Ernest in our time: The Hemingway Birthplace Museum and the woman aiding its growth

carla mayer
Carla Mayer sits in what was Hemingway’s mother’s music room. Only a few items in the house are original—the entire home was completely restored in 1992 based on old photographs. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

By Hannah Farrow
Medill Reports

Carla Mayer walks up to the three-story 1890 Victorian home nestled on a quiet, tree-lined street in Oak Park and climbs the six front wooden steps and opens the left French door. Inside the foyer, she greets the intern working the desk and the elderly volunteer waiting for his tour group. She hangs up her coat with the others on the wall, walks into the living room and closes the door.

The 53-year-old mother of two started working at The Hemingway Birthplace Museum as the volunteer coordinator in May 2019 and, as her boss Keith Strom says, is a “godsend.” With a background in history and 20 years at Tyndale House Publishers, Mayer has implemented the first tour in Spanish, increased volunteer recruitment by 20% and uncovered new facts about Hemingway’s family. But beyond the growth, Mayer feels like she finally found her tribe among the volunteers, the place where she belongs. “These are people that love books and they love history,” Mayer says.

Hemingway Birthplace Museum
The Hemingway Birthplace Museum on a Chicago winter’s afternoon. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

Mayer didn’t grow up with a strong passion for Hemingway, and says she wouldn’t have picked up on his “world-weariness” had she read more of him in her younger years. She now listens to his books on audio and notes that “maturity helps you realize that he’s really talking about much bigger things, much bigger emotions, much bigger feelings.” During “A Moveable Feast,” she thought about how Hemingway compared his writing to art. “He’d walk through the Luxembourg museum with an empty gut and stare at the Cézanne paintings,” Mayer says. “From doing that, he learned how to write a landscape.”

Mayer was always interested in how people worked — in high school, and she realized history was “the ticket to understanding everything.” With two teenagers, she takes the lessons she’s learned from different eras to shape her parenting style. Mayer thinks to herself, “OK, how do you find that thing that just makes sense for you, not necessarily for what everybody else around you is telling you?”

When Hemingway sent a copy of “The Sun Also Rises” to his parents, they wrote him a letter that demeaned the book’s content and said it was terrible trash. The book featured curse words and taboo subjects  — like when love interest Lady Brett Ashley says, “I’m not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children,” — and his parents couldn’t comprehend the stance he was taking. “There are always these expectations that society puts out about what it means to be successful, most of the time it involves things like money and status,” Mayer says. “Knowing about history helps you realize that a lot of people who were treated like they didn’t know anything were later seen as knowing an awful lot.” Hemingway went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for “The Old Man and the Sea.”

When Mayer isn’t traveling to Washington, D.C., to pull Ernest’s grandfather’s service records, or recruiting volunteers to lead tours through the three-story home, she runs Family Memories Matter, a service that helps people preserve their heritage before their loved ones die. While she’s not a certified genealogist, she has 20 years of experience, and takes the uncovered documents and turns them into a written narrative. “I think what we all really want to know is the story and the color,” Mayer says. “People don’t want to look at old documents. What you want to know is what those documents mean.”

Inside the Hemingway Birthplace Museum
Inside the foyer of the Hemingway Birthplace Museum. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

She thinks of history as this “rich treasure trove of wisdom and insight about the world” — and like People magazine. “You get a window into another time, and you can look at it through that sort of gossipy lens just for the fun of it,” Mayer says. She recommends using a soft pencil — not a ballpoint pen or Sharpie — to label physical photos. “You want to make sure that you put a full name and not just ‘mom’ or ‘grandma,’” Mayer says. “As it passes through family members, you lose track of whose mom and whose grandmother.”

On this Sunday afternoon, The Hemingway Birthplace Museum was quiet save the intern and volunteer’s conversation. Mayer points to the tablecloth on the dining room table and comments on how tedious it was for women in Hemingway’s era to hand wash it, heat up the irons on the stove, and eradicate the wrinkles — and says she’s glad she was born when she was. Mayer wears many hats, and as she continues to learn more about the Hemingway family’s past, she’s looking forward to the museum’s future.

Photo at top: Carla Mayer sits in what was Hemingway’s mother’s music room. Only a few items in the house are original — the entire home was completely restored in 1992 based on old photographs. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)