By M.-J. Taylor
In the 1930’s when Key West had fallen on very hard times, the city was turned over to a Federal administrator, Julius Stone. Stone’s plan for Key West’s recovery was to turn it into a tourist destination. Much to the dismay of the town’s most famous resident, Stone created a tourist map with a clear marker to Ernest Hemingway’s House. Hemingway hated the gawking visitors – some of whom felt no compunction about knocking on his door, so Ole Hem had a brick wall built around the house.
Today, the house has long been a museum, and remains the most popular of the historic homes with visitors to the island nation. The legend of Hemingway the Sportsman was far larger for many than his renown as a writer. Some even suggest that it was his larger than life personality and not his words that made him famous. Of course, it was his magazine articles and short stories that portrayed his exciting life that brought glory to the best known American Writer of the early 20th Century – on bullfighting in Spain (Fortune March 1930) and “On the Bluewater” (Esquire, April 1936).
Key West certainly saw some of Hemingway’s wildest days; the guided tour of the home outlines not just his exploits on the local waters but much of his carousing in local watering holes, including meeting his 3rd wife, Martha Gellhorn at Sloppy Joe’s, while still married to Pauline. Hemingway was also an avid boxer and had matches on the grounds – he also frequently acted as a referee at the local ring at a saloon and brothel just around the corner from his home. The old ‘fight site’ is now home to Blue Heaven, Key West’s most colorful and popular restaurant.
You will also meet the “Hemingway six-toed cats” at the house – a group of felines at the center of much controversy. One of Hemingway’s son’s insists that the family never had pet cats in Key West. In fact, there is documentation of peacocks and flamingoes that Hemingway imported to the island, but there are no references to cats in any of Hemingway’s letters. Nonetheless, the cats have a legendary status in Key West – and are given a fine home in the museum’s gardens.
The house itself is of historic significance of its own accord – it was built circa 1850 by Asa Tift, a highly successful wrecker and one of Key West’s early settlers. Historians dispute whether it is French or Spanish Colonial in style, but either way, the house is architecturally distinct from any other homes on the island. It was constructed from rock quarried from the building site, creating the only basement in Key West.
Legends do, indeed, surround the house and the writer. One amusing one goes like this: while Hemingway was away during 1938, as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, his wife Pauline had the first swimming pool in Key West built – to the tune of $20,000. As the legend goes, Ole Hem was not pleased at the cost and tossed a penny onto the ground next to the pool and said, “Well, you may as well have my last cent.” It is an unlikely story in light of the financial history of the house and family. It was Pauline’s uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, who purchased the house for $8,000 as a gift to the couple in 1931 at a tax auction. It was more likely Pauline’s money that built the well fed pool and Hemingway clearly knew about it; in a letter to friends on September 30, 1934, he wrote, “We are going to build a swimming pool – 45 feet long – with a trophy room around it .…” Nonetheless, there is a penny embedded in the pool patio to lend credence to the story.
Hemingway added another watering hole to the house – he dragged home a urinal from his favorite haunt, Sloppy Joe’s, during a renovation of the bar, and had it converted into a fountain in the midst of the tropical garden.
Visitors can also visit the writer’s studio where critics say he did some of his best writing. None of the furniture can be documented as having belonged to the writer – when the house was purchased after Hemingway’s death it was empty of furniture. The photographs and memorabilia are quite accurate and were acquired later. Despite the many vagaries in the story – or perhaps because of them – the house is quite interesting to tour.
The writer, M.-J. Taylor, lives in Key West and has a fascination for Key West’s historic homes and tropical gardens. The Hemingway House gardens are popular with not just tourists, but also as a wedding venue with Key West brides. You can find more of her articles here: M.-J. Taylor on Google+.