Was Hemingway's Mother a Lesbian?

by Marie J. Kuda

from OUTLINES, vol. 13, no. 14 Sept. 8, 1999 pages 20 and 32


The first time I remember seeing the suggestion in print that Hemingway's mother may have been a lesbian was in a 1987 New York Times Book Review of Kenneth S. Lynn's biography *Hemingway*. I immediately got the book and was dismayed that Lynn had not credited the remarks. So often in the Hemingway canon, writers state the apochraphal as if it were established fact.

Lynn's was the first book, however, to draw popular attention to some of the sexual themes that would preoccupy Hemingway studies in academia for the following decade: androgyny, sexual role reversals, homosexuality, haircuts and sexual identity, skin color and sexuality, and suggestions of incest in Hemingway's texts and life. The spate of critics looking sexually slant at the master of machismo was spawned by the posthumous publication of *The Garden of Eden* in 1984. Hemingway had reportedly worked at this manuscript from 1946 until near his death in 1961. The 1,500 pages he left behind were pared down to a marketable number by a relatively unknown editor, leaving the story of a gender-bending *menage a trois* whose characters resembled Hemingway and his first two wives. I read the book for lesbian content and put it out of my mind except as a footnote to use when Hemingway's name came up in connection with my slide shows dealing with Paris lesbians.

When my partner and I moved to Hemingway's birthplace in the summer of 1996, we inherited a subscription to the local weekly newspaper. The pages were continually filled with a heated debate on a proposed domestic partnership ordinance, and the election battle of an openly lesbian candidate for Village Trustee. [Oak Park, originally created as a bedroom community for the families of affluent Chicago commercial scions escaping the dirt of the city with its stockyards and factories was, and still is, a conservative bastion. Oak Park had advertised itself as the place where the saloons ended and churches began, there are no bars in the Village even today. In the wake of a shifting economic base in the 1960's the Village suffered a sea change and made a cottage industry of its two best known adulterers, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Miller Hemingway.] As a relief from the ugly, stereotype based, anti-gay paranoia in print, I turned to a weekly feature on Oak Park history culled from old newspaper files. In items from the turn of the century on, references to Grace Hall Hemingway continually appeared. She was noted as giving local concerts, returning with the family from summers in Michigan, holding recitals for her music students at the studio of her Kenilworth Avenue home, having exhibits of her paintings at local venues, coming or going to or from vacations on the east or west coast, alone. In the days before her son Ernie made a name for himself, Momma Hemingway seemed to be quite a big fish in the little Village pond.

Grace Hall Hemingway caught my fancy, and I was curious as to why Ernie had turned his back on home and hearth. I knew his father was a suicide, as was Ernie and two or three of his siblings, and fairly recently it was assumed in print that his granddaughter, Margaux Hemingway, had also taken her own life with a drug overdose. Ernie, who was born in his maternal grandfather's Oak Park house in 1899, was the second of six children and Grace's first son. He left home at her urging when he was twenty-one, married a woman seven years older with a trust fund, went to Paris, became a twentieth century icon as a novelist and Nobel Prize winner, married three more times, and never really came home again.

But Grace had stayed on, moving to neighboring River Forest some years later. Ernie's hometown library has a plethora of books by and about him. In each I'd find a line or two about Grace that left the impression Hemingway hated her. He called her "my bitch mother", "a dominating shrew", held her responsible for his father's suicide, told folks her spendthrift ways had cost him the chance to go to college. Some writers made much of the fact that Ernie had refused to let his son, Patrick, visit Grace, giving as a reason that she was "androgynous".

The family biographies by his brother and two of his sisters painted a more restrained picture of their mother. Grace had wanted to be an opera singer, was classically trained in New York and debuted at Madison Square Garden, took private music students and ran a church choir. She married Dr. Clarence Hemingway whose family lived across the street from hers; they shared similar Christian values. Grace was earning $1,000 to the Doctor's $50 when they married. They lived in her father's house until Ernie, was six years old; then, with money inherited from her father she designed and had built a fifteen room home with an adjoining music studio for teaching and student recitals. Others wrote that she had been something of a tomboy; she had smoked, ridden a bicycle and travelled more than once to Europe before her marriage. A contralto (she saw herself in the vein of Ernestine Schumann-Heink), Grace Hall Hemingway gave concerts in the Chicago area, in Los Angeles and out east when she travelled on her annual vacation away from the family. She was a staunch supporter of women's suffrage (early in her marriage she hyphenated her surnames). In addition to her music and lectures, she was a composer with published song sheets, and a better than amateur painter in oils. She had studied at the Art Institute and newspaper records indicate she had several one-woman shows. Grace taught her children to play instruments and coached their voices for choir. Son Leicester observed that his mother "lacked domestic talents". Her daughter Marcelline wrote that her mother had hired household help from her earnings to keep her freedom to pursue her muses.

The Doctor did the shopping, the canning, some of the cooking and hired the help (sometimes as many as six lived-in with the family), along with taking care of patients from his home medical office. He taught the children (and Grace) to shoot and appreciate the outdoors. James Nagel in his introduction to *Ernest Hemingway: The Oak Park Legacy* notes that Grandfather Anson Hemingway had founded the Chicago YMCA and Clarence founded the Oak Park Agassiz Club: "an organization dedicated to the moral instruction of young boys." Several writers recount Hemingway on his father's lecture to the boys on masturbation.

In 1907 when Grace was 36, Ruth Arnold, a 13-year old music student from a troubled home became part of the family as "mother's helper". Madeline's biography *Ernie: Hemingway's Sister "Sunny" Remembers* has a photograph of Ruth and the Hemingway children at Walloon Lake in the overly modest bathing costumes of the day. The published memoirs by the three siblings barely mention Ruth in passing as "our nursemaid", "our housekeeper". Though they do record the family nickname for her: "Bobs", "Bobby" or "Bobsy". Like so many Chicago area families that could afford it, the Hemingways fled the heat of summer across the lake for three months in their Michigan cottage named Windemere where Clarence and Grace had separate bedrooms. Often the Doctor's work would delay his arrival by days or weeks, or call him back to the city. Ruth Arnold went along to help care for the younger children.

When Grace was 48 (Ruth, 24) after several years of caring, cooking and cleaning up after six kids and guests all summer, she told her family she needed to get away from them if she was to survive. Over the objections of her husband (again using money from her inheritance), Grace designed and had built for herself a summer escape across Walloon Lake, on a 40 acre farm she had earlier purchased from a tax sale. One biographer states, Ernie told his first wife-to-be, Hadley Richardson, that Grace had wasted two or three thousand dollars on the cottage, which could have sent him to Princeton.

Grace took classes in furniture making and constructed several pieces for her cottage. She and Ruth braided the rugs for the cottage floors. Here Grace would compose her music; in later years daughter Marcelline would write that she remembered the sound of her mother's piano wafting the mile across Lake Walloon. Ruth and the younger children would stay with her, as would the doctor when he could get away from the Village. Grace would sound a bell if she wanted one of the older children to take the boat across and bring her to Windemere.

The suggestion that Grace and Ruth Arnold had a lesbian relationship rests rather wobbly on three legs. One, the effusive letters that passed between them and that are now at the University of Texas, Austin. Ruth and Grace wrote each other frequently when not together, as did Clarence and Grace. Ruth addressed her letters "Dear Muv". Critics of the suggestion that the letters have lesbian content [as in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rachel Carson], defuse the argument by referring to Carol Smith Rosenberg's seminal article "The Female World of Love and Ritual", which claimed women of the period wrote in a style often misconstrued today.

Two, the report of a neighbor at Oak Park and the Lake, a Mrs.Loomis, that it was common knowledge that Ruth was the cause of the trouble between Grace and the Doctor. This could possibly be dismissed as gossip.

The third leg is a little more problematic. It rests on the actions of the Doctor in exiling Ruth Arnold from the family's Kenilworth Avenue house and Grace's response to two (missing) letters from Clarence relating to his decision to do so.

When Ruth tried to come "home" after a stint at the Lake and was told she would not be allowed to return, she was obviously distressed and bewildered. She wrote Grace who was still at the lake cottage of Clarence's decision to bar her from the house. In a letter preserved at University of Texas Grace wrote Clarence "no one in the world can take my husband's place unless he abdicates it to play at petty jealousy with his wife's loyal girl friend". Obviously, at this juncture, Ruth was no longer merely "mother's helper".

That Grace again prevailed and continued her contact with Ruth until Clarence's suicide is evidenced in preserved letters, in one Ruth wrote to "Muv" offering to delay her arrival if the Doctor was going to be at the cottage. After Clarence took his life in 1928 there are references to Ruth in various biographies as companion to Grace in Oak Park, and later in River Forest. In 1949, a little over a year before her death, Ernie wrote twice to his mother and asked her to pass on his "love" to Ruth Arnold. In 1950, someone on staff had upset Grace's wheelchair while she was hospitalized. The resultant brain damage rendered her totally unable to contribute to her own care. Grace went to live with her daughter "Sunny" in Memphis until her death in 1951 at age 79. Ernest did not attend his mother's funeral. There is a final glimpse of Ruth Arnold in an exchange of letters with Ernie after Grace's death, which leads one to believe Ruth continued to live in the River Forest home she had shared with Grace. Ruth had found a biographical sketch Grace wrote about the Hall family and asked Hem's desire for its disposition.

What we do know is that from the time she was 13 until she was 68, the major part of Ruth Arnold's life seems to have been given over to the "service' of a woman we have evidence she deeply loved. In the 1920's when the Hemingway children were testing their independence an exasperated Grace may well have been in menopause and Ruth's unquestioning devotion was an anodyne. The Doctor is now believed to have been quite ill, in financial trouble over some Florida land dealings, and by today's standards severely depressed and somewhat paranoid. From all that has been written, it wouldn't have been in Grace's nature on a good day to play nurse. Indeed she may well have taken refuge in Ruth's adoration.

Not to be fey, but whether or not you consider the relationship between Ruth and Grace to be "lesbian" depends on your definition of the word. Since Rita Mae Brown and Martha Shelley attempted to revise Webster's narrow definition in the "Radicalesbian" early 1970's, other feminist academics have had their say. Lillian Faderman author of *Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers* says that lesbian "describes a relationship in which two women's strongest emotions and affections are directed toward each other. Sexual contact may be a part of the relationship to a greater or lesser degree, or it maybe entirely absent". Lois Gould writing in the *New York Times Magazine* said "We agree that the term 'lesbian' is no longer just a sexual definition. Many feminists now consider it a highly charged political word". Blanche Weisen Cook, author of two huge volumes on Eleanor Roosevelt, once wrote about Jane Addams and her "companion" of forty years, Marie Rozet Smith: "Even if we were to assume that Addams and Smith never touched each other, we can still argue that they were lesbians because they chose each other. Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to create a living environment in which to work creatively and independently are lesbians. It may seem elementary to state here that lesbians cannot be defined simply as women who practice certain physical rites together." And feminist theorist Charlotte Bunch wrote in *Lesbianism and the Women's Movement*: "Lesbianism is a threat to the ideological, political, personal and economic basis of male supremacy." Elsewhere she is quoted as saying :"in the sense that if your life is not bound up with men, then in men's eyes you might as well be a lesbian."

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, after many years of marriage and mothering six children, Grace Hall Hemingway sought the nuturing and support of another, a woman who loved her and appreciated her talents. Unlike ER, Grace already had a strong sense of self and her creative abilities. She could not, and would not, conform to the gender roles of her day if her work (and patriarchal inheritance) gave her the financial freedom to do otherwise. One can understand why Ernie saw her as a "selfish bitch" in her refusal to conform to Victorian standards and make Ernie and his father the center of her world.

In fiction and reality there have been women who devoted themselves to their beloveds, being content to serve them even when they heterosexually married or took one or more women lovers. (Mrs. Danvers in du Maurier's *Rebecca* in fiction, and Monique Serrure in real life, come readily to mind). Perhaps this is all Ruth was, an adoring satellite in a universe with Grace at the center. The intensity of the relationship is yet to be explored by scholars with access to both parties' thin paper trail. Perhaps they will answer questions like: Is there more information on Ruth/Grace in the unpublished portions of the siblings memoirs? Why did Grace move to River Forest after three generations of Halls and Hemingways called Oak Park home? Was it to escape those wagging tongues alluded to by Mrs. Loomis? Why did Ernie's second wife Pauline, whose sister was a lesbian, get her rich uncle to set up a trust fund for Grace's support knowing her husband hated his mother? Why did Hemingway threaten to pull that support from his mother if Grace granted an interview to a *McCall's* writer that was pursuing her about life at the Hemingway's in the Oak Park days? What did Ernie mean when he told son Patrick that Grace was androgynous? Why was that grounds to deny him visits to his grandmother?

Writer's frequently allude to the Hemingway tale repeated in *A Moveable Feast* (and inferred from some of his letters), that he broke off relations with Gertrude Stein after learning her relationship with Alice B. Toklas was as lesbians. He was only in his twenties, but he was not that provincial! There has always been speculation over what he actually heard that day at the Rue de fleurus. In recording only part of what he overheard, I suggest he is telling us precisely what was important to him. He was made suddenly aware of a power imbalance in a relationship he probably pictured to be like that of his mother and Ruth. What no doubt shocked him was that the intelligent, strong, stocky, independent Gertrude with hair piled up on her head much like his mother's might be so desperately dependent on her so-called helper that she would beg anything rather than face the threat of her leaving. I'm certain he must have wondered then about the bond between his mother and Ruth.

I suggest, by the standards of most lesbian-feminists, the relationship between Grace Hall Hemingway and Ruth Arnold can be defined as lesbian. However, other lesbian theorists such as Pat Califia (and most straights) hold that the sexual element is necessary to the definition. And that element, in this case, (or so many others like it from before the "tell-all 1970s"), cannot be proven absent confirmation from either of the principals. But we could probably make a good case for Ernie thinking his mother was a dyke if we half-tried.

Copyright Marie J. Kuda 1999. Space does not permit publication of bibliography and notes for this article.

Inquiries sent to <kudoschgo@aol.com>will be answered promptly. Also an article is in preparation based on Kuda's slide show of July 13, 1999 "Hemingway and Lesbians in his life and art".