Hemingway House – A Key West Gem
Ernest Hemingway was, without doubt, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and I use the word writer, rather than novelist on purpose. He not only wrote compelling novels, but some of the best short stories ever written. Throw in works of non-fiction including the incomparable A Moveable Feast and some books of poetry and you get a man who truly deserves to be called ‘a writer’. He is a figure of towering importance in the American canon and much of his output came over a period of just eight years in the loft of a former carriage house in Key West. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum aka Hemingway House, is the place of ultimate pilgrimage for Hemingway fans, so won’t you join me on a tour of this iconic landmark?
I guess by now you’ve figured out that I really like the works of Ernest Hemingway. It all started when I was about 14 and picked up a copy of In Our Time from the town library and read the short stories that all involve the autobiographical character Nick Adams. Something struck a chord inside me that has resonated ever since and until yesterday I couldn’t really put a finger on why. The guide for our tour was Chris Parsons, about whom I will say more later. In describing the Nick Adams character Chris likened him to “The Hardy Boys on steroids”. I chuckled along with the others, but only later did it sink in that that was exactly why I immediately got hooked on Hemingway (no pun intended). From the time I was about 8 up until I read In Our Time, I was an inveterate devourer of The Hardy Boys series which to a pre-pubescent boy were the ultimate in adventuresome reading. However, as puberty comes on, one’s interests change even though you might not know it at the time. I now realize that it was a natural evolution for me to move on from The Hardy Boys to Ernest Hemingway.
Ok, before anyone accuses me of being a misogynist, I have long accepted that Hemingway was a shitty, two timing husband and probably a worse father. If we were to only appreciate the artistic works of the pure and saintly it would be pretty thin gruel – we couldn’t even watch Walt Disney movies for God’s sake. Great artists are great because they are driven by their need to create and not by society’s norms of decency. Long after we have forgotten what an asshole Picasso was, we will still be entranced by Guernica, so let’s move on and get to why Hemingway House is so important to visit.
There are numerous Hemingway sites around the world and I have written about a number of them including his boyhood home of Oak Park, Illinois and a walking tour in Paris with my friend David Burke. I’ve also followed in Hemingway’s footsteps in Ronda and Pamplona, Spain, Venice and the savannahs of Kenya. Ironically Toronto, the place that got Hemingway started by offering him writing assignments that let him travel to far off places, seldom gets a mention as an important place in his life. Finally, I have visited his grave in Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway’s writing, whether fact or fiction, was almost all autobiographical and in order to write he needed first to experience. And that he did; in ways that are now the stuff of legend and one of the reasons his popularity has not waned despite his death over 55 years ago. Compare his readership today to that of Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck or even the great William Faulkner, all Nobel laureates as well, and you cannot deny that Hemingway has staying power.
Hemingway came to Key West with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, whom Hemingway would later portray as a home wrecker, in order to get away from the Paris Lost Generation scene that had been so much a part of his life with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They lived here for three years before acquiring Hemingway House in which time he completed what I consider to be one of the best novels ever written, A Farewell to Arms. He loved the tropical end of the road feel that Key West has. You can act like you’re in the tropics with the security of knowing that ‘civilization’ is only 100 miles away. This is the place where Hemingway became known as ‘Papa’ and the legend of his fishing, hunting, drinking and boxing prowess became part of American folklore. He was the ultimate ‘man’s man’.
Tips for Visiting
A few tips before we get started.
- Bring enough cash. Entry is $14.00 and you’ll definitely want to buy something at the bookstore/souvenir store.
- Bring your camera. Unlike some museums you can take pictures anywhere you want.
- Arrive at opening time, 9:00 A.M. Hemingway House is a very popular attraction and fills up quickly. The first tour of the day is likely to be the least populated – remember this is the Keys. Also, if you are coming by car you are a lot more likely to get a parking spot on one of the nearby side streets.
- Take a guided tour. These are free and you’ll get a lot more out of your visit. The guides are professional, informative and funny. After the tour is over you can return to visit the rooms on your own if you want.
History of Hemingway House
Hemingway House was built by Asa Tift, a marine architect who set up a business specifically to build a fortune salvaging wrecks and selling the recovered goods back to the owners. He was the wealthiest man in Key West and able to purchase property on the highest point of land in the city. He quarried the stone on the lot to create a basement (still a rarity in Key West) and used the material to construct the house which is surrounded by verandahs on both the first and second floors. It has beautiful clean lines with the romanesque window arches symmetrically placed over each other while open shutters mirror the space between the windows.
This guy was an innovator as evidenced by his moving to New Orleans during the Civil War to design ironclads for the Confederate Navy. But alas, money and talent cannot prevent tragedy. Both of his sons and his wife were taken by yellow fever within a few years of moving in. There was a daughter, Annie and I’m not sure what became of her. Tift lived in the house as a widower until he died in 1889.
This is a picture of Asa Tift that can be found in the Hemingway House today. Under it is our guide, Chris Parsons.
The house remained vacant until purchased by Hemingway’s at a tax sale in 1931 for $8,000.00 which seems to have come from Pauline’s uncle Gus. Ernest lived here until he was essentially kicked out by Pauline because of his ongoing affair with Martha Gellhorn, who became his third wife. Pauline died unexpectedly in 1951 and the house somehow remained the property of Ernest until his death ten years later. He would apparently make the occasional visit in those years as he traveled back and forth between Havana and Idaho, his final stop on a life that had many stations.
Hemingway House was purchased by the local Dixon family from Ernest’s sons and in 1964 became a museum. It is almost exclusively furnished with authentic items from the years Hemingway lived here or with memorabilia associated with his life.
In the living room you’ll find this iconic Yousuf Karsh portrait of Hemingway that everyone associates with the writer.
It’s what the Hemingway look a likes want to look like if they are going to win the annual contest at Sloppy Joe’s, another place intimately connected with his time in Key West. Here’s some of the recent contestants.
The irony is that this not what Hemingway looked like during his time at Hemingway House. He was much younger and more vibrant as evidenced by this portrait of him that can be found in the dining room. Could almost double for Clark Gable.
In recent years the museum foundation has been acquiring movie posters of the many novels and short stories that have been made into movies and you’ll find these in numerous places throughout Hemingway House. Above all else, Hemingway was a story teller and I can think of no serious writer who has had more of his works translated into film than him, many quite successfully, others less so. He wrote the screenplays for two of the best Hemingway adaptions – For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not. He also collaborated with fellow Lost Generation member and war correspondent John Dos Passos on the Spanish Civil War propaganda film The Spanish Earth, a rare poster for which you can see in the bedroom. To top it off, there are also an increasing number of movies about Hemingway’s life itself, six at last count.
You’ll also find this – a Bronze Star awarded to Hemingway in 1947 for his courage during WWII in covering various battles on the Western Front. He was very proud of it, justifiably so.
The living room has one wall dedicated to his beloved boat Pilar upon which he spent countless happy hours fishing and boozing with his Key West and later Cuban companions. You can still see it today at Finca Vigia outside Havana where I plan to make my next Hemingway pilgrimage. With the opening of Cuba to American tourists I expect it will be receiving a lot more visitors.
Upstairs is the story of Hemingway’s love affair with older nurse Agnes von Kurowski (or Kurowsky) which became the background for A Farewell to Arms. It’s amazing how many people gained near fame simply because they crossed paths with Ernest Hemingway.
Also on display are several of the Underwood typewriters that Hemingway used to create his works. I can just imagine his big fingers banging away on those keys and slamming back the carriage release as he worked at a fever pitch, his body trying to keep up with the words forming in his head.
Even though Hemingway went through the proverbial ‘struggling writer’s poverty’ while in Paris, that doesn’t mean he liked it. Many people think it was Pauline’s money that attracted him more than her looks or brains. I suspect it didn’t hurt. Pauline liked the finer things in life as well, after all she was an editor and writer for Vogue magazine. There are several examples of this on display in Hemingway House including these imported tiles from Europe with an art deco design for the bathroom floor. I can just imagine Ernest getting the whirlies staring at those after a hard night of drinking.
And this Murano glass chandelier over the dining table.
This is the bed that Ernest and Pauline shared. BTW that lump at the bottom is a cat which Chris correctly identified by name before lifting the bedspread.
Hemingway House – The Grounds
Hemingway House is the largest residential property in Key West with very lush grounds that are often used for weddings. From the second story verandah you get a good view of this fountain in the shape of an ironclad that dates back to the Asa Tift days.
Pauline had a habit of embarking on big expensive projects while Hemingway was on assignment, like the six foot brick wall that completely surrounds the property. However, the most controversial was the swimming pool which was the first within 100 miles and probably the most expensive residential pool in the state. It’s 60 feet long, 24 feet wide and a depth of five feet at one end and ten at the other. It cost a mind boggling $20,000.00 during The Depression. That was 2½ times what they paid for the house. Pauline had it done in 1938 at a time she knew Ernest was having an affair with Martha Gellhorn so it was to a certain extent a revenge f***, but with money and not another man.
When Hemingway came back and found out what it cost he famously took out a penny and threw it down or maybe at Pauline, screaming “You might as well take my last cent!” Undeterred, Pauline saved the penny and had it embedded in the cement by the pool where it remains to this day.
Hemingway House – The Cats
The cats of Hemingway House are almost as famous as the house itself. It all started with a cat called Snow White that was polydactyl, meaning it had more than the usual number of toes or paws. Today there are around fifty cats all descended from the one and they all have varying degrees of polydactylism. This guy is a good example.
Each of the cats has a name that’s got some interesting connection. This is Hemingway.
The cats have the run of the place, inside and out.
They even leave their footprints in the concrete.
Hemingway House – The Writing Room
The one place you do not go into on tour because there is not enough space for anything more than a few people, is the most important. Unlike Paris, where Hemingway wrote in the corners of various cafes (which are fabulous places to visit), by the time he got to Key West he was established enough to be able to afford his own quiet writing place. These are photos of the loft in the carriage house that Hemingway converted into his writing studio. As you can see, it is decorated in pure Hemingway style. He would go here every morning early and not be content until he had written at least 500 ‘good words’. That doesn’t sound like much, but Hemingway was a perfectionist who would go over and over and over one sentence until he got it right. After that the drinking could start and he usually headed for Sloppy Joe’s.
I recommend going to the loft as soon as the property opens and before the first tour starts, which is about a ten minute duration. You cannot enter the studio itself, but have to look at it from a behind a plexiglass barrier. Chances are very good that if you follow my advice you’ll have the viewing area to yourself and you can close your eyes and imagine the great man at work in this hallowed spot.
Talking About Hemingway’s Suicide
We ended the tour in front of the stairs to the basement, the only dry one in Key West, which Hemingway naturally used as a wine cellar. Here our guide Chris Parsons turned to the subject of Hemingway’s suicide, something you might expect would be avoided and for years usually was by Hemingway devotees. How could a man who lived life so large and could put down in words some of the most memorable experiences any person could ever have, decide to voluntarily end it? For years, Mary Welsh, his fourth wife, maintained that the shotgun wound to the head was an accident. This ignores the fact that Hemingway’s father Clarence, his brother Leicester and sister Ursula also committed suicide. They all had a genetic condition called hemochromatosis, an inability to process iron in the body that leads to physical and mental deterioration.
But it’s not just as simple as that. The reality is that by age 61, Ernest Hemingway was used up. His life appears to have been a zero sum game with the experiences and injuries of his lifetime, of which there were legion, gradually taking their toll. As I noted earlier, Hemingway had to experience first and then write about it later, sometimes decades later. Whether it was the hemochromatosis, the shock treatments received at the Mayo Clinic or just the accumulated assaults on his body and mind, many self-inflicted, the reality was that Hemingway was losing his memory. Without his memories he was not Ernest Hemingway and he chose not to live in the shell of a body and mind he no longer recognized.
A few years after writing this post I journeyed to Ketchum, Idaho where Hemingway lived the final years of his life and where he is buried and wrote this post about the experience.
That concludes this post on Hemingway House. I hope it will inspire you to visit and make your time there well spent. I’ll see you at Sloppy Joe’s. OH, and don’t forget to visit Ernest in downtown Key West.
In my next post I’ll board a Canadian made Otter float plane and fly to the Dry Tortugas, one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. Please join me.