It was such a gorgeous day, the light so perfect and the heat waning slightly by the time I arrived at the Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West.
Visiting Florida as part of a family holiday, this adventure to the southern-most tip of America felt very special to me, having accidentally followed Hemingway around the world (Paris, Cuba, Italy, Spain…) He certainly had the right idea about how to enjoy life.
The house is open every day but shuts at 5pm and it took much longer to drive the US1 from Key Largo than I’d anticipated, having not taken into consideration the often 35/45 mph speed limits. (Are they strict about these things in the States? I don’t know. I didn’t want to find out.)
Luckily, it was well worth the wait. And the drive. The drive was actually beautiful, the ocean on each side and the roads very quiet. What more could you ask for?
The house sits back from the road on a picturesque corner (on Whitehead Street and Olivia Street), with palms surrounding it providing plenty of shade. A huge brick wall encircling the property guarantees privacy… or maybe not:
Hemingway built the wall to keep out the ‘riff raff’ of tourists after his home was referred to in a tourist guide of the day, not long after he moved in. Ironically, tourists began to flock in even higher numbers to get their photograph taken in front of the wall.
Key West has at least doubled in size since Hemingway’s day, and the house originally boasted sea views. There’s even a lighthouse next door.
But the first thing you notice – aside from the old colonial beauty and the deep hues of mustard and green amidst the palms – is the abundance of cats.
I think this tabby above is one of the six-toed tribe, likely to be a descendant of Hemingway’s cat ‘Snow White’ who was gifted to him by a ship’s captain. All the cats who live at the house apparently carry this ‘polydactyl’ gene, so even if they don’t sport six toes themselves, their off-spring just might.
I thought it a nice touch they’re all named after famous writers, artists, musicians and stars of the stage; a tradition started by Hemingway (now with a few wives in the mix!), and each name is then scribed into the cement/brick in a little area that is clearly the ‘cat cemetery’ when the inevitable day comes around (‘Death in the Afternoon’, perhaps?). Sorry!
I took a moment to worship at the grave of ‘Zsa-Zsa Gabor’:
Even the windows had net curtains featuring cats – would they have been Hemingway’s personal choice I wonder?
Inside, the house was set out with much of the original furniture, artifacts and antiques collected by Hemingway, but the most fascinating to me were bookshelves laden with his personal collection – the books he had physically touched and read – as well as memorabilia from the film versions of many of his books.
The colours and shapes in details such as the tiles on the bathroom floor were worth much more than a passing glance, and it became clear that nowhere is off-limits to the cats.
The living room downstairs was dedicated to Pilar, Hemingway’s Boat (also the title of a book by Paul Hendrickson that I took with me to read, but just didn’t get around to), and a few more of his typewriters. I was pleased to note he wasn’t particularly brand-loyal. Underwood, Remington, Corona…
“This boat is a marvel for fishing. Takes any sea comfortably and can turn on her tail to chase a fish.”
Outside, second wife Pauline’s highly controversial swimming pool replaced Hemingway’s beloved boxing ring.
It was the first and only pool in Key West by years, and ran well over budget, relying on manual labour to dig out the concrete because the use of dynamite was ruled out by the city. It was originally a saltwater pool as there was no running water in Key West until 1944. But it is a beauty – over 8ft deep. How truly decadent!
I love the story about Hemingway’s last penny which is embedded in the concrete in front of the pool. Or maybe that’s just a gimmick for tourists? I snapped it anyway.
Not far away was Hemingway’s other ‘trough’ – a urinal from his favourite bar Sloppy Joe’s, which he brought home as a kind of revenge for the pool. Apparently he told Pauline:
‘I’ll get rid of mine when you get rid of yours’.
Oh the rage!
Instead she added decorative tiles and an urn. It all worked out OK. She made the best of it. And the cats are apparently too clever to consider drinking from the ‘trough’.
Finally, stairs lead up to a separate building, a kind of loft which at one point was joined to the house by a little tree-top walkway.
It served as Hemingway’s office/study/writing room and I’m not sure if it was set up just how he left it – especially given the history of the house being sold on before becoming a museum – but there was a lovely sense of solicitous solitude there that made me feel close to the great man himself.
It made me want to rush home and read more of his books as well as get more prolific with writing my own. And I say that having never really gelled with his writing style.
I think there’s just something special and charismatic about his life and the way he lived, battling many demons while traversing the world, like he was trying to escape himself in his pursuits. The sea, his boat. Living in remote outcrops: Cuba, Key West. Or maybe I’m just a sentimental writer trying to capture an ounce of inspiration from this big bold bear of a man?
But what a special place (and places) he chose to live.
I would definitely return to Florida, and to the Keys. Key West had a lot more going for it than simply the literary connections, but alas I had only scheduled one day in which to see it all.
Before traversing the slim road back towards Miami, I did manage a quick look at the Tennessee Williams exhibition. There was a lot to see/read and not much time, though I was able to view a collection of his first editions, albeit through display glass.
“There is no friend as loyal as a book”
Apart from maybe a cat – or is that just an oxymoron?