A painting of Ernest Hemingway A painting of Ernest 'Papa' Hemingway that hangs in Hemingway Home

It's winter here in the rainy western wilds of Canada, and as my companion is American and from Miami, we thought we'd visit his family and take a vacation ourselves. And we decided to take a couple of days just for us and visit the Florida Keys, all the way down to Key West.

The Keys are lovely - full of pelicans and iguanas, with blue skies, hot sun and ocean all around. On the drive down, you'll cross the seven-mile bridge, go through a deer preserve and see more beautiful flora and fauna than you could hope for.

Once in Key West, our main objective was to take a tour of the Hemingway Home, the house Ernest Hemingway lived in from 1931 until 1939. Aside from thoroughly enjoying the Hemingway we've read (we've each read a good selection of his short stories), we'd heard the property was lovely and well-maintained.  I had my own reasons for going - apparently, Hemingway loved cats and kept them most of his life, and in honor of that, I had discovered that there were anywhere from 45 to 60 well-cared-for cats roaming the estate. I like cats.

Part of the front of Hemingway Home
Part of the front of Hemingway Home
When we arrived, we were immediately taken with the architecture. The house was built in 1851 and is a sprawling mansion. It and the other buildings (which now include a gift shop and Hemingway's preserved writing studio) are surrounded by palm trees and lush, beautiful vegetation. Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, bought the house in 1931 for the grand sum of $8,000.

Inside the house, much of the Hemingway’s original decoration and furniture is still present, with additional touches of Hemingway-themed paintings on the walls. During his time in the Keys, Hemingway had become an avid sports-fisherman after befriending the man who ran Key West’s local hardware store.  The two, along with other friends (including Joe Russell, who opened the still-beloved ‘Sloppy Joe's’ bar on Key West’s main thoroughfare, Duval Street) became known as ‘The Key West Mob’ and each had nicknames - Hemingway was 'Papa Hemingway'. The mob would spend their time fishing through the Keys and down to Cuba in hopes of landing whoppers. Many of the decorations and paintings throughout the house reflect this passion and explain the inspiration for one of Hemingway’s most famous books, The Old Man and the Sea, in which a Cuban fisherman, long without a catch, battles with an enormous marlin in open waters. The Old Man and the Sea was the last work published by Hemingway before his death. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.

One of Pauline Hemingway's many chandeliers
One of Pauline Hemingway's many chandeliers
The house is cheerful, painted pale yellow-white, with beautiful green shutters framing its many high, arched windows. Outside, the upper floor is wrapped with a spacious verandah, showing views of the grounds, the neighborhood and a nearby lighthouse. The interior is full of light, with high ceilings, many of which showcase Pauline's touch - she had a passion for chandeliers, and upon moving in, she had all of the ceiling fans (which she deemed unforgivably tacky, despite their practicality in the tropical climate) ripped out, and replaced with chandeliers of her choosing.

A decorative elephant at the edge of the Hemingway pool
A decorative elephant at the edge of the Hemingway pool

One of the key features of the grounds (Hemingway Home sits on just over an acre of land - very, very large for that time in Key West) is the swimming pool. The Hemingways’ pool was the first private, residential swimming pool built in Key West, and is the largest to this day (it's 65 feet long). Surrounded by grass and tropical plants, and boasting the occasional decorative statue around its edge, the pool is a thing of beauty.

And it should be. Keeping in mind that Hemingway paid $8,000 for the entire estate in 1931, it was Pauline who had the pool put in during the winter of 1937-1938, at the tremendous expense of $20,000. Legend has it she went ahead and did the work without consulting her husband, whose unfaithfulness had become clear. When Hemingway returned home from his job (he was covering the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent) and found the lavish pool, he roared that Pauline may as well take his last cent, and he drew a penny and gave it to her. Some say it was Pauline who embedded the penny into the concrete around the pool, as a last laugh, and others say it was Hemingway himself, as a reminder. Regardless, it remains there today, protected under glass. While interpretations differ as to whether the exchange was angry or humorous, the fact remains that Ernest and Pauline divorced shortly after, and Hemingway moved onto his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.

Ernest Hemingway's workshop
Ernest Hemingway's workshop
Above the pool, in an outbuilding that was originally a carriage house, is Hemingway's writing studio. The author liked to write in the morning, and so he had a sort of sky-tunnel built leading from the main house directly to his second floor studio, so upon rising in the morning, he could walk across and immediately begin his day’s work. The studio can be viewed from the doorway, but not entered (except by staff and the cats), and has been preserved as Hemingway left it, with his leather writing chair, his books, his table and his typewriter. In this studio, Hemingway worked on Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, To Have And Have Not, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and many of his most-famous short stories, such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Also connected is A Farewell to Arms, which Hemingway began on his journey to Key West.

Cats snoozing at Hemingway Home
Cats snoozing at Hemingway Home
As for the cats - I wondered whether we would really see as many as I'd been led to believe. I was not disappointed. The story goes that Hemingway had become friends with a ship’s captain during his time in Key West. The captain had a cat with the unusual trait of being Polydactyl - it had an extra toe on each foot, giving it the appearance of wearing mittens. Hemingway admired the cat and his friend told the author he could take it home. To this day, some of the numerous cats who live at Hemingway home are direct descendants of that original pet, and you can see several of the six-toed beauties roaming around. There were cats in the flowerbeds, cats on the walkways, cats under benches, cats snoozing in the sun, cats chasing butterflies, a cat curled in the rain gutter of Hemingway’s studio, and much to my surprise and delight, cats on the furniture inside, including on the Hemingways’ bed. Apparently, cats have no respect for a velvet rope.

Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy
The property is punctuated by several small cat-houses and food and water stations. Each cat is named, tracked, and well cared for. Many are somewhat aloof, but we found several eager for a cuddle, especially a chubby, snow-white fellow called Spencer Tracy.

One of the unique fixtures in the yard is the kitty water fountain, which has an interesting story behind it. Hemingway spent so much time at his friend Joe’s bar that when Joe was moving locations,  Hemingway remarked that surely he’d spent enough money there to own a small chunk of it, and Joe laughed and gifted him with one of the bar’s urinals.
A decorative elephant at the edge of the Hemingway pool
Kitty drinking fountain

Pauline, upon finding a urinal in her yard, was understandably unimpressed, but made the best of a bad situation by adorning the urinal with decorative tile. Hemingway had the urinal, along with a large decorative Spanish olive jar that he’d brought from Cuba, fitted with plumbing and converted into a self-refreshing water fountain for his pets. The cats seem to like it and you have to know the story or stare hard to realize there’s a urinal involved.

Hemingway moved to Cuba in 1939, and divorced from Pauline a year later. The author owned the Key West house until his death in 1961. Pauline had lived there until her death in 1951.

Sadly, Hemingway committed suicide with a shotgun in 1961  after a few years of deteriorating mental health. Bi-polar disorder (previously known as manic depression) was rampant in his genes, as was a genetic disorder known as hemochromatosis, which results in a breakdown of physical and mental health. His father, sister and brother all died by suicide as well. Living in Ketchum, Idaho, with his fourth wife, Mary, Hemingway was 66 when he died.

 

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