In 1918 Ernest Hemingway, then a volunteer ambulance driver in Italy, was wounded by mortar fire and sent to the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan to recuperate. He was confined to his bed for several months and during that time, he wrote these letters to Frances Coates, a girl he had gone out with in high school. Coates was not interested in Hemingway as a romantic partner and went on to marry John Grace in 1920. In 1923, Hemingway used a variation on her name, Liz Coates, in his short story "Up in Michigan". Later, he would include broad parodies of Frances and John Grace in To Have and Have Not.
In Hemingway's first letter to Frances, he attempts to cajole her with boyish enthusiasm and fractured French into writing back: "… I can't break the old habit of writing you whenever I get a million miles away from Oak Park. Only this time you are going to shatter all precedent by writing me a nice long letter in answer. Aren't you? Sure you are! Nespaw?" He continues with a description of Milan in midsummer, "Milan is so hot that the proverbial hinges of hell would be like the beads of ice on the outside of a glass of Cliquot-Club by comparison. However, it has a cathedral and a dead man. Leonardo da Vinci and some very good looking girls and the best beer in the allied countries, which being announced as the result of the careful investigations conducted through most of France and all of Italy. But I was so lucky as to be recommended for the Italian medal of valor which is like the Victoria Cross or Legion of Honor. I are a very fortunate child, Frances. For several couple of times I said to myself, Oinust you will not look upon Mr. Hodgson's Tea Rooms again! But I will. Also I'm going to convalesce on the Riviera! Yoho Yoho."
The second, more expansive letter (15 October) was written after Hemingway had received a letter from 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. If that isn't a catty first paragraph! But really Frances it was an unspeakably nice letter and it was very very good of you to write me. and all the late dope on village happenings …. The conventional way to write a letter home to one's beloved, ex beloved, near beloved, or impressionable members of the family; is to say that I am writing this in a dugout by the light of a candle stuck in a bayonet. (Damned if I know how they accomplish that feat of arms), while overhead the shells roar and whimper! But as you are a good pal and the war is over I'll tell the unromantic truth. This is being written on the back of a supper tray in a nice comfortable hospital where I am interned for the duration of the Peace with my very unromantic tonsillitis, ululated throat, jaundice and something the matter with my internals alleged to be caused by shell shock. So far the only trhing [sic] I can find wrong with them is that they crave food in immense quantities about six times every 4 hours!"
Hemingway says he will not leave the hospital till the spring and then plans to spend some time in Italy before returning to Oak Park. "After I get out of the hospital I've a couple of weeks leave and am going visiting an Italian officer down in Abbruzzi [sic] for a couple of weeks quail shooting and trout fishing. The I'm going to stop off at Torino for a while to visit the count Bellia who is a bewhiskered peach, nice thing, and has three daughters ranging from bellissima! to she's good to her folks. Anyway they are awfully nice and have been fine to me. Send me chocolate [word illegible] and cognac and 'most everything'. Met 'em up at the Lakes when I was convalescing".
"Oh yes, I can now read, speak and write love letters in Italian, also reports. Though the latter are more difficult and frequently add to the gaiety of nations. Love letters are fine. For example I never could bring myself to address anyone as 'My treasure,' but 'Tesora mea' just runs out of the pen." Before asking Frances to write again and closing his letter, Hemingway assures her that he isn't serious about anyone in Italy" "… I haven't fallen for any of the local damsels although I have a very beautiful contessa, only once married, who furnishes Piper Heidsieck champagne of about 98 vintage and a much more beautiful bar maid across the street from the hospital who serves cognac at 70 centimes a glass and who sent up a bunch of big American beauties the other day that must of cost at least the price of a bottle. But then the bar maid's mother was born in Saginaw Mich. and she considers me a fellow countryman."
These remarkable letters are accompanied by a small archive of items kept over the years by Frances Coates Grace. Of great interest is Mrs. Grace's frank unpublished memoir of Hemingway (11pp. carbon typescript; 16pp. autograph manuscript). Here is her description of Hemingway in his youth: "… in life, a disturbing person with very dark hair, very red lips, very white teeth, very fair skin under which the blood seemed to race, emerging frequently in an all-enveloping blush. What a help his beard, later, was to be, protecting and covering this sensitivity. The whole of his face fell apart when he laughed. "
Also included is biographer Carlos Baker's correspondence with Mrs. Grace (3 letters) and Mrs. Grace's unsent reply to Baker (autograph draft and typed copy). In the unsent letter, she writes, "No, I wasn't the girl to whom Ernie gave his Italian uniform cape, to which his mother took umbrage. She would have given me the cape and the boy, too, and to her last days she would remember those early days."
There are four photographs (3 1/4 x 4 1/4 in.; 83 x 108) from 1916–1919 in an envelope inscribed by Mrs. Grace, "Ernie's Pictures. And 25 years later, ooh! Am I glad I married John!". Two of the photos are of Hemingway, Coates and others on a canoe trip on the Des Plaines River. One is captioned, "… taken by Dr. Hemingway from the bridge — 1916" — A photo of Hemingway in bed holding up a bottle, American Red Cross Hospital, Milan, 1918 — A photo of Hemingway in uniform and cape in Oak Park, captioned "front of our house on Pleasant St — Feb, March, 1919".
Four other items round out the collection: A later copy of Hemingway's high school graduation photo, framed and kept by Mrs. Grace in her dressing room — A photograph of Hemingway in uniform standing with an unidentified woman — a note sent by an elderly couple to Hemingway and Coates's table when they were dining at the Terrace Restaurant in 1919 ("I just want to tell you, you are the first really dear sweet looking girl I've seen in Chicago.") — 2 sheets of French stationary with printed wartime vignettes at the top edge by Guy Arnoux, dated 1916.
TWO REVEALING EARLY LETTERS WRITTEN BY THE YOUNG HEMINGWAY FROM MILAN TO A GIRL BACK HOME IN OAK PARK.
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