A undated photo of Frances Coates, Ernest Hemingway’s unrequited high school crush.
It was as if a lightning bolt struck the teenage Ernest Hemingway, right there in the orchestra pit. Although Frances Coates, seventeen, was only cast as “Third Servant” in the high school performance of Martha, her brief opera solo made an impact on Hemingway, sixteen, who was playing cello and gazing up at her.
The biographer Carlos Baker describes how a classmate of Hemingway’s made a caricature of a boy with desperate eyes and labeled it: “Erney sees a girl named Frances.” Baker also notes that Hemingway was too shy to ask Coates to prom.
Now, you can hear that voice, in recordings recently found by Coates’s family.
Although they dated socially, Hemingway never became Coates’s boyfriend. He carried his crush with him over the years and across the globe. Three years after that high school opera, Hemingway was wounded in Italy while serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the American Red Cross during World War I. Even then, he wanted Coates’s attention. He wrote his sister: “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. Tell her that I love her or any damn thing.”
Coates did eventually write him, and Hemingway replied, “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 … ”
Two of Hemingway’s never-before-seen letters surfaced in a trunk of papers and photographs owned by Coates’s family. They are now up for auction on Sotheby’s website.
In a piece published by The Paris Review in May, I wrote about discovering those letters and how they illuminate Hemingway’s early life and work. Hemingway and Coates corresponded at least until the 1930s, although most of their letters are lost. Variations on Coates’s name would appear several times in Hemingway’s work, notably his 1923 carnal short story “Up in Michigan.”
As I spent more time with the archive and Coates’s granddaughter, Betsy Fermano, we found these old acetate recordings in a trunk. They are shared here for the first time.
These amateur acetate recordings—two lullabies and two opera excerpts—are more than fifty years old and scratched by time, but you still can hear Coates’s clear, songbird soprano. Here, in an undated recording, Coates sings “Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers,” an adaptation of an A. A. Milne poem.
Coates would go on to study voice at Northwestern University, raise a family, and sing all over the country. A Michigan newspaper in 1941 described here as a “well-known soprano, diseuse, and interpreter of solo-opera.”
She performed in the communities where she lived, notably around Chicago and Washington, D.C. In her archive are two invitations to visit the White House, although it’s unknown if she performed there.
For her granddaughter, Fermano, the recordings flooded her with memories. It had been decades since she’d heard her grandmother’s voice—and she’d never seen her perform professionally.
“She spoke the way she sang. She had very careful diction,” Fermano remembered. “Whenever she was speaking to us or singing a Christmas carol, she was on stage. She always had such presence. Everything was quite dramatic.”
“It’s easy to see how a teen boy could fall for her,” Fermano added.
Hemingway’s mother was also known for her vocal talents, and was a successful music teacher in Oak Park and a published composer.
“When you grow up with music all around you, the way Ernest did, and your mother designs a two-story music studio in your home—music has an indelible impact on you for life,” Mary V. Dearborn, author of Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, told me. “It’s no accident that his first wife was a very accomplished musician.”
Hemingway fell hard for musically inclined women, whether that was his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, a talented pianist, or the actress/singer Marlene Dietrich. Though he and Dietrich knew one another for thirty years, they were never single at the same time. Hemingway famously wrote her that they were “victims of unsynchronized passion.” On safari in Africa, his camp would play her songs on a portable phonograph and, as he wrote in Under Kilimanjaro, “we would all be happy hearing the beautiful, deep, off-key voice of my beautiful nonexistent wife.”
“He didn’t have a musical bone is in body, but his appreciation for music was inevitable,” Dearborn said.
Hemingway’s classmate Al Dungan drew this cartoon of the young Hemingway seeing Frances Coates perform in high school. The cartoon is pasted into a Hemingway family scrapbook located at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, where the bulk of Hemingway’s literary estate resides.
Robert K. Elder is the coauthor of Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park and six other books.
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