KEY WEST, Fla. — “We will be in Pensacola Beach anyway, so it’s only a few more hours to Key West,” she said. OK, it’s 14 more hours, but what the heck. I had never been to Florida, let alone the Keys, and it seemed like a cool way to start our summer vacation.
I am neither a fisherman nor a beach person, but I am a reader and teach English and journalism, so the chance to see where Ernest Hemingway lived during the 1930s was a bit of a no brainer.
There is a lot to be said for spur-of-the-moment trips as we were able to get a discounted room in the center of Key West and, more importantly, one building over from the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
We arrived late evening and were delighted to find a pool right outside our chalet door. The hotel is in the center of town and we were quickly able to find a good meal before retiring to the hot tub right outside our chalet door with a glass of wine.
The next morning we were so close that despite leaving our room at 9:50 a.m., after a nice breakfast, we arrived at the house six minutes before it opened. Besides, this is Key West. Things are relaxed and if it takes five minutes to open up, so be it.
Prior to the tour starting we strolled around the lush gardens where the house’s cats are the kings of their own particular jungle. Hemingway was a given a white cat by a ship’s captain which he named Snow White. Many of the cats are descended from her. Key West is a small, enclosed island and it is possible that all the cats on the island are related in some way. All the cats at the house carry the polydactyl gene, meaning they have six toes, whether they display the physical characteristics or not. The cats are not one particular breed.
Currently there are almost 60 cats that live at the house. Hemingway named all his cats after famous people and the tradition continues today — Bogart follows the tour where he is fed treats by the guide. Previous cats have been named for luminaries as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Simone de Beauvoir.
Hemingway first visited Key West in 1928 on the advice of John Dos Passos. He was on honeymoon with his second wife Pauline. The couple had been in Cuba and were planning on returning to Paris. Pauline’s Uncle Gus had bought a Ford Roadster for the couple to use, but delivery was delayed, so the couple took up the offer to stay in an apartment above the Ford dealership. The couple spent three weeks in the apartment, with Ernest writing in the morning — he finished “A Farewell to Arms” there — and exploring the island in the afternoons.
Ernest met Charles Thompson, the owner of a local hardware store, who introduced the writer to big-game fishing. Ernest was hooked. They fell in love with the island and in 1931, Pauline’s uncle bought the house at 1301 Whitehead Street for $8,000 at a tax auction.
The Spanish Colonial house was built in 1851 and required major restoration, which the Hemingways, especially Pauline, took on throughout the 1930s. The house was one of the first on the island to have indoor plumbing and the first to have an upstairs bathroom with running water. On display in the museum is the king-size bed Ernest made by putting two twin beds together with a mattress built to cover both (king-size beds were not made during that period). The headboard was made from an old gate that the couple purchased in Europe.
Thompson, Capt. Eddie “Bra” Saunders and Joe Carroll, known as “Sloppy Joe,” as well as visiting friends, became known on the island as “The Mob.” As mob members have a nickname, Ernest was given the name “Papa,” which stuck with him the rest of his life.
The house features the first in-ground pool built on the island, and for a long time was the only pool for 100 miles. Pauline had the pool put in while Ernest was off with Martha Gelhorn covering the Spanish Civil War. Pauline was not happy with the relationship and the construction cost $20,000, more than $328,000 in today’s money. When Ernest came home to the construction he took a penny from his pocket, pressed it into the wet cement of the patio, and announced, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got.” The penny is still there for tourists to see.
Much of the decoration in the house was dictated by Pauline. She replaced the original ceiling fans with her chandelier collection. She used a 17th-century Spanish chest, made of Circassian walnut, as a writing desk.
As well as finishing “A Farewell to Arms” in Key West, Ernest also wrote “To Have or Have Not,” which is about Key West during the Depression and many of the locals appeared in some form in the book. He also wrote “Death in the Afternoon,” “Winner Take Nothing,” “Green Hills of Africa,” and the play “The Fifth Column,” about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, and “The First Forty Nine,” a collection of short stories which contained “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was published the year after he and Pauline divorced and he married Gelhorn, so it is likely he at least started it there.
The walls of the house are covered with posters and information about movies based on Hemingway’s books, as well as historical information that covers his whole life, not just the Key West years. One room features photographs of the Paris set from the early 1920s.
The Hemingways lived in the house from 1931 to 1939, and after the couple divorced, Pauline continued to live in the house. Ernest visited the island until his death in 1961.
In 1937, Ernest’s fame had grown to such a point that the Hemingways had a wall built around the house to keep tourists away.
While in Key West, one should visit Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s, where he met Gelhorn. The author claimed to be a “silent partner” in the bar and spent a lot of time hanging out the “the mob.”
One of the reasons Hemingway loved Key West was for its quiet and privacy. Today’s Sloppy Joe’s become exactly what the writer would have hated. It is loud and packed with tourists, but a quick beverage is a requirement for the Hemingway fan.
One of Hemingway’s most famous novels is “The Sun Also Rises.” In Key West, the sun also sets, and there is nothing better than sitting in a quiet bar, of which there are many, and raising a glass of rum in toast to “Papa” as the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico.
ISSUE story and photos by Andy Coughlan