Ernest Hemingway was ‘compulsory reading’ during my senior school years.
As a 15 year old I was not terribly impressed with Ernest Hemingway and his writings. To me his books were old-fashioned, misogynistic and full of scoundrels. I was always the non-conformist!
When Key West was being considered as one of the destinations on our recent trip to Florida I learned that Hemingway House was one of the most popular tourist attractions. My interest was piqued!
His home, now a museum was hosting tours and provided an insight into his opulent and somewhat scandalous lifestyle. I was surprisingly interested to learn more.
Key West was an interesting place to visit. After our mid-winter Boston, Niagara Falls and New York city adventures, the warm tropical lifestyle of Key West was a wonderful change! This island is full of history and we learnt so much about the early days of Key West in our short stay.
Arriving for our tour of Hemingway house, we were pleased to join our tour guide Doug, who was a fabulous storyteller and wove a number of interesting tales of Hemingway’s life into our tour.
Key West was relaxing and friendly.
I could have easily, unpacked my bags and settled in.
Hemingway – winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes
It was in Key West that Hemingway wrote many of his most famous books, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Old Man and the Sea and his short story collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
His novel To Have and to Have Not is set in Key West and the only one of his books which takes place in the United States.
Much of Hemingway’s own life experiences provided material for his literary work. He lived his life as he wished, never missed an opportunity and never gave up on his passions.
War hero and survivor
Ernest Hemingway brushed with death a number of times.
As a young man, Hemingway served with the Red Cross on the Italian Front in World War I as an ambulance driver. When delivering chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers on the front line he was hit by trench mortar fire. With shrapnel fragments in his leg Hemingway dragged an injured soldier to safety. He received the Silver Medal of Military Valor from the Italian government for his courageous actions.
Hemingway joined the Royal Air Force as a war correspondent on bombing raids during World War II, taking an active role in combat. He was awarded the Bronze Star for Bravery as a war correspondent.
Whilst on an African safari in 1954, Hemingway survived two successive plane crashes receiving significant burns and injuries which left him with pain and ill health for most of his remaining life.
Sailor, Game Hunter, Bull Fighter and Boxing enthusiast
Hemingway lived for adventure. He was an avid sports fisherman and sailor, big game hunter and loved boxing and bullfighting.
Hemingway loved the sea. His boat ‘Pilar’ and fishing the seas of the Caribbean was one of his loves. It is recorded that Hemingway landed the largest marlin caught to date, and was rumoured to have won every fishing competition in Key West, Bimini and Havana.
A successful amateur boxer, Papa (as he was affectionately known) built a boxing ring in the backyard of his Key West home so that he could spar with his guests.
The Polydactyl Cats
Hemingway was superstitious and believed six-toed cats were ‘lucky’ and a good luck charm.
Ernest Hemingway had a love for cats and was once given a white six-toed (polydactyl) cat by a ship’s captain who he named Snowball.
Hemingway named subsequent cats after famous people and this tradition continues today. There were cats named after Joe DiMaggio, Betty Grable, Billie Holiday, Gina Lollobrigida, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and many others.
At the time of our visit there were 53 cats living at the Hemingway Home & Museum – all are descendants of Hemingway’s own cats!
The first Swimming Pool in Key West
The story as we were told – which may or may not be the whole truth, was that Hemingway went off to Spain as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War leaving his second wife, Pauline at home in Key West.
As the story goes, one of Hemingway’s favourite activities was boxing and he would spar with local amateur boxers in his backyard boxing ring. When Pauline discovered that Hemingway was traveling with another journalist, Martha Gellhorn she wasted no time removing his precious boxing ring and organised the construction of the swimming pool in its place.
We were treated to humorous story of Hemingway, exasperated at the costs of the swimming pool, flinging down a penny on the pool patio and bellowing, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that as well!”
Whether the story is truth or not, there is a penny cemented into the surrounds of the pool in testimony to Ernest’s outburst.
It was no secret that Hemingway had a reputation of being a heavy drinker and was one of the most famous patrons of Sloppy Joe’s bar.
Conveniently Hemingway’s house is located across the street from the lighthouse, making it easy to find his way home after a night at Sloppy Joe’s.
When his favourite bar moved locations in the dead of night, Hemingway liberated one of its urinals and relocated it in the garden at his Key West home, stating to his wife that he had ‘pissed so much of his money down that urinal’ that he owned it.
His wife had the sides tiled and converted it into a garden fountain where it remains today as a source of water for the cats and a prominent garden feature.
Hemingway – the charming playboy
Hemingway was reportedly a man for the ladies and married four times during the course of his life. Throughout that time he was rumoured to have also entertained a number of mistresses and was never without a female companion.
The discovery of Hemingway’s penchant for writing beautiful ‘soppy’ love letters to each of his wives inspired Naomi Wood to write the novel entitled, ‘Mrs Hemingway’.
In her writings, Wood explored each of the women in his life and attempted to understand the attraction they each felt for Hemingway. She claimed that there were times she was so caught up in the storytelling, she ‘felt like the fifth Mrs Hemingway’!
A sad end to his life
The Hemingway family have long lived with the tragedy of suicide. Sadly, Hemingway took his own life in 1961. Hemingway’s sister, his brother, father and grandfather and granddaughter have taken their own lives.
In summary of his life, Marlene Dietrich, a close friend commented to his biographer:
“I suppose the most remarkable thing about Ernest is that he has found time to do the things most men only dream about. He has had the courage, the initiative, the time, the enjoyment to travel, to digest it all, to write, to create. There is in him a sort of quiet rotation of seasons, with each of them passing overland and then going underground and re-emerging in a kind of rhythm, refreshed and full of renewed vigor”.
Our visit to Key West and Hemingway House and Museum was one of the most fascinating events of our travels to the US, thanks largely to the storytelling skills of our tour guide Doug.
Have you been to Key West and did you visit Hemingway House and Museum whilst you were there? What was your impression? Let me know your thoughts in our comments below.
References: A.E. Hotchner Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, A&E American Author’s Series: Ernest Hemingway: Wrestling with Life