Friday, July 22, 2016

Hemingway Transformed, 98 Years Later

Among other projects, I am currently working on a book featuring Hemingway’s faith journey. I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Hemingway Society conference in Oak Park, Illinois where he was born and grew up.  Below are the text of my pre-delivery remarks.  — Mary Claire Kendall


Remarks by Mary Claire Kendall 
at the Hemingway Society Biennial Conference
At Home in Hemingways World
“Ars Longa, Vita Brevis . . . Aeternitas?—
Hemingway’s Religious Quest”
Monday, July 18, 2016, 2:45-4 PM
Dominican University, Riverside, IL

Good afternoon. My name is Mary Claire Kendall.

I am the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, featuring an all-star twelve, including Hemingway’s good friend Gary Cooper.

It’s wonderful to be part of this distinguished panel about Hemingway’s Religious Quest” on this, the first day of The Hemingway Society’s biennual conference in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park.

Five summers ago, no sooner had I finished writing an article about Cooper and his faith journey, than Hemingway was splashing into the news. It was the 50th anniversary of his death. Knowing how close Hemingway and Cooper were and that they died just weeks apart—Coop on May 13—I began to dig deeper into Hemingway’s life.

That August, I began to read The Sun Also Rises, a paperback copy of which I happened to buy for a dollar years earlier at the now-defunct Vassar Book Fair in Washington, DC.  I was coming off a very stressful year after my own Hollywood hazing and each night, feeling totally wired, something amazing happened. Within fifteen minutes or so of reading this literary masterpiece, I was fast asleep. His writing was just so beautiful and calming. There was so much depth beneath the tip of that iceberg!

On the afternoon of Friday, September 9, as my quest to understand this legendary writer intensified, I felt, somewhat mystically, as if Hemingway was saying to me, “It’s about time.”

A few days later, on Tuesday, September 12, coincidentally the Feast of the Name of Mary, I reached out to Charles Scribner as I tried to glean more important pieces in the puzzle of his life and he told me, “Hemingway called himself a Catholic [having been baptized by a Catholic priest in Italy during WWI]…”  

By November 2011, my friend Fr. C. John McCloskey, known as “the convert maker,” having brought a who’s who to the Catholic Church, introduced me to his friend Redd Griffin of Oak Park, who had studied Hemingway’s spirituality for 25 years. His knowledge was encyclopedic. Our conversation that first Sunday before Thanksgiving 2011 went on for four hours as I furiously scribbled away.

I was hooked and soon, instead of an article, I was working on a book proposal.  To my shock, Redd would live just 12 more months—suddenly dying, almost a year to the day after our first phone seminar.

He had guided me well that year as I climbed Mount Hemingway. That summer I interviewed Hemingway’s son Patrick for a Forbes article published on Hemingway’s birthday, titled “Hemingway on Hemingway and Hollywood.”

And, that November, just before Redd died, I fortuitously reached out to H.R. Stoneback seeking guidance as I continued to write my proposal. On July 8, 2013, I wrapped back around to what Charlie Scribner had told me, and wrote another Forbes piece, this one titled “Hemingway Transformed, 95 Years Later.” 

Then, “Oasis” intervened as well as life tragedy, namely the sudden death of my beloved mother Claire.  But, in the summer of 2015, out of the blue, I heard from “Stoney” on August 11, the Feast of St. Claire, and eve of my mother’s birthday, no less, asking if I had found a publisher and would I like to speak at this conference?  A good omen, I thought.

So, without further adieu, I give you, “Hemingway Transformed, 98 Years Later.” 


Hemingway Transformed,
98 Years Later
By Mary Claire Kendall

In the summer of 1918, as World War I was entering its final bloody stages, Ernest Hemingway, like most American youth, answered the call to serve in this “war to end all wars.” Then, as now, the same sectarian and religious rivalries convulsed the world.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan, 1918
Within weeks, Hemingway was seriously wounded and nearly died. The experience would transform him into not only a great writer but a man of great faith. The former we know all too well—embodied in such epic works as A Farewell to Arms, made into an Oscar-winning film starring Gary Cooper. The latter we know little of.

That the underlying theme of his writing—and his life—is “sanctity,” according to Hemingway scholar H.R. Stoneback, has everything to do with what happened in the heat of battle in Fossalta, Italy along the Piave River, and its immediate aftermath, 98 years ago this month.


Given defective eyesight, the Army rejected Hemingway.  So, he joined the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps and, on May 23, 1918, just 18, set sail for Europe from New York with his fellow enlistees.

After crossing the Atlantic, it was “Paris and red tape,” he wrote his friend, second lieutenant Henry Villard, followed by “temporary duty in Milano”—including the “shock” his first day while retrieving the dead from a munitions factory explosion that, as he wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932),  “a good number of these (dead)… were women.”

Afterwards he “strolled through the Galleria and into the vast dim cathedral,” he wrote Villard, and arrived in Schio, home of the Ambulance Corps, on June 10, 1918. 

But Hemingway found Schio insufferably boring and soon managed to finagle an assignment running one of the “rolling canteens” the American Red Cross established, among a network of canteens, that got him as close to the front lines as possible.  He arrived at his new assignment on June 24, 1918, joined by his close friend Bill Horne.

As the second lieutenant in his section, Hemingway was allowed to eat in the mess hall with the Italian officers. It was there that he met Don Giuseppe Bianchi, a young priest from the Abruzzi region near Florence.  Just like the priest in A Farewell to Arms, Don Bianchi, wrote Carlos Baker in Hemingway: A Life Story, “wore a cross in dark red velvet above the left-hand pocket of his tunic” and, also like the priest in the novel vis-à-vis Lt. Frederic Henry, played by Cooper, “quickly befriended Ernest who treated him with sympathy and respect.”

At the end of June, Ernest’s rolling canteen was far from operational, leaving him to deliver chocolates and cigarettes on foot. 

He made quite an impression. As his friend Ted Brumback (“Brummy”) wrote Ernest’s family, as quoted in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon, “The Italians in the trenches got to know his smiling face and were always asking for their ‘giovane Americano.’”  While Hemingway was enjoying himself capitally, Horne, Baker wrote, found “(t)he combination of inaction, mosquitoes, and gnawing silkworms” oppressive, prompting him to return to Schio on July 1st.

A week later, Horne heard the news that, as Baker wrote, “(a)round midnight on July 8thin a forward listening post on the west bank of the river near Fossalta, Ernest had been severely wounded.”

The midnight mortar, Brummy wrote, “hit within a few feet of Ernest while he was giving out chocolate. The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth.”  The Italian closer to the shell, Brummy continued, was killed and “another, standing a few feet away, had both legs blown off.” Ernest was heroic in saving a badly wounded third Italian:  “(T)his one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him about it” and said they had voted to give him the valor medal.

Years later, Hemingway wrote in his usual cryptic style in a letter to Thomas Welsh, father of his fourth wife, Mary, as Stoneback reported in “Hemingway’s Catholicism and the Biographies,” that “In first war… really scared after wounded and very devout at the end.”  

In typical Hemingway fashion, he kept this secret about his fervent faith to himself when writing to his family on August 18, 1918, from the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan.  But, make no mistake, in spite of what his various biographers have previously written, Hemingway was a changed man. As Stoneback writes:

… (Hemingway biographer Jeffrey) Meyers (wrote that)… “A Florentine priest, Don Giuseppe Bianchi, passed by the wounded men, murmuring holy words and anointing them. There was no need for the priest to give Hemingway extreme unction; he was not in mortal danger and was recovering from his wounds.  Bianchi’s perfunctory ceremony was not (as Hemingway later conveniently claimed) a formal baptism into the Catholic Church.” (Hemingway: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 32; emphasis added). Aside from the patronizing tone of this passage… Meyers seems confused about the sacraments. If the priest did “anoint” Hemingway, what else could the sacrament have been but extreme unction? It is also, most likely, under battlefield circumstances, that obtained, that the priest would first speak the brief Trinitarian words of “conditional Baptism” and then administered the viaticum, the Holy Communion given to those in danger of death…

Hemingway—a bloody mess, with over 200 pieces of shrapnel, along with bullets, lodged in his legs, knees and feet—was holding on for dear life in that schoolhouse, where he received morphine and antitetanus and a Catholic “anointing.” That anointing, he later boasted, in his January 2, 1926 response to a letter from Ernest Walsh—an expatriate American poet and co-editor of the small but influential Paris magazine This Quarter, where Hemingway’s fiction was first published—made him a “super-catholic.” In this same letter, which Michael Reynolds included in Hemingway: The Paris Years, he wrote:

If I am anything I am a Catholic.  Had extreme unction administered to me as such in July 1918 and recovered… It is most certainly the most comfortable religion for anyone soldiering. Am not what is called a “good” Catholic… But cannot imagine taking any other religious seriously.

He was next transported to a field hospital for five days after which the Army transported him to the train for the trip to Milan and the American Red Cross Hospital, where he met and fell in love with Agnes Von Kurowsky, providing the romantic basis for A Farewell to Arms. Agnes, Stoneback wrote, remembered Hemingway asking her to go to Mass with him in Milan at the Cathedral he had visited on day one.

“To understand Hemingway’s writing,” his sister Madeleine (“Sunny”) always said, as told to me by Redd Griffin, “you need to understand his spirituality.” And, to understand Hemingway’s spirituality, you need to understand his Catholicism, catalyzed by that wounding so many Julys ago, on that battlefield in Italy, where soldiers were trying to settle, once again, with weapons, intractable sectarian and religious differences. 

UPDATE: Mary Claire Kendall spoke at the Hemingway Biennial Conference in Paris on July 25, 2018. A shortened version of the paper she gave was published in St. Austin Review in early 2019. She is currently working on a book about Hemingway's faith journey.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Journey to Liberty and Broadway

A makeshift memorial at the corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall

ach year, as the anniversary of 9/11 nears, I reflect on how I happened to travel to New York City the afternoon of Monday, September 10, 2001. 

I rarely traveled to Manhattan. Every other time I did manage a trip, it seemed some calamity would befall the town.  For instance, on a visit in August 1999, the subway system flooded after an unexpected deluge of rain courtesy Hurricane Dennis—the Menace.  

But, serendipitously, a meeting with a top city official I had told a client I could set up sometime in the fall was suddenly of great interest; and when I called to set it up, we picked September 10th. 

So, a week after Labor Day, I boarded an Amtrak train bound for New York just before noon to arrive in time for my 5 p.m. appointment.  The meeting would take place just a few blocks from the still-standing Twin Towers. Afterwards, I was going to have dinner with my friend John, and fully intended to return to Washington on 9/11.  But, after my 3 p.m. arrival in Penn Station, nothing went as planned.  I couldn’t seem to catch a break.

Exiting the train station, I decided to walk from 34th Street to my hotel in Midtown. I love New York and its jam-packed sidewalks teaming with pedestrians—and just relished the opportunity to soak in the city color. As a struggling writer, I relished saving money, too—in this case the cab fare. 

As I walked, rain-threatening clouds soon gathered, quickly turning ominously darker, sending me scurrying to reach my hotel before the skies burst.  But, a torrential downpour soon forced me to run for cover inside a restaurant.

About ten to four, I finally reached my destination.  (I was staying at the Chemists’ Club on 45th Street through my membership at Washington’s historic City Tavern Club, frequented by founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.)  But, no sooner did I begin settling into my room, than I discovered, to my dismay, that the air conditioning was broken—necessitating a call to maintenance. They came right away; so, of course, I couldn't get ready for my appointment.  

Clearly, on-time arrival for my 5 p.m. wasn’t going to happen.  

So I called the official—an old friend— impressively ensconced in his penthouse suite in the shadow of the Twin Towers, hoping to reschedule for early the next morning. He told me to come when I could—he was working late and was flexible. 

Shortly after 5 p.m., finally on my way, I hustled down 45th Street to Grand Central Station, and braved more driving rains—this time aided by a helpful New Yorker. Then, I endured the passengers-packed-in-like-sardines-in-a-can subway experience. 

But, it was all worth it: Exiting the Wall Street station, I saw—with my naked eye, for the first time in my life—that heroic statue of George Washington heralding the New York Stock Exchange.  How impressive!  The whole scene captured my imagination for a brief transfixing moment—before more rain and my impending appointment yanked me back to reality.  A reality that put me on track to arrive an hour late—at 6 p.m.!

It was a lovely appointment in which we reminisced about the good old days: we had met at the Reagan-Bush Midterm Reunion in 1982! And, he was very helpful as to the business purpose of my visit—authorizing a $2500 seed grant by the time the appointment wrapped at 6:30 p.m.

After saying goodbye, I was, of course, blissfully unaware as I exited the building, how blessed I was that, in spite of all the obstacles, we had not rescheduled for the morning of 9/11.  Such a plan would likely have put me either on the subway, approaching Wall Street, as the terrorists slammed 747s into the North Tower, or outside looking up in horror at the towering inferno—this time running for cover not from rain, but falling debris.  

But, all these “what ifs” were now non-existent.  I had had my appointment.  Now, it was onto the business of soaking in more awe-inspiring sights, if not more rain—on my own.  You see, John, the one I was due to have dinner with, was taking his good old time returning from his country estate on Lake George—so depressed was he over his mounting stock market losses.

Walking along Lower Manhattan, I soon stumbled onto a now-shuttered restaurant at the top of 14 Wall Street, J.P. Morgan’s old apartment, and followed the labyrinthine passages to the top.  Entering the restaurant, the view of the beautiful Statue of Liberty standing majestically out in the harbor, was overwhelming. Little wonder J.P. Morgan chose this space as his living quarters! 

As I gazed upon this powerful symbol and essence of American Democracy from that lofty perch, September 10th, I had no doubt, was an evening I would never forget.

Statue of Liberty, October 6, 2008.
It was closed for three years after 9/11, and was not completely open until 2009.

But, it couldn’t last for long—especially since I was by myself.  So, stepping off cloud 9, I departed, heading back down the labyrinthine passageways.

Once outside, I made my way back to the Wall Street subway—amidst, you guessed it, the rain.

Arriving at Grand Central Station, the continuing driving rains made it impossible for me to walk the few blocks along 45th Street back to the Chemists’ Club. But, as I had experienced earlier, my walk back to the Club was again eased by the hospitality of a wonderful New Yorker—this time an investment banker from Switzerland named Pierre, who had worked in the city for 15 years.

As he dropped me off at the Club, I expressed heartfelt appreciation and, smiling warmly, he exhorted to me, “Now say nice things about New Yorkers.”  Pierre’s statement—prescient, even omniscient—echoed in my mind after the September 11th attacks, after which, all anyone had to say about New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath was of the most positive, affirmative nature. 

he morning of September 11th, the bright sun warmly bathed the city and clear blue sky cheered the heart. I woke up about 8:30 a.m., having stayed up late the night before meticulously planning the next day’s complicated and busy itinerary.

When I groggily arrived in the Chemist Club lounge around 9 a.m. for a much-needed cup of coffee, local news was covering a story—a seeming replay, I thought, of my August 1999 visit, highlighting yet another emergency caused by the city’s aging infrastructure.

But, a coffee sip later, I awoke to the tragic reality unfolding before my eyes and that of the gathering crowd in that little lounge. A plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers—the North Tower—shortly before 9 a.m.

Within minutes, a second plane crashed into the South Tower.

Everyone watched the unfolding drama, witnessing—along with the rest of the world—those two iconic skyscrapers transformed into towering infernos. 

As the minutes ticked away, the tension rose concerning the fate of these world famous buildings and, more importantly, everyone inside of them.  Then, at 9:59 a.m., our worst fears were realized as the South Tower collapsed—less than an hour after being hit.

Stunned silence gave way to more tension and more apprehension, as we waited and watched—the seemingly inevitable coming at 10:28 a.m., when the North Tower collapsed.   It had burned for 102 minutes.

Both towers had collapsed like sandcastles on the beach children petulantly destroy. Only now, the attackers were no innocents but rather twisted terrorists intent on destroying the symbols of American wealth at the heart of our financial empire.

hat afternoon, I joined my friend John atop his building at 57th and Park as we sat somberly watching in the distance smoke billow up from Lower Manhattan. It was surreal. New York City was soon reduced to a near ghost town.

Later than evening at Elaine’s, John and I witnessed another incredible scene at this “bastion of artists and liberal Upper East Side aristocracy,” as he described it, frequented by the likes of Woody Allen, George Plimpton, Michael Cain, and others. Conservative Republicans generally and President George W. Bush, in particular, were a breed apart—as incompatible as Texas oil to their creative water at Elaine’s, recently shuttered, in the wake of the owner, Elaine Kaufman’s death.  

Yet, as President addressed the nation, and the world, on television twelve hours after the terrorist attacks, customers in Elaine’s immediately began hushing everyone to “Be quiet, be quiet!,” so anxious were they to listen, intent on hearing his every word.  You could literally hear a pin drop—unheard of for liberal Elaine’s. 

If there was anyplace in America that could demonstrate right and left were now determined to fight and destroy this terrorist menace—together—it was Elaine’s!

In spite of the huge attack earlier in the day—some 3,000 souls lost, impacting their families and the surviving rescue workers—John recently noted how “life went on for almost everyone else.”

It was true—at least for the moment.  There we were at Elaine’s enjoying a delicious steak dinner at the Woody Allen table, as Elaine, her usual gracious self, was playing her nightly role: den mother, leading lady of society, and, most importantly, guardian the Upper East Side Café Society.

But, make no mistake, our life had changed.  The Army was about to “stand up” the Joint Personnel Effects Depot to deal with the casualties of this first attack in what, would soon be christened The Global War on Terror; and young, or not so young, were enlisting, or re-enlisting, in the military services to join the effort. 

Smaller, tangible reminders of the attack were, of course, everywhere.  The next day I will never forget when the wind shifted and the Midtown Manhattan condo where I was staying, owned by John’s merchant banking firm, was suddenly enveloped with putrid air billowing up from Ground Zero—a grisly combination of toxic waste and burning human remains.

Then there was the reality that no restaurants were open in the immediate aftermath—except the wonderful Jewish Delis. There, I shared stories with stranded visitors like myself, including a grounded airline pilot from Australia, as well as shell-shocked New Yorkers like Al Sarnoff, the nephew of David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, who, coincidentally, knew a friend of mine, TV programming legend Mike Dann. 

Sarnoff, expressing what everyone was feeling, suggested I contact the big wigs I knew in Washington to tell the President to get up here and fast.  Of course, plans were already being laid and the day I left, Friday, September 14, Bush visited Ground Zero, and famously stood on that pile of rubble and addressed the firefighters, and the world.  

When he started speaking, the firefighters said they couldn’t hear him, and he said, “I can’t talk any louder” and, using the bullhorn, began communicating as best he could, telling them, “I want you all to know that America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people who lost their lives here...” As he continued, the firefighters again said they couldn’t hear him, at which point, in a moment historians say, Bush became president, he blared into that bullhorn, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked all of these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” 

It had been a week of Big Apple Big Chill moments with friends and strangers alike—extending over several days, because I was leery of returning to Washington via train.  But, I finally traveled back to Washington by car with a friend on Friday, after she finished a weeklong seminar at IBM’s White Plains Headquarters. Once home, I exhaled. My little apartment never looked so good!

Finishing the Journey...  

wo months later, the figurative and literal dust having settled, I felt magnetically drawn to the city again and, on November 8th, traded in my September 11th Amtrak ticket for a visit I prayed would turn out much differently.

The only hotel available through my City Tavern Club membership this time was in Lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero, which was very fortuitous. While, officially, I had come to New York to screen a friend’s film in the Miramax building on Greenwich Street, and try to advance my screenwriting projects; my real purpose was to come to terms with the enormous catastrophe of two months earlier. 

So, after settling into my room, I soon ventured out and discovered that the closest city officials would allow visitors to the World Trade Center pit was the intersection of Liberty & Broadway—near the very tip of Manhattan Island.  The symbolism was riveting.

Corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall
The next day, starting at Liberty & Broadway, I did a few “man on the street” interviews and soon rediscovered the truth that America’s wealth lies in her people.

Two telephone technicians, Thomas and Joe, were working diligently to extend communications cut off by the attack. They talked with me, my tape-recorder rolling, in front of Old St. Paul’s Church steps from Ground Zero. (Miraculously, St. Paulhad sustained no damage whatsoever.)

“Everyone,” said Thomas “is still in shock.” He reported that his close friend, an FDNY firefighter in Ladder 10 a few blocks away, had died—his body just recovered the previous week. “There wasn’t much left of him,” he said—DNA providing essential proof of his identity. Asked if it helped knowing their friends died “in the line of duty,” they both chimed in, it was “small consolation.”  But, in fact, their heroism was great consolation. As Joe said, “The firefighters (like cops)—they run in, they don’t care, they take their job with real heart…You got to have a big heart to be a firefighter—no matter where you are.” 

Ground Zero, corner of Liberty & Broadway, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall
In a nearby coffee shop, workers for Blackman Moring Steamatic (BMS) Catastrophe Restoration shared their perspective. BMS’s catastrophe division had opened in 1981 to help restore large commercial loss and was now the premier contractor for large loss insurers. But, in all those years, they had never seen anything like the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster: “Property loss is one thing.” But, the loss of so many lives—“incomprehensible!”

Nancy Leo, BMS Vice President and Regional Director, told me she had worked for the New York Port Authority for 10 years and that the clean-up after the February 1993 World Trade Center terrorist bombing required “running 3000 people” a day.  The morning of September 11th she was scheduled to meet with Larry Silverstein’s operations people to secure his new investment. The meeting, she said, was providentially pushed back to later that morning.

With weary sadness in her eyes, she told me, nineteen of her friends and associates, plus 700 other Port Authority employees, were not so lucky.

Author at Ground Zero, corner of Liberty & Broadway,
while conducting "man on the street" interviews, November 9, 2001
Next on my spontaneous itinerary was a visit to Our Lady of Victory Church, where I spoke with Fr. Peter Gnanashekar.

The morning of September 11th at 8:47 a.m., he said, “time seemed to stand still.”  

While assisting at mass he said he heard a “big sound” after which a man, covered in debris, rushed in to report the attack followed by someone reporting a man, covered in blood, had dragged himself to the Church, seeking the Last Rites. Fr. Peter’s colleague, Father Andrew Cieszkowksi, immediately administered the sacrament to this man, who had been struck by flying debris. He was, said Fr. Peter, Ground Zero’s first visible victim.

Others, going out to see the scene with their own eyes, came back in utter disbelief.
Spurred on by the mayhem, Fr. Peter said everyone began to pray fervently “in the front of the tabernacle and Blessed Mother’s statue,” and then, “spontaneously to pray aloud.”

As the dust came pouring in, people started taking altar cloths to cover themselves, holding tight through the final 10:30 a.m. tower collapse.

Then, as the debris in the Church cleared, everyone—in a state of shock—began going to confession, asking for a quick absolution, believing their demise was imminent.

Various angles of Our Lady of Victory Church, November 9, 2001.
Credit: Mary Claire Kendall 
Every Wednesday after September 11th, he told me, Our Lady of Victory held an hour of prayer to help people cope with grief and to provide mental and spiritual solace. The purpose, he said, was “to share, to heal, (and) to grow as we try to face this one with faith.”

On my way back to Penn Station for the return trip to Washington, I spoke with a man on the subway. Like all the others, he expressed a profound sense of loss and emotional shellshock. Every time, he said, he got off the subway near Ground Zero to walk to his home or place of work, the foul odor emanating from the burning pit “always makes me feel immediately depressed.”

But he found one silver lining.  In spite of widespread communications and social disruptions—phones and buildings rendered totally unusable—human innovation and ingenuity, he said with a smile, helped their community to adapt. Young children would run around the neighborhood taping notices to all the front doors to announce scheduled meetings taking place in the park or significant news.

Then, his thoughts and spirit slumped back as he lamented, “If only human emotion could adapt as quickly.”

Note: My interview with Fr. Peter Gnanashekar at Our Lady of Victory was also included in my companion piece for National Catholic Register, titled “Journey to Liberty and Forgiveness.”  See .

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ronald Reagan's Heart: Three Emotional Landmarks

Double rainbow over Ronald Reagan’s birthplace 
the night before his election to the presidency.

What a difference a year makes!

A year ago, I attended the 102nd anniversary celebration of President Ronald Reagan’s birth at Eureka College after penning Ronald Reagan’s Heart: Two Emotional Landmarks. (See below.) His son Michael described the college as about the size of a “postage stamp” 
last night at a 103rd anniversary celebration in Washington, DC hosted 
by the Reagan Alumni Association. Indeed, it is—exemplifying, Michael said, his humble roots. 

On this morning, a year ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with a key legislator in Springfield, Illinois, seeking support to save Reagan’s Chicago home on the South Side—another illustration of just how humble Reagan’s roots were. This legislator told me he had grown up a virtual orphan and Reagan had been a father figure for him. He said he would do what he could.

Of course, the home was demolished. But not the larger cause, the most important emotional landmark, which Reagan fought so hard for.  The work of Major General Paul E. Vallely (US Army Ret), Chairman, Stand Up America, about which I wrote in this piece, fittingly published yesterday, is a prime example.

As Reagan always said, “It can be done!”  But, it is often quite difficult, as this other towering figure, St. Thomas More, born on this day in 1478, is a testament to.

Mary Claire Kendall
President, Friends of President Reagan’s Chicago Home

The author at a tribute to President Reagan in
Washington, D.C. on the 103rd anniversary of his birth


 2/06/2013 @ 8:00AM

Mary Claire Kendall
Mary Claire Kendall, Contributor
I write about Hollywood legends and real life.
Ronald Reagan's Heart: Two Emotional Landmarks

Double rainbow over Ronald Reagan’s birthplace the night before his election to the presidency.
When former President Ronald Reagan visited his birthplace in Tampico, Illinois on May 10, 1992, this tender-hearted, consummate gentleman, fast-fading with enveloping Alzheimers, wept, said curator Joan Johnson, as he laid eyes on the bed, where his mother Nelle had labored for many difficult hours, before giving birth to him on February 6, 1911.
His father Jack, Reagan later recounted, quipped right after his birth, “For such a little bit of a fat Dutchman, he makes a lot of noise doesn’t he?” His mother, though weak, beamed, “I think he’s perfectly wonderful.”  Both the endearing name and positive opinion stuck.
Today, all of us who came to understand how “perfectly wonderful” Ronald Wilson “Dutch” Reagan was, celebrate his birthday, hearts overflowing with gratitude for this giant of American history—the only president born and bred in Illinois.
After four years in Tampico, the family moved to Chicago’s South Side—a culture shock for Reagan’s dad, who began drinking more heavily. But, there was a silver lining. It was only because of Jack Reagan’s drinking habit that conservative commentator Tom Roeser, was, years later, in talking with President Reagan, able to pinpoint the exact site of the president’s Chicago home—on southwest corner of the University of Chicago, located diametrically opposite President Barack Obama’s Hyde Park home on the northeast corner.
In Tampico, the population was less than 1000. There the Reagans lived in a spacious six-room rented second-floor apartment above a bakery from September 1906 to May 1911 while Jack worked across the street at Pitney General Store.  Shortly after Dutch’s birth, his father was promoted from merchandiser to manager and the family rented a large house around the corner, where they lived until December 15, 1914.
When Mr. Pitney sold his store, Jack scrambled for employment and landed a job at Marshall Field’s Mayfair Annex near the University of Chicago.  Right after the first of the year the family moved to Chicago, population 2.2 million, where Jack and Nelle chose another flat with six rooms—an architectural feature unique to Illinois, and particularly Chicago, that gives an apartment the feel of a house.
As with Tampico’s “Main Street Historic District,” in 1982, the South Side neighborhood in which the Reagan’s home at 832 E. 57th Street resided, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1986. As Jack Spicer, Chair of the Hyde Park Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Committee, said, paraphrasing, “It is the finest remaining example of what was once a solid and working and middle-class black neighborhood.”(Chicago Sun-Times, February 6, 2011)
Like the birthplace, the Hyde Park home was the scene of memories that tapped a deep well of emotion in President Reagan, evidenced by his reaction upon Mayor Jane Byrne presenting a photo of the home to him in September 1981, six months after the assassination attempt.  His eyes became misty, showing a hint of tears, as he absorbed all the memories of his time living there—like when four-year-old Dutch and his six-year-old brother Neil, nicknamed “Moon,” would go to White City, an amusement park a mile from their home, laden with freshly made popcorn they would sell to amusement park patrons to help supplement the family income, increasingly diminished because of Jack’s drinking habit.
As some might have heard, the home now hangs in the balance as the city and university decide whether to spare it from being demolished—and if spared, how to honor President Reagan’s memory there.  (No, it’s not true the block on which the home sits will be transformed into a parking garage for the Obama library.)
Our hope is that President Reagan’s memory will be honored in a big way on the site of the planned 240-bed hospital facility—right across the street from The Center for Care and Discovery, featuring state-of-the-art Alzheimer’s Research.
But, it will take money and lots of it toward which end the Friends of President Reagan’s Chicago Home, Inc., founded by a group of devoted Reaganauts in December, incorporated just three short weeks ago, are determined to do what it takes.
The ideal would be, working with the university, to transform the home into a museum and center that elegantly showcases President Reagan’s historic presidency, as well as his roots, with the apartment restored to its 1915 splendor, while at the same time, perfectly complementing the mission of the university’s Center for Care and Discovery.   And, that’s where we hope to get particularly creative.
In so doing, this Chicago home, where little Dutch was being prepared for greatness, would complete “The Reagan Trail” of homes where the only president born and bred in Illinois grew up—a president who died of Alzheimer’s, a cure for which, in the ultimate irony of history, might be found on the very site where Reagan’s first and most vivid memories were formed.
UPDATE: The Ronald Reagan Birthplace in Tampico reached their fundraising goal to finance the statue they had commissioned, showing three-year old “Dutch” Reagan playing on a Civil War cannon as he did so often when growing up in Tampico. It was placed in Reagan Park (formerly Railroad Park) in October 2013. See

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Heavenly Review of "William 'Bill' Walton: A Charmed Life" by Glenda A. Bixler

What an incredible, awesome, breathtaking review by Glenda A. Bixler of William ‘Bill’ Walton: A Charmed Life, which it was my privilege to transform in 2012-2013, landing the publisher to boot!  (Probably my friend Redd Griffin’s intervention from heaven—both the publisher and this, ahem, heavenly review. Redd was the one who introduced me to the author, Mary Hackett, married to Bill’s nephew Jack, who was such a delight to work with.)  In fact, Bixler’s blog is dubbed “Book Reader’s Heaven.” That nails it. This was ALL Redd’s doing. Thank you, Redd! Below is a portion of her review... 

William "Bill" Walton: A Charmed Life - Fascinating Historical Bio on WWII Journalist!

World Battlefronts: Parachute Landing in Normandy

The night before D-Day, few of the paratrooper comrades of TIME Correspondent William Walton tried to sleep. After midnight they turned out, climbed into EUR-475. They were the spear head; some of them would not live to see that day's dawn. Walton, a qualified parachutist attached to the outfit, crawled in with them, was soon over France. He cabled: I plunged out of the plane door happy to be leaving a ship that was heading toward flak and more Germans. The jump was from such low altitude...                                                                                             

William "Bill" Walton: A Charmed Life
By Mary Hackett
Edited by Mary Claire Kendall

London was teeming with fascinating people such
as attractive and self-assured Martha Gellhorn, the
third and current wife of Ernest Hemingway, who
would also become a close friend of Bill.
A writer will always write and when William Walton went to report on many activities in Europe, he also wrote letters home to his family. He had always thought of writing his own biography, but thankfully, the family, and, in particular his sister-in-law Mary Hackett saw that his letters could be turned into one of the most interesting books sharing American history from a journalist's viewpoint...
Those who will want to travel with him into the war years will certainly have the opportunity. I think the thing that made the
As he stood, he surveyed the once peaceful
and picturesque rural area of Normandy,
looking in horror at the blight that blanketed
the land: houses and barns now riddled with
holes; trees reduced to scattered fragments;
equipment smashed to pieces. Bill said the
fate of the dairy herds, one of the war's
signature images, was even worse--stinking
black and white cows, sometimes one lonely
cow, often scores, lying lifeless in fields.
It was a disheartening scene, one that he
could not have imagined...Most of Bill's
exposure to war had been viewed from an
aircraft flying high over a city, not on the
ground where up-close images of
extensive carnage and flattened structures
were forever seared in his memory.
most impression on me regarding his desire to do all that he could to keep America informed
English: Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway ...
English: Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with unidentified Chinese military officers, Chungking, China, 1941. Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
was to accept an invitation to train as a paratrooper. He jumped so that he was already there by the time the ground troops showed up!

But not all was about the war... Bill became close friends with Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha Gellhorn, shown at the left...Hemingway even saved Bill's life, but there were many times for social gatherings as well.

One personal interest caught my attention--Bill was there when the most wanted gangster, John Dillinger was killed, and rode with his body to the Cook County morgue. {Me, I'm related to the Dillingers and had a John Dillinger in my family who always got picked on--LOL} Bill..."noticed that Dillinger must, at some point, have attempted to fie or burn his hands in an effort to eliminate identifying fingerprints...This reporting coup gave Bill his first national recognition. His byline, "by William Walton," would soon begin to appear in many more publications..."

Another little tidbit I enjoyed was that when, in June 1946, Bill stood to receive an honorary degree he gave a little [payback] speech... "he noticed that most of the faculty seated before him were those who had voted to kick him out almost 20 years earlier...At the end of his speech, to express his displeasure with the school's heavy-handed discipline so many years before, he turned his backside to the assembled crowd and bowed. Later, he commented to his family, "There was a very nice shape to that!"  To me, that's why we enjoy reading about people's lives, don't we?!

The body of John F. Kennedy in repose
 in the White House on November 23, 1963.
William Walton helped research the funerary
decorations for the room and the dressing
 for the catafalque.

I became fascinated with Walton's love of the outdoors and his painting activities, which became a little more well known when Bill became friends with John F. Kennedy and his family to carry through even to helping with the arrangements for his burial. There is quite a bit covering that time and his friendship with Jackie afterward Kennedy's death. "(1949-1960)"

Life, for whom he had also worked, took his friendship with Kennedy to write an article about his paintings. in "Life" in 1961. At first when you read somebody is an artist and a friend of Ernest Hemingway, et. al., don't you just wonder where somebody gets all that talent, LOL! I don't know about you, but you must begin to admire this man, don't you think?!

AND LATER in the review, Bixler writes:

On the other hand, of course, there are not too many Americans who cannot cite Kennedy's last line: "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." That night the overture "From Sea to Shining Sea" was played for the first time in public...