Key West gem: the Hemingway House

Key West, Florida may be a tropical paradise surrounded by some of the most spectacularly clear blue waters that you’ll ever see, but that doesn’t mean that it is completely devoid of history and culture. In fact, the city is steeped in history ranging from the pre-Civil War era Fort Zachery Taylor to the mid-19th century lighthouse that is now a museum. But perhaps the most interesting historical attraction of them all is the Hemingway House, where the legendary Ernest Hemingway once lived and wrote many of his great works.

Hemingway moved to Key West, from Paris, in 1929, bringing his second wife Pauline along with him. He allegedly wrote A Farewell to Arms while living over a Ford dealership and awaiting the arrival of a new roadster that Pauline’s rich uncle purchased for them. In 1931, that same uncle bought them the now famous house, and the happy couple moved in and settled down to raise a family. The lived there together until 1939, when the not-so-happy couple divorced, and Hemingway moved to Cuba with wife number three.

Hemingway’s decade of Key West living was the most prolific period of his career in terms of cranking out manuscripts. Aside from A Farewell to Arms, he also wrote Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and a number of his famous short stories as well. Something about the warm ocean breezes and beautiful surf seemed to inspire his creative side. He was also introduced to deep sea fishing while living there, which became one of his passions and was obviously an inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea, which is perhaps his most famous book.

Strolling on to the grounds of the Hemingway House will make you feel like you’ve stepped back to a different era. The place looks almost exactly the same as it did when Papa, Pauline, and their two sons, Patrick and Gregory, lived there, right down to the furnishings inside. The circa-1930′s photos, books, art, and furniture all add to the ambiance of the place, and at times you can almost feel the spirit of Hemingway still walking the halls. This is especially true in his old writing studio, which is on the second floor of the carriage house out back. The old typewriter sitting on the writing table, amidst a host of treasures and trophies, gives visitors a hint of the magic that once inhabited those walls.
Of course, many of those visitors come not just to examine the artifacts of the house’s famous former resident, but to catch a glimpse of its famous current ones. The grounds of the Hemingway House are patrolled by an array of cats, each one a descendant of Hemingway’s original feline pets that lived with him and his family more than seven decades ago. There are nearly fifty cats living there and about half of them are polydactyl, that is to say they have six toes on their front paws. Sailors once believed that six-toed cats brought them luck, and the superstitious Hemingway agreed, adopting a number in his lifetime. The offspring of those cats are easily spotted lounging, pouncing, and parading about their lovely tropical home.

If you get the chance, be sure to take one of the guided tours of the the house as the guides are funny, engaging, and have a great grasp of the legends and lore of the place. For instance, they’ll point out the lovely water fountain made out of urinal that Papa dragged home from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, one night, or they’ll show you the replica of a cat sculpture given to Hemingway by Pablo Picasso. The priceless original was stolen from the house a few years back and smashed beyond repair by the thief who swiped it.

But perhaps the best story you’ll hear is about the beautiful 65-foot long swimming pool that dominates the backyard. As the story goes, in the late 1930′s, when Papa was away in Spain covering that country’s civil war, the boys convinced Pauline to put in the massive pool, claiming their father had always wanted one. Ten months, and $20,000 later, the pool was complete, much to the chagrin of the author who returned not long after it was finished. Needless to say, Hemingway was not happy, after all the entire house cost just $8000.

The legend has it that Hemingway then pulled a penny from his pocket and tossed it to Pauline, telling her she might as well have his last cent too. Pauline pressed that penny into the still wet cement, where it remains, under glass, to this day. A week later she divorced Papa, sending him packing to Havana.

Located at 907 Whitehead Street, right in the heart of Key West, the Hemingway House is a fun and interesting look at life on the island when Hemingway wrote, drank, and caroused his way through the streets. Admission is just $12 for adults and $6 for kids, and even if you hated your high school English teacher for making you read Hemingway’s work, you’ll probably still enjoy this enchanting place.