99-year-old letters from Hemingway reveal his unrequited high school love

Imagine you’re a senior in high school, working as the music editor on your school’s magazine. There’s a younger guy working on the magazine as a writer, and he has a gigantic crush on you. He’s good at his work, and you go on a date, but you’re just not interested romantically. In fact, you eventually get a serious boyfriend. Your young magazine friend is so distressed when you get engaged to your boyfriend after graduation that he up and joins the Army. You grow up to be an opera singer, and he grows up to be Ernest Hemingway.

That’s what happened to Frances Elizabeth Coates, and the recent discovery of her 99-year-old letters to and from Hemingway reveal more of their narrative. According to a story in The Paris Review, the letters were provided to Robert K. Elder and other Hemingway researchers by Coates’ granddaughter, Betsy Fermano. They were in a trunk with other mementos of Coates’ continued friendship with Hemingway, from pictures and correspondence to newspaper clippings showing the progression of his career from journalist to famous novelist.

Ernest Hemingway is arguably one of America’s most important writers, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to date him. Between his string of broken marriages, history of cheating, and sometimes insulting portrayals of women, Hemingway’s well-documented relationship with women is considered complicated at best. He lived in a time when trauma and mental illness involved much more stigma and much less effective treatment, and he struggled with both throughout his life. But none of that had happened yet when Coates knew him as a classmate.

In an unpublished, ten-page memoir of her friendship with Hemingway (also in the trunk), Coates describes Hemingway as,

"a great, awkward boy falling over his long feet … 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."

When Hemingway was injured by mortar fire in Italy, he wrote to his sister Marcelleine and asked her to “call up Frances Coates and tell her that your brother is at death’s door. And that will she please, no excuses, write to him. Make her repeat the address after so that she will have no alibi. Tell her that I love her or any damn thing.”

Coates did write to him, thought that letter has not been found. The new letters from 19-year-old Hemingway are from his time in the hospital in Italy. Sandra Spanier, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and a general editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, said of the new letters,

“You hear him being flirtatious and kind of bragging, the way a teenage boy would. He’s trying to make her a little bit jealous, but he’s also got this self-deprecating humor, which is quite charming. It’s a completely different voice from others we’ve heard in his letters.

Hemingway based characters on Coates over the years. First, in the 1923 story “Up in Michigan” (as “Liz Coates”), and in later pieces, most famously the novel To Have and Have Not — which portrayed both Coates and her husband in a less-than-flattering light.

As for Coates, though she remained friends with Hemingway for many years, she didn’t regret marrying her high school boyfriend, John Grace. On a packet of pictures of Hemingway found in the trunk, she wrote, “Ernie Pictures / And 25 years later ooh! Am I glad I married John.” She and John were married for 67 years, raised a daughter, traveled the world, and died a year apart in 1988 and 1989.

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