A Frank and Ernest Affair

Ernest Hemingway, to my knowledge, had no interest in architecture, although he did love Paris and Venice and had said, about writing, that “poetry is interior decoration, prose is architecture.” As a fan of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway, I was aware of their shared connection to Oak Park, Illinois. But I had never connected these two masters of their trades to each other. Wright had moved to Oak Park in the 1880s with his mother and sister, but Hemingway wasn’t born there until 1899. Wright was born in 1869, and with 30 years between them, it was clear they had never attended school together, shared a hunting trip, or played on the same baseball team.

But recently, I came across a link between the writer and the architect. Like most architects working in the Toronto area, I have faced a lot of angry ratepayers, furious neighbours and unsympathetic politicians while trying to get projects approved. So when I read about similar troubles of Mr. Wright’s in the 1950s I thought, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

An Italian student admirer of Wright’s, after visiting Taliesin, was killed in a car accident. His parents asked Wright to design a building in his memory. The Masieri Memorial, or palazzino, was to be constructed on the Grand Canal in Venice. The design for the three-storey building caused much concern among those interested in preserving the architectural purity of Venice.

It just so happened that Ernest Hemingway was in Venice recovering from injuries suffered in two plane crashes in Uganda. After the first plane crash, the newspapers were filled with obituaries, which Hemingway would enjoy reading over his morning coffee. A rescue plane sent to pick up the Hemingways and take them to Kenya also crashed on take-off. Hemingway’s injuries in the second mishap were more serious. In a telephone call to a friend he reported, “I fell over and burned the belly, some of the legs and forearms. Genitals okay.”

When he finally arrived in Venice by ship, Wright was in the middle of fighting City Hall. Heated discussions raged between those who hated the thought of a new building on the Grand Canal and those who were in favour of the project. On hearing the opposing views, Hemingway offered his solution to appease both sides: “let them build it, and as soon as it is finished, burn it to the ground.”

In the end, the building proposal was killed by a municipal commission, and Wright declared that tourism had won another victory. About Hemingway’s comments, Wright only said, “after all, that was nothing but a voice from the jungle.”

I don’t suppose that Frank and Ernest ever reminisced about Oak Park after that.

Ernest Hodgson is a director of Markson Borooah Hodgson Architects in Toronto.