In honor of Ernest Hemingway’s birthday on July 21st (he would have been 116, that old fart), I am taking you back in time to the most prolific period of the writer’s career: the years he spent in Key West, Florida.
We traveled to Key West in September 2012, the culminating point in our Florida Keys road trip. There was something about that trip that was just magical: that very intense feeling of freedom as we drove the magnificent US route 1 going through the quirky Keys, and discovering Key West and falling in love with it, like many had before us.
We rode along the boulevard with the breeze blowing and a few cars going past and the smell of dead sea grass on the cement where the waves had gone over the seawall at high tide.
-To Have and Have Not
To me, Key West was a character in so many writers’ stories, but also their lives: a place where writers would go and find inspiration. I wish I had more time on the island, so that perhaps Key West’s magical pull would have taken its toll on me and given me enough inspiration to last a lifetime. Hemingway, like Tennessee Williams after him, certainly found the island to be a nest of creativity, for that’s where he penned an important part of his work: namely, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, For Whom the Bell Tolls and of course To Have and Have Not, set on the island. To go to Key West meant that I could finally follow Papa‘s steps and visit the island that had played such an important role in his life and career.
My pilgrimage would bring me back in time to the 1930s. It would include a dive into Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favorite bar, and most importantly a visit to his house, which is now open to the public. The house he inhabited with his second wife Pauline had been offered to them by her uncle as a wedding present and they lived there during the winter season, for most of 1931-1939. It has been left fairly intact from the days Hemingway roamed its grounds, and to visit it is a fantastic opportunity to make a privilieged incursion into his life. A guided tour is included in the entrance fee, and will rejoice Papa‘s fans as well as the litterary inclined in general, as the guides are so passionate and knowledgeable about the man and his quirks, serving visitors with a flurry of anecdotes throughout the tours. Period photographs framed on the walls help us dive in depth into Hemingway’s world and the original furnishings also set the mood: did you know that their house was the first to have a bathroom with running water on the second floor?
One of the amusing anecdotes we were told of was the story behind the pool in the garden that had been commissioned by Hemingway’s wife. Hemingway wanted nothing to do with a pool on the grounds of his home, hence his wife waited for him to leave for Cuba to have the pool built while he was away… At the time, it was the only pool in the town of Key West, and cost an exhorbitant 20 000$ (in comparison, the house had cost 8 000$). Upon his return, Hemingway is known to have told her ‘Here, take the last penny I’ve got!’ as he pressed it into the wet cement surrounding the pool. Look for it during your visit!
His writer’s studio is also accessible, even though the walkway that connected it to the house hasn’t been restored. Granted, it looks a bit staged, and must be very different from when he was actually working in it… Still, to witness the space where he wrote is very touching; at least it was for me, as I’m such a huge fan of his life and work.
Other than to immerse myself in the writer’s life as I tend to do in many of my trips, his cats’ descendants were a huge reason for my visit: known for his love of cats -wise man!- he owned six-toed cats that roamed freely on the estate. Today, dozens of direct descendants to his original cats inhabit the lush, well-kept grounds, each named after a famous person of yersteryears.
To visit Hemingway’s house is, I find, a wonderful way of paying your respects to Papa and a superb and rare incursion in his life on Key West.
The moon was up now and the trees were dark against it, and he passed the frame houses with their narrow yards, light coming from the shuttered windows; the unpaved alleys, with their double rows of houses; Conch town, where all was starched, well-shuttered, virtue, failure, grits and boiled grunts (…)
Entrance is 13$US per adult and gives you access to a guided tour.
The house is located at 907 Whitehead St, across from the Key West Lighthouse (a direct view of which Hemingway had from his studio’s window) and is open from 9 to 5, daily.
For further reading on Papa and the time he spent in Key West, I recommend the following books from Amazon.ca: