We had the luxury of exploring the historic Hemingway House in downtown Key West on our last trip to the Key’s. For those of you who live under a rock… Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist and short story writer who lived an adventurous life.
“His succinct and lucid prose style exerted a powerful influence on American and British fiction in the 20th century.” (Source) In 1931 Hemingway’s wealthy Uncle Gus purchased a home for Ernest and his wife Pauline. The 1851 homestead located on Whitehead Street in the heart of Key West was renovated by the Hemingway’s in the 1930’s and it turned into the National Historical Landmark that thousands of tourists visit and enjoy today.
Hemingway, “received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short heroic novel about an old Cuban fisherman who, after an extended struggle, hooks and boats a giant marlin only to have it eaten by voracious sharks during the long voyage home.” (Source) As a journalist he spent a lot of time in the field during the war. He saw a lot of action in the Battle of the Bulge in Normandy and he even impressed the soldiers he was with in his journey as not only a brave man but someone who was well educated on war, strategy, etc. He wrote several novels about the war, “A Farewell to Arms he focused on its pointlessness, in For Whom the Bell Tolls on the comradeship it creates.” (Source) He made his way to London and participated in several missions with the Royal Air Force. He even crossed the English Channel with the Americans during D- Day. (Source)
When he wasn’t writing he was on the water with his boat, Pilar, as he was an avid fisherman. He spent his summers in Wyoming at his second residence – hunting elk, deer, and grizzly bears. A writer, husband, father, adventurer… Hemingway was many things throughout his life. It was neat to see how well preserved his legacy is through the home and museum.
History of the wild and prolific Hemingway
Hemingway had a love for Key West and Caribbean culture. He enjoyed spending time in Havana, Cuba which was only 90 miles away. Before the historic home was purchased him and his wife, Pauline, rented an apartment on the island for several years. During that time, they befriended the local hardware store owner, Charles Thompson and his wife Lorine. “Charles Thompson introduced Hemingway to the exciting world of big game sport fishing, and a long friendship was born.” (Source)
In 1938, way ahead of its time – a $20,000 in-ground pool was installed at the residence in Key West. This was a pretty huge feat as there were no in-ground pools in Key West at the time and there were none like it within 100 miles. During the construction of the pool Ernest took a penny and pushed it into the wet concrete on the patio that surrounds the pool. He said with a satirical tone, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got!” (Source) Just to paint a picture of why this was so extraordinary… $20,000 in 1938 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $395,463.83 today, an increase of $375,463.83 over 84 years! See the actual penny here…
The home features many of Hemingway’s personal flair with unique antique pieces from their travels in Europe, and many trophy mounts and skins from his African safari expeditions. Another interesting history is the Hemingway cats… that’s right cats! “In addition, a very visible and living link to the past are the descendants of Hemingway’s cats. The story goes that Hemingway made the acquaintance of a sea captain who owned an unusual six-toed tomcat, which captured Ernest’s fancy. Upon his departure from Key West, the captain presented the cat to Hemingway. Today many of the numerous cats that inhabit the grounds still possess the unusual six toes.” (Source)
There are roughly 60 polydactyl (six-toed) cats that live at the home and museum. “Cats normally have five front toes and four back toes. About half of the cats at the museum have the physical polydactyl trait but they all carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA, which means that the ones that have 4 and 5 toes can still mother or father six-toed kittens.” (Source) There is a veterinarian on staff that tends to the cats making sure all are cared for with proper ear treatment, flea treatment and annual vaccinations.
Ernest’s friends, Charles Thompson, Capt. Eddie “Bra” Saunders, and Joe Russell (aka Sloppy Joe) often got together with him and his Paris friends to, “go fishing in the Dry Tortugas, Bimini, and Cuba for days and weeks at a time in pursuit of giant tuna and marlin.” (Source) The adventurous crew became known as “The Mob” in Key West. All the members in The Mob had nicknames. Hemingway was called “Papa”.
Key West was an eclectic place to live as it was home to wealthy businessmen and local fishermen who were rough around the edges. Hemingway drew inspiration from those encounters and wrote about many of them. “Many Key Westers appear as characters in his novel ‘To Have and Have Not,’ a novel about Key West during the Great Depression.” (Source) Ernest was quite the drinker himself and would jokingly refer to the close-by Key West Lighthouse as his guide home when stumbling out of the local bars. Here is a view of the lighthouse from once of is porches…
While Key West was home to many writers and literary figures over the years – they say that not as prolific as Ernest Hemingway. While he divorced from his wife Pauline in 1940 – he still visited Key West quite a bit in the 1940’s and 1950’s until his death in 1961.
Touring the Home and Museum
It’s good to have a history on Ernest before you visit the home and museum. He was a behemoth and charismatic figure in time. Here are the details to note as you plan your trip: the tour rates include a 20-30 minute guided tour, the museum is open daily (365 days a year) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., tickets are only available at the main gate, no reservations are required and it’s cash only for admission.
Do you have any writer friends who need inspiration? Looking for a cool place to start the next novel? There is an additional experience that you would need to book in advance for… The Hemingway Evening Writing Experience. This is a $1,500 cost and can be Mondays through Thursdays. You and one guest will start with a guided tour and after the tour you get full access to the home, gardens and Ernest’s writing studio! That’s quite the opportunity to pull from the creative space where Hemingway himself wrote many of his masterpieces.
You can find all the information about the home and tours etc. at www.hemingwayhome.com. The address is 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida and you can call the office at 305-294-1136.
Wedding and Event Space
Another neat offering is the option to book your wedding or event on the grounds! “The Ernest Hemingway Home is one of the most sought after wedding and event venues. From corporate parties, rehearsal dinners, and welcome parties…” (Source)
There is so much rich history wrapped around this place and it’s nice to see the museum continue the legacy. You won’t be disappointed with your visit to The Hemingway House.