at camp. A letter in the St. Paul Academy school paper recommended that someone “poison Scotty or stop his mouth in some way.” At Newman, he got into fights, earned poor marks, and achieved a measure of notoriety as the “freshest boy” on campus.
Girls liked him better, thank heaven. Even in pre-adolescence he understood how to play the game of courtship. Upon meeting an attractive girl, he would flatter her and then—to hold her interest—tell her that he had a particular adjective in mind that exactly suited her. She would have to wait to find out what it was.
In two unusual documents of his youth, Scott made it clear that he considered wooing a highly competitive game. His “Thoughtbook,” written when he was fourteen, related the results of his early flirtations, carefully ranking his standing with various girls. “It was impossible to count the number of times” he kissed Kitty Williams during one afternoon of playing “postoffice” in Buffalo, he commented in one entry. When he went home he “had secured the coveted 1st place” and held it until spring, when another boy demoted him. Alida [Bigelow] was thought to be the prettiest girl in Professor Baker's dancing school, another passage stated. Although Scott and Bob Clark went to see her almost every night, “she liked Art [Foley] 1st, Egbert [Driscoll] 2nd, I third & Bob 4th.”
Still more revealing was the letter Scott wrote for the benefit of his sister Annabel when she was fourteen and he was “19 or so.” This extraordinary document, divided into sections like a scholarly treatise, instructed Annabel how to win the admiration of young boys. In the area of conversation, for example, Scott supplied his sister with “leading questions” to use and parallel ones to avoid. She might say, “I hear you've got a 'line,'” for instance, but should not ask about school or college unless the boy brought up the subject. The important thing was to get a boy talking about himself. Once that was done, she'd have him “cinched and harnessed.”
In his letter Scott repeatedly counseled his sister to work on her social skills. On the dance floor she should maintain “a graceful and athletic carriage” and “remember to dance hard.” Dancing counted as nothing else did, and Annabel should make it a point to practice. “You can not be lazy.”
Annabel smiled on one side of her face, he told her, and that was all wrong. She should get in front of a mirror and practice a good radiant smile, practice it on other girls and on the family, practice it when she felt bored or unhappy, practice it until she was sure of it “as a good weapon in tight places.” A laugh wasn't as important, but here too Annabel should practice until her artificial laugh was as engaging as her natural one. She should also cultivate a pathetic appealing look, best achieved “by opening the eyes wide and drooping the mouth a little, looking upward (hanging the head a little) directly into the eyes of the man you're talking to.” Practice this, he counseled.
Next Scott undertook an inventory of his sister's good and bad points, taking up hair, features, complexion, figure, and so on. Where she was deficient, he advised her to make improvements. Exercise would give her healthier skin, and she ought to rub cold cream into her face regularly. She should brush and wet and trainher splendid eyebrows “every morning and night,” as he'd long ago suggested. To ward off her tendency toward physical clumsiness, he recommended that she imitate the graceful walk of a girl she admired. Practice it now, he implored her, for she couldn't practice when boys were around. It would be too late then.
Annabel Fitzgerald never commented on her brother Scott's ten-page letter of advice, but she might well have come to two conclusions about it. First, playing the courtship game sounded like exceedingly hard work. Second, her brother had an obsessive interest in how the game should be played. The truly successful player—the one who would rank “first”—must be capable of putting him- or herself in the place of the competitor of the opposite sex. Here young Scott Fitzgerald had an advantage over other boys, for he could think like a girl. “I'm half feminine,” he said, “—at least my mind is.”
In advocating a series of techniques for manipulating others, Scott's letter to Annabel betrayed a certain streak of cynicism. Yet that hard-heartedness coexisted with a romantic strain that made him idealize the very girls he courted with such calculation. Reading Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, the novelist Elizabeth Spencer was arrested by a description of Rosemary Hoyt, early in the novel: “The night had drawn the color from her face—she was pale as pale now, she was a white carnation left after a dance.” That passage evoked for her a time when Americans believed in “romance, the high, breathless kind, the kind that went deep.” Only Fitzgerald could have written it, she decided. For him, it was not enough to say that Rosemary was “wan or weary” after a long day and night in Paris in the company of Dick Diver. “No, she is flower-like, and she is a white carnation, she is what a gentleman wears on his lapel to a dance.”
Four hundred miles east and south of St. Paul, Ernest Hemingway was born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park on July 21,1899, nearly three years Fitzgerald's junior.
The two had a number of things in common. Both were middle western middle-class youngsters. Both grew up dreaming of sudden success they read about in the books of Horatio Alger. Like almost all male American writers, both were children of dominant mothers and dominated fathers. But their upbringing—and the shape of the personality that derived from it—could hardly have been more different.
On the surface, the tall and bearded Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway and his tall and amply-figured wife, Grace Hall Hemingway, made an impressive couple. Ernest was the second of the six children they produced over a span oftwo decades. The children were sturdy and sailed through the dangerous childhood illnesses of the period. Dressed in their Sunday best for services at the First Congregational Church, the Hemingways looked like a model turn-of-the-century family, hale and handsome embodiments of the American dream. These appearances were deceptive.
“Teach us to sit still,” T.S. Eliot prayed, but for Dr. Hemingway inner peace was neither a goal nor a possibility. He had tremendous resources of energy, and was forever rushing from one task to another. In addition to his medical practice, Clarence Hemingway performed a considerable amount of charitable work. He also did much of the cooking and household supervision for the family. If he found any of his children idling away an hour, he would scold them off the davenport and into some form of physical activity, preferably outdoors.
Outdoors, Dr. Hemingway was in his element. During their summers at Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, he taught his youngsters to hunt and fish. He also taught them about the natural world. When Ernest and his sister Marcelline were old enough, Dr. Hemingway organized an Agassiz club that he led on weekend trips into the woods. With his incredible eyesight—he could see like an eagle—he showed the youngsters how to look at nature, unveiling birds' nests concealed in the crotch of a tree, wildflowers budding beneath the leaves of springtime.
Clarence Hemingway was a stern disciplinarian who believed in the benefits of physical punishment. The children were spanked hard, and afterwards instructed to kneel and ask forgiveness for their sins. These included disobeying their parents, of course, but also being late for appointments or family gatherings, for their father was passionate about punctuality. Dr. Hemingway held puritanical views about most forms of entertainment, as well. He would have prohibited his children from learning to dance, if his wife had not contravened his commands.
His father was “unsound” on questions of sex, Ernest felt. In “Fathers and Sons” Nick Adams—Hemingway's most autobiographical character—recounted the advice he received from his father. Dr. Adams “had summed up the whole matter by stating that masturbation produced blindness, insanity, and death, while a man who went with prostitutes would contract hideous venereal diseases and that the thing to do was to keep your hands off of people.” In Dr. Hemingway's view, the function of literature was to instruct and enlighten. He did not know what to make of In Our Time, Ernest's first book of stories. “The brutal you have surely shown the world,” he wrote his twenty-six-year-old son. “Look for the joyous, uplifting, and optimistic and spiritual in character.”
Opposites attract, Marcelline wrote about her parents. Something of a tomboy in her youth, the strong-willed Grace Hall insisted on riding her brother's bicycle at a time when doing so was thought to be, for girls, both unseemly and risky. Yet for the most part she was an indoor person, since her congenitally weak eyes were sensitive to strong light. Her interests were concentrated in the arts instead of science. She came from a musical family, and had a fine soprano voice. Clarence Hemingway first came to know Grace Hall well when he attended her mother during a fatal illness in the fall of 1895. He asked Grace to marry him then, but she put him off in order to go to New York and work with a famous voice coach. She spent six months at the Art Students League, practicing day and night. Her blossoming talent, Grace later told her children, led to an audition for the Met and a concert at Madison Square Garden.
Back to Oak Park in the spring of 1896, Grace once more postponed Dr. Hemingway's suit, this time to travel to Europe with her father, Ernest Hall. She thought her father “the finest purest noblest man” she had ever known, and Clarence Hemingway could wait. They finally married in October, and immediately moved into her father's home. Determined to keep her independence, Grace began giving voice lessons. According to Marcelline, very much her mother's advocate in her memoir called At the Hemingways, the newlywed Grace Hemingway soon was earning as much as $1,000 a month from her pupils, ten times more than her husband was making from his general practice of medicine.
Marcelline arrived in January 1898, about eighteen months before Ernest, and Grace Hall Hemingway did a highly unusual thing with these two first-born children. She twinned them. They were dressed alike, at Oak Park “in gingham dresses and in little fluffy lace tucked dresses with picture hats” and at Walloon Lake in matching overalls. Grace also had their hair cut the same way, often in a style called the Dutch dolly, bangs across the forehead and squared off below the ears. As biographer Kenneth Lynn has pointed out, dressing little boys in girls' clothing was conventional enough at the time. There is a photograph of young Scott Fitzgerald in bloomers, for example, but his hair is cut short so that in spite of his prettiness there is no question of his gender. What was different, in the case of Grace's twinning of Ernest with his sister, was the combination of feminine attire and feminine hair style. As early as two, Ernest rebelled when his mother called him her Dutch dolly. “I not a Dutch dolly,” he declared, stamping his foot. “I Pawnee Bill. Bang, I shoot Fweetee [his pet name for his mother].”
Another oddity about Grace Hemingway's twinning experiment was that it lasted so long. Ernest wore dresses until he entered kindergarten, or about twiceas long as most boy children of the period. Even then, his mother continued to treat her two oldest offspring as twins. Marcelline was held back so she and Ernest could enter first grade together. Their play knew no distinctions of gender. They had china tea sets just alike, and dolls alike, and when Ernest was given a little air rifle, so was his sister. “Mother was doing her best to make us feel like twins,” as Marcelline put it in all innocence.
Marcelline wrote openly about her mother's twinning of herself and Ernest, but avoided discussing two other difficulties: Clarence Hemingway's mental illness and Grace Hemingway's intimate companionship with a longtime pupil. Brother Leicester kept the silence in his book of reminiscence, as did sister Sunny in hers. Even Ernest, who was not averse to exploring taboo psychological terrain, shied away from these family secrets. Certain things were not to be spoken of.
Clarence Hemingway was beset by depression all his life. Michael Reynolds, whose multi-volume biography has emerged as the primary source for information about Ernest Hemingway, has documented Dr. Hemingway's spells of depression through the cache of letters the family left behind. The best cure for his troubles, Clarence obviously believed, was to get away from home. A week's vacation in New Orleans over Thanksgiving 1903 had been his salvation, he wrote Grace. Five years later, he took six weeks off for a postgraduate course in obstetrics in New York City. Oak Park was not aware that the course was only four weeks long, and that Clarence had spent the last two weeks on his own, again in New Orleans. “Try to rest the worry place in your brain,” his wife advised him. “Just make a business of eating and sleeping and forgetting.”
Whatever their short-term benefit, these rest cures worked no permanent magic. In October 1909, Dr. Hemingway sent his family a letter of instruction about how to proceed in the event of his imminent death. He had secured $50,000 in life insurance policies from eleven different firms, and gave his wife specific instructions about how to collect on them. At stake was the future “of the darling children and your own self—Grace my darling,” he wrote, and she must not let her grief prevent her from acting in a sensible businesslike fashion. She should tell each company the same story, for example, and not tell them everything she knew. “[S]hould there be any doubt at all as to the cause of death,” he provided her with the names of two doctors who would best represent her interests at a coroner's inquest. Dr. Hemingway did not use the word “suicide,” but evidently he did have in mind a particular way to die. “[I]f Accident is Blood Poisoning,” he told Grace, “you can realize on the Aetna Policy.”
Clarence Hemingway survived that crisis, but other dark periods ensued. The trouble intensified in 1919. His son Ernest had come back from the war with a burden of physical and emotional wounds, but Dr. Hemingway's concerns lay closer to home. He and his wife were not getting along.
In May Grace Hemingway contracted to build a cottage of her own a mile away from Windemere, the Hemingway family place at Walloon Lake. She had bought the land with her inheritance, after her father died in 1905, and for many years had planned to have a cottage, only holding off because of the objections of her husband. Now she was going to build her retreat despite those objections. To make his position clear, Dr. Hemingway wrote her contractor in Michigan that he would not be responsible, in any way, for his wife's debts.
In a letter to her husband about this dispute, Grace made the case for her new cottage. Windemere had been “pleasant and adequate” for the first eight or nine years, she acknowledged, but since then had become hateful to her. Summer after summer she suffered there, “shut in by the hills and lake, no view, no where to go, acting the part of the family drudge, standing at sink and cook stove until the agony in my spinal nerves forced me to lie down… the very sight of Windemere brings tears to my eyes and a sob to my throat.” A small place of her own, she concluded, would save her nerves and serve as “a demonstration in neatness cleanness simplicity and wholesomeness which is sorely needed right now by my four daughters who have an idea that excitement is the only form of happiness worth while.”
That final appeal was well contrived, for as Grace well knew, Dr. Hemingway feared that their daughters were running wild. Still, he would not be moved. The cottage across the lake seemed an indulgence, and it was probably associated in his mind with Ruth Arnold. He could not prevent his wife from spending her small inheritance on a cottage of her own. By summer's end, though, he laid down the law on the subject of Ruth Arnold. She was no longer to live with the Hemingways, or even permitted to visit.
Ruth Arnold took her first voice lesson from Grace Hemingway in 1907, when she was twelve years old—only three years older than Marcelline. She moved into the Hemingways' house in 1908 to continue her studies and function as a part-time baby sitter and cook. Ruth was not particularly talented, and not terribly bright, but she was quiet and attractive and absolutely worshipful toward her teacher. In effect she repudiated her own family—she was the youngest daughter, and outshone by her sisters—and chose Grace as surrogate mother and ideal.
Over the years, Ruth became an integral part of the Hemingway family, and the bond between herself and Grace Hemingway grew closer. Dr. Hemingway spent the sweltering summer of 1919 in Oak Park, unwilling to be a party of any sort to the construction of Grace Cottage, as his wife called it. But Ruth went north with the Hemingway daughters in June, where she eagerly shared Grace's delight as her private retreat went up. “No distance can separate my soul from the one I love so dearly,” Ruth wrote Grace after she returned to Oak Park early in August. Dr. Hemingway imposed what distance he could by barring her from the house.
From Walloon Lake, Grace mailed Clarence a letter of protest. If his mental attitude was really not within his control, she pointed out, he could count on her to give him all the help she could. But others needed her as well, including her “blessed children” and “dear faithful Ruth, who has given me her youth and her loyal service for these many years.” Her platform was that they were all as dear to her as life herself; she would desert none of them. A closing clause simultaneously assured Dr. Hemingway of her love, and chided him for his suspicions. “[N]o one,” Grace wrote, “can ever take my husband's place unless he abdicates it to play at petty jealousy with his wife's loyal girl friend….”
Ruth could hardly be so bold. She continued to see Grace and to correspond with her, but as circumspectly as possible. In the summer of 1920, she wrote Grace about a possible visit to Walloon Lake. Ruth realized she could not come north if Dr. Hemingway were there, yet if he decided to spend all summer at the lake, it was all right with her. She would be brokenhearted not to visit Grace, “but would far rather be, Dearest, than have any talk.” If she could come up, she would make sure that Grace was not lonesome. Meanwhile, “Dearest when I choose to send a little love gift up, please don't mention it to Dr. It seems so silly to make this request but will explain later.”
The affection between Grace Hemingway and Ruth Arnold lasted until Grace died. Ruth moved in with Grace during the 1930s, after Dr. Hemingway's death, and tongues wagged in Oak Park. Grace scolded two of the gossips for repeating “an old malicious story.” She and her husband had been “loving and sympathetic” every day of their thirty-two years together, she maintained. As for Ruth, Grace had “known and loved her nearly 30 years, and she has always been loyal and true to the Hemingway family.” The children were fond of Ruth too, and “grateful for her many kindnesses.” These kindnesses continued. When Grace's health began to fail, in the 1950s, Ruth Arnold was on hand to care for her.
Ernest apparently shared his father's sentiments about this relationship. Heforbade his own sons to visit their grandmother Hemingway on the grounds that she was “androgynous.” Ernest also believed that his mother had emasculated his father. In December 1928 Clarence Hemingway shot himself behind the right ear with his own father's revolver. The death could not be construed as an accident, to insurance companies or anyone else, but neither was there any public mention of the doctor's “nervous breakdowns.” Poor health and financial worries caused Dr. Hemingway to take his life, the family explained. Ernest held his mother responsible. He “hated” her, he insisted, and would not back down from that verb when others protested. The alienation between Ernest and his mother had been brewing for a long time before his father's suicide. It boiled over in the summer of 1920.
Back from the war and limping slightly from his wounds, Ernest Hemingway cut a rather romantic figure. His parents were proud of his wartime service, but the war had been over for nearly two years and it bothered them both that Ernest continued to idle away so much of his time. Ernest could not go to college, he was later to claim, because the money had been spent on Grace Cottage. This statement was misleading—Marcelline was sent to Oberlin, and he could have gone if he wished—and characteristic of his propensity to blame every conceivable misfortune on his mother. The fact was that he wanted to be a writer, and neither college nor full-time employment fitted into his plans.
Ernest and his friend Ted Brumback spent the first part of the summer of 1920 at Walloon Lake, dodging the chores his mother assigned. Dr. Hemingway had come up from Oak Park for a few weeks, and returned to his practice deeply concerned about the moral status of the family. Ursula and Sunny, seventeen and fifteen respectively, defied the strict rules he tried to impose on them, and Ernest was openly insubordinate with Grace. It may be that Ernest, who reached his twenty-first birthday on July 21, was trying to precipitate a break with his parents. Surviving letters demonstrate that he succeeded. “Try not to be a sponger,” Dr. Hemingway advised his son the day after his birthday, in a letter that sounds very much as if it were written at the behest of Mrs. Hemingway. “It is altogether too hard on your mother to entertain you and your friends, when she is not having help and you are so hard to please and are so insulting to your dear mother.” It would be “best” for Ernest and Ted “to change camps,” his father pointed out. “[P]lease pack up and try elsewhere until you are again invited” to Windemere. Clarence Hemingway's mild language—“try,” “please”—undercut the authority of his message. Ernest stuck around for a few more days.
Ruth Arnold arrived at Walloon Lake July 25. The following night, the tension between mother and son erupted. Ernest and Ted accompanied Ursula and Sunny and a few of their young friends to a secret late-night cookout and sing-along at Ryan's Point. It was past midnight when the mother of these friends discovered her children missing and, suspecting Ernest, confronted Grace Hemingway, who was startled to find Ursula and Sunny's beds empty. Ruth, who had been let in on the secret, finally told the frantic mothers about the clandestine outing. When the youngsters returned at three a.m. for their dressing down, Ernest was anything but contrite. He “called me every name he could think of,” Grace wrote her husband. She didn't think anything particularly “wicked” had happened at Ryan's Point, but could not countenance “the general lawlessness that Ernest instills into all young boys and girls.” Without seeking further assistance from the good doctor, she ordered Ernest and Ted off the premises, and presented her son with a letter of condemnation she had been working on for days.
This remarkable document took the form of an extended financial metaphor, comparing a mother's love with a bank account. A very young child drew upon this account every day, Grace began, and continued to make withdrawals as he grew, only occasionally depositing a few pennies. Then the rebellious period of adolescence left the mother-love bank account “perilously low.” When a child like Ernest reached manhood, the bank could not continue to pay out. The account needed some deposits in the form of “[f]lowers, fruit, candy, or something pretty to wear, brought home to Mother, with a kiss and a squeeze.” But there had been none of these deposits from her son, only supercilious remarks and selfish misbehavior.
Unless you, my son Ernest, come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing, and pleasure seeking,—borrowing with no thought of returning;—Stop trying to graft a living off anybody and everybody, spending all your earnings lavishly and wastefuly on luxuries for yourself. Stop trading on your handsome face, to fool gullible little girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior Jesus Christ, unless, in other words, you come into your manhood,—there is nothing before you but bankruptcy.
You have over drawn.
Grace went on to remind Ernest that the world was crying out for “real men, with brawn and muscle, moral as well as physical—men whose mothers can look up to them, instead of hanging their heads in shame at having bornethem.” Ernest had been born of a race of gentlemen, men who “were clean mouthed, chivalrous to all women, grateful and generous.” Until he was ready to take his place beside them, he need not bother to return.
In the parlance of a later time, this letter might stand as an example of “tough love,” designed to shock the recipient into a behavioral change. The love-as-bank-account metaphor certainly fits into that category. But Grace Hemingway was not content to style herself as a cold-blooded banker. No, she would gladly have been Ernest's “best girl” as well, joyfully receiving the sweet and thoughtful presents that he would not supply, the “little love gifts” that she could count on only from Ruth Arnold.
Grace's letter did not work. If anything, it hardened Ernest's heart against her. “Do not come back,” she commanded him, “until your tongue has learned not to insult and shame your mother.” In that sense, he never did come back. As the eldest son, he felt it his duty to establish a trust fund for his mother's support after the death of his father. But he paid no duty calls to Oak Park, and repeatedly denigrated her in correspondence with his siblings. You know, Ernest told his sister Carol in 1945, he “could never stand to look at [their brother Leicester] on acct. he looked like our mother.” Nor could he abide what he thought of as her sanctimonious pronouncements. “Had a lovely letter from our Mother,” he added, “in which she was sure God would look after me no matter how little I deserved it.”
In the summer of 1920 at Walloon Lake, the year he passed his twenty-first birthday, Ernest cut the cord.
St. Paul and FSF's Parents:
FSF, “My Generation,” Esquire 70 (October 1968), 121. FSF, “The Death of My Father,” Apprentice Fiction, 1-6. Bruccoli, Grandeur, 19. SD, Fool, 10-11, 189, 16. SD, “Scott Fitzgerald's Romance with the South,” 15-17. FSF to O'Hara, July 18, 1933, Letters, 503. FSF, “Author's House,” Afternoon, 184. FSF, “Imagination—and a Few Mothers,” Ladies' Home Journal 40 (June 1923): 21, 80-81. FSF to MP, February 20, 1926, Life in Letters, 138. FSF, Ledger. FSF, “Scott Fitzgerald's 'Thoughtbook,'” Princeton University Library Chronicle 26 (Winter 1965): 102-108 and unpaginated facsimile. FSF to Annabel Fitzgerald, ca. 1915, Life in Utters, 7-10. Spencer, “Where Has All the Glamour Gone?” unpaginated.
Oak Park and EH's Parents:
Lynn, Hemingway, 34-37. Sanford, At the Hemingways, 26-27, 31-33, 39. EH, “Fathers and Sons,” Short Stories, 491. Baker, Life Story, 160. Lynn, Hemingway, 28-33, 38-43. Sanford, At the Hemingways, 49, 55-62. SD, By Force of Will, 188-190. Baker, Life Story, 5. Reynolds, Young Hemingway, 82-87, 69-70, 78-81, 129-133, 134-138. Comley and Scholes, Hemingway's Genders, 24-27. EH to Carol Hemingway, ca. 1945, in Fuentes, Hemingway in Cuba, 387.
Published as Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise And Fall Of A Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson (Woodstock, Ny: Overlook P, 1999).