Ernest Hemingway. Where was he born?
If your answer is Oak Park, IL, you’d be wrong. At least according to the Town of Cicero, Illinois.
The first time I noticed Cicero claiming ownership of Hemingway was sometime in the 1990s. I lived in the Western U.S. then and was home for a visit. While driving around town, I was surprised to see light-pole banners proclaiming Cicero as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. These were on Pershing Road, near Morton College (see map below).
I pulled over to make sure I was reading correctly. I was. The banners made me laugh. Too bad this was in the pre-cellphone camera days. I’d love to have documentation.
As I drove away from the banners, I thought, Everyone knows that Hemingway was born and raised in Oak Park, IL, right?
Wait. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park that I had visited a bunch of times and even volunteered at while in college had gotten something wrong?
Cicero is known for its political corruption and racism stretching back to the 1920s when the town became headquarters for Al Capone. Most people from Cicero of my age and older seem to have a Capone story. One of mine is that the guy who rented rooms in our house was the younger brother of Capone’s chauffeur and used to wash the gangster’s car for a quarter, which was big money for a kid back then.
Then there was the notorious Cicero Race Riot in 1951 and by the 1960s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was advised to avoid a Civil Rights March in Cicero. More recently, Mayor Betty Loren-Maltese has graced the headlines with her conviction and incarceration over an insurance scam.
Add literary corruption to Cicero’s history
I had done some research back in the 90s after I saw those banners and learned that Oak Park had once been part of what was a much larger Cicero. Over the decades the Town of Cicero was whittled down by annexation from Chicago and various neighborhoods splintering off.
When Hemingway was born in 1899 his birth home may have technically been within the boundaries of what was then the Town of Cicero. In 1901, however, Oak Park ceded from Cicero to become its own village. You can read about it here on the Town of Cicero’s website. [As of 12/13/2020, The text reads: “On July 21, 1899, Ernest Hemingway, winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, was born within the Town of Cicero, in what is today the Village of Oak Park.”] If you visit the link, you’ll notice that the town says nothing about the more challenging and shameful aspects of its history.
Talk about whitewashing.
I had thought that the town’s claim on Hemingway was a one-time thing, something done in the past to help spruce up the image of the town. But due to early voting, I learned that the Hemingway claim is ongoing.
On Saturday (11/3/2012) I went to vote in the Town of Berwyn, the closest polling place to where I then lived in Brookfield. The line was out the door. I stood there for about 20 minutes and the line did not move, so I drove to my hometown of Cicero, where there were two early voting locations.
As I was driving to the polling place, the town sign pictured at the top of this post caught my eye. Another claim that Cicero is the birthplace of Hemingway. I had to laugh (again) and couldn’t resist pulling over to take a picture (with my handy smartphone). I was surprised they were still advertising this shady half-truth. The sign is in front of the old town hall building, which was in use from 1903-2008.
Is it a class issue?
Technically, I suppose even legally, the Town of Cicero can claim Hemingway as one of their own, but it seems, at best, rather desperate. I claimed whitewashing above, but I think there’s also some kind of cultural class issue at work here as well.
The home in which Hemingway was born is clearly in Oak Park. For those of you not familiar with the area, Cicero is traditionally a blue collar town. Early dwellings are primarily modest cottages or multi-family houses. Gangsters may have done business in Cicero, but they lived in Oak Park and River Forest.
Oak Park is a wealthier suburb than Cicero. It’s streets are lined with classic Victorian homes and mansions designed by famous architects. Frank Llyod Wright’s studio was in Oak Park. As a young writer building his tough-guy persona, Hemingway tried to distance himself from his hometown.
Let’s just say that no one who lives in the Chicago area — then or now — would ever confuse Cicero and Oak Park. I am certainly not saying that a working class town can’t produce a world-class writer, but Cicero is grasping at the coattails of literary stardom and mucking up literary history (although I don’t think literary scholars are worried).
The argument for civic pride is pretty weak and, personally, I’d feel rather duped if I were a budding literary enthusiast living in Cicero and took pride in the fact that Hemingway was born there only to find out that the claim is based on a technicality. The town can’t even claim they’re attempting to absorb the writer for the purpose of literary tourism.
I can understand not glorifying the gangster past and not acknowledging the rampant racism, as has been the American way, but why not celebrate the earlier Eastern European immigrants (my people) who made Cicero their home or the more recent Hispanic immigrants who are building lives there? Why try to elevate your cultural cred with such a huge stretch?
Cicero has an amazing industrial history — from aviation to railroads to communication innovation and production at Western Electric. Is there embarrassment over the town’s working class heritage?
Put your money where your mouth is
In 2012, I called the Hemingway Foundation to get their take on the matter and was told that Oak Park had been an unincorporated part of Cicero, and that even back when it officially ceded people understood the area to be Oak Park. The person I spoke to told me that the Town of Cicero was invited to make a donation to the Foundation after making their claim on Hemingway, but Town officials never responded to the overture. Apparently, Cicero still does not play well with others.
What do you think of this issue of a town claiming an author on such shaky grounds. Does it matter to you?
I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in March 2019. Tucked away in one of the hallways, I was surprised to come upon a Hemingway exhibit and learned that The JKF Library and Museum holds a sizeable Ernest Hemingway Collection.
One of the items in this collection is Hemingway’s birth certificate. Like most such documents, it lists his place of birth. Want to guess what town is listed?
See for yourself:
So, there you have it. Evidentiary support, as Elle Woods would say.
People in 1899 thought Oak Park was Oak Park, not Cicero.
Now I’m curious to find out some background on why Cicero started this campaign.
For those of you interested in Cicero, Oak Park, Cook County, or the Chicago area in general, check out this map — Synder’s real estate map from 1886 — from the Library of Congress website. The image below is only a screenshot, but THIS LINK will take you to the full map that you can zoom in on and see amazing details (like how Oak Park was in north west Cicero).