Hemingway was infatuated with Frances Elizabeth Coates

New Hemingway Letters Expose Love for Former Classmate

Betsy Fermano recently noticed her grandmother’s name while walking through an Ernest Hemingway exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Library. Frances Elizabeth Coates was Hemingway’s classmate, short-lived girlfriend, and Fermano’s grandmother. Fermano was the only one in her family who knew about the romance from her grandmother’s old letters until now. 

Although their relationship was over by the time they left school, the letters kept by Coates expose a lasting relationship. Sandra Spanier, editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, claims the letters released by Fermano show a completely different voice from the one that we have come to know so well from Hemingway’s works. She said, “You hear him being flirtatious and kind of bragging, the way a teenage boy would. He’s trying to make her a bit jealous, but he’s also got this self-deprecating humor, which is quite charming.”

Image courtesy of The Paris Review

When 19-year-old Hemingway was injured during World War I, he wrote to his sister begging her to tell Coates to write him. “Tell her that your brother is at death’s door. And that she will please, no excuses, write to him. Make her repeat the address after so that she will have no alibi. Tell her that I love her or any damn thing.” Hemingway may have been a young unknown writer at the time, but his poetic bluntness was there.

Despite the love coming mainly from Hemingway’s side, Coates kept her letters for almost a hundred years alongside clipped newspaper articles about Hemingway’s life: his meteoric rise as a writer, his marriages, and his eventual suicide. She even wrote a short story about a friend named ‘Ernie’ which remained unpublished in the same trunk alongside a photo of Hemingway from high school. Coates was very secretive about her relationship with the young writer, but she thoroughly describes him in her journal as “A great, awkward boy falling over his long feet…in life, a disturbing person with very dark hair, very red lips. The whole of his face fell apart when he laughed.” 

Image courtesy of The Paris Review

The last letter exchanged between the two was in 1927 after Hemingway’s first son was born. Coates wrote to Hemingway saying that she enjoyed The Sun Also Rises and would love to see him. Unfortunately for Hemingway, her husband and Hemingway’s old schoolmate, John Grace, also wanted to see him. No-one knows if Hemingway responded or if the two ever met again.


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