The Hemingway House, a Key West Legend

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Ernest Hemingway is an Illinois Boy.  Years ago, I went by his boyhood home in Oak Park, but didn’t have time to stop.  Now after visiting his home in Key West its a visit  I will have to make. The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West was one of the highlights of my trip to Key West.  Being a writer, I could admire his set up, this wonderful home with a private studio, and all located in paradise. While the location is paradise, after hearing his life’s story, it’s clear that Ernest Hemingway’s life, however was not.  I had read the Paris Wife a while back and knew about the heart ache his first wife had went through when Hemingway fell in love with her friend and it is this second wife that he shared his life with on Key West.

Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway had issues with women from the get go, with a domineering mother.  One of six children, he graduated high school in 1916 and started working right away for the Kansas City Star.  After six months, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI. This was a dangerous job and he was wounded, hit  by mortar shell shrapnel while driving.  The embedded shrapnel required several surgeries and a lengthy stay in the hospital in Milan.  While in the hospital, our guide at his home in Key West shared that the young Hemingway fell in love with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who was 26.  Hemingway was  18 and Agnes broke his heart when she sent him a “Dear John” letter breaking off the engagement, saying he was just a kid and she was too old for him.  Agnes later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley, the tragic heroine of Hemingway’s 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms. Our guide joked that it wasn’t always good to cross Hemingway because often that person ended up being the villain or killed off in a future written work.

Hemingway was awarded the Silver Medal for his efforts in World War I. After arriving back home in America, he continued working for the Toronto Star in Kansas City.  It was in Missouri that he met wife number none, the heroine in the Paris Wife Hadley Richardson in 1921. The two fell in love, married, then moved to Paris where he was a correspondent for the Toronto Star. The two had a son they named Jack.

It was in Paris the guide shared that Hadley Richardson introduced Hemingway to Pauline Pfeiffer.  Daughter of a wealthy Arkansas landowner, Pauline was a writer for Vogue’s Paris bureau.  In Paris, the Hemingways moved with other bright artists and writers and it was in this heady atmosphere that Hemingway  became involved with Pauline.

He divorced Hadley, then the two married in 1927 and returned to the states in 1928.  After a few years of renting, they acquired their home in Key West, which was a wedding present from Pauline’s Uncle Gus Pffeifer.

Key West agreed with Hemingway.  He loved the fishing,the bars and the laid back  life style.  While on a trolley ride during our visit, we heard that Sloppy Joe’s was Hemingway’s favorite bar.   When the owner tried to raise the rent $1.00 a week, without telling his landlord, the proprietor of Sloppy Joe’s bought another space and one night told all his patrons, to pick up their stools and their drinks and he moved from one place to the other that night.

Writing flowed for Hemingway while in Key West.  His routine was to wake up in the early morning hours, write for a few hours while the temperature was cool and then take the afternoon to explore the island.  This routine apparently worked like magic, because, during his stay in Key West, Hemingway published eight books and numerous short stories.

When touring the house, we were able to see many original furnishings and learn about the history of the family. The Hemingway’s had two boys, Patrick was born in 1928, and Gregory born in 1931.

This was a family home and like many families they had a pet, a cat with six toes.   Today throughout the property you can view some of the 53 cats in residence, and most, if not all  are descendants of Hemingway’s own six-towed polydactyl cat named Snow Ball.  The first cat was given to him by one of Key West’s ship captains.

While living in Key West Hemingway met war correspondent Martha Gellhorn  in a bar in 1936.  They became friends and more very quickly.  Our guide said that when Pauline heard that while covering Spain’s Civil War, that Hemingway was with Gellhorn she enacted her own special type of revenge.  She tore out Heingway’s boxing ring and built a $20,000 dollar pool that remains at the home today. When Hemingway returned home and saw the pool he is said to have emptied his pocket picked up a penny threw it at Pauline and said, “You might as well have my last red cent”.  The penny remains embedded in the concrete around the pool.

Pauline, a staunch Catholic was intent on her marriage, and even though Ernest was asking for the marriage to be terminated, she held on for years.  Pauline finally agreed to a divorce in 1940, and soon afterwards, Hemingway married Gellhorn and she became his 3rd wife.  Gellhron and Hemingway traveled and worked together, living between conflicts at a villa in Cuba. In 1945, Gellhorn left Hemingway and she was the only one of Hemingway’s wives to leave him.

Back in Key West, Pauline retained the home after their 1940 divorce.  Using her talent for fashion, she opened a designer fabric, upholstery and gift business known as the Carolina Shop. Besides Key West, she  also spent  time in California and maintained an apartment in San Francisco and frequently visited her sister, Virginia Pfeiffer.  On Oct. 1, 1951, Pauline died of a brain hemorrhage while visiting her sister in Hollywood.

At that time the house reverted to Hemingway and he continued to visit Key West during the 40’s and 50’s until death in 1961. After Gellhorn left him, in 1945, Hemmingway remarried in 1946, to another writer, Mary Welsh,  who our the guide said was best suited to him. She liked all the things he did and was with him until his suicide. With many health issues which included severe amnesia which made him unable to write caused him to be so depressed that he took his life. 

The children sold the home and the new owner opened it as a historical home and museum that visitors can tour and learn about Hemingway’s amazing literary legacy.