Gregory Clark, Ernest Hemingway and the King Eddy

By Bruce Bell, History Columnist

In the 1920s, Toronto’s major newspapers were all located within a few blocks of one another in the downtown core, and the King Edward Hotel on King Street became the place for the newspaper crowd to gather.

It wasn’t in the hotel’s grand parlors or elegant dining rooms that promising young writers like Morley Callaghan, Gordon Sinclair and Gregory Clark came together. They met in the King Eddy’s basement cafeteria, which became one of the great literary caves in Canada.

Gregory Clark was a writer of the ‘great outdoors’ for the Toronto Star from 1911 to 1947, and a war correspondent who wrote on the human side of war. During World War I (1914-18) he had gone overseas with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles and won the Military Cross as an infantry lieutenant at Vimy Ridge.

On his return to Toronto Clark wrote one of his most memorable stories, “One Block of Howland Avenue”, that put a face to the catastrophic effect the so-called Great War had on the street in the Annex area where he had grown up. All the young men of their block except Greg and his brother Joseph had died in the war.

When Gregory and Joseph came home, their father asked his sons not to walk up the street to their house at 66 Howland Avenue ever again. He told them to go the long way home so their neighbours wouldn’t see them, sparing them the anguish of their own loss.

An estimated 4,000 young men from Toronto died in that war. Besides being a great writer and war hero, Gregory Clark also became famous for introducing to the world one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway.

In 1919, at age 20, Hemingway came to Toronto from his home in Oak Park, Illinois, as companion to the son of Harriett and Ralph Connable of Lyndhurst Drive, just north of Casa Loma. The Connables felt their boy could use some ‘toughening up’ under Ernest’s influence.

Through Ralph Connable, the overseer of Canada’s Woolworth empire and a friend of Ernest’s mother, the young Hemingway was introduced to Gregory Clark, who secured Ernest a job writing for the Star. In 1921 Hemingway went to live in Paris, still sending articles back to the Star.

“It couldn’t be any worse. You can’t imagine it. I’m not going to describe it,” Hemingway wrote to a friend about Toronto.

In 1923 Ernest’s wife Hadley became pregnant and, realizing that Toronto would be a better place to have his child born, Ernest told fellow writer Ezra Pound that Toronto was the right place to have a baby because that is the “specialty of that city.”

In August of 1923 the Hemingways moved out of the King Edward Hotel onto 1599 Bathurst Street north of St. Clair (now a condominium renamed The Hemingway). Ernest began a regular job at the Star, which was then on King Street west of Bay Street.

He wrote to his pal Gertrude Stein in Paris that the cuisine here was pretty good, especially the Chinese food. The Hemingways stayed in Toronto until that December, when the family – including his Toronto-born son Jack (father to actress Muriel Hemingway), nicknamed Bumbi – headed back to Paris.

During World War II, Gregory Clark was a war correspondent for the Star, writing from France about the German blitzkrieg in 1940, and covering the 1941 British evacuation from Dunkirk and the Allies’ disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe, where one of his sons died.

In 1964, after the death of his wife, Gregory moved permanently into the King Eddy about the same time that the Beatles stayed at the hotel.

Andy Clark, Gregory’s grandson, told me a few years ago, “Granddad moved into the King Eddy when the Beatles came to town. When a few enthusiastic Beatle fans knocked on his door after sneaking into hotel, one of the kids said, ‘Is this where Lennon is?’ Thinking they were referring to the Soviet Union’s Lenin, Granddad said ‘No, he died 40 years ago,’ which caused several seconds of confusion at his door till they realized they sure had the wrong room.”

While Clark, Hemingway and the King Eddy’s cafeteria are all long gone, a remnant of those times survives: the staircase just off the lobby that once led downstairs to the legendary journalistic grotto.

In 1980 the hotel cafeteria was remodeled into the Windsor Ballroom. Gregory Clark, one of the first recipients of the Order of Canada in 1967, died in 1977.