While many visitors are fascinated with the six-toed cats that roam Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home, it’s not the odd felines that generate tourism interest. The giant of 20th century American literature left a larger-than-life imprint even in one of the most eclectic communities in the United States.
History of the Hemingway house
Hemingway’s association with Key West began in 1929 when he arrived on the island with his wife Pauline at the suggestion of fellow writer John Dos Passos. He was immediately taken with the colorful local population and the island’s tropical charm. For the Hemingways’ first two years in Key West, they lived in rented quarters. After he finished his morning’s writing, he would explore the island and meet the people throughout the afternoon. It was during this time that Hemingway published A Farewell to Arms, most of which was written in a small apartment over the Ford dealership.
By 1931, Ernest and Pauline were well-established on the island. At this time, Pauline’s Uncle Gus bought the handsome house at 917 Whitehead Street for the young couple. Furnishing the house with European antiques they’d collected abroad, as well as hunting trophies from Ernest’s African safaris, they settled in and established close friendships.
Hemingway was introduced to the sport of big game fishing by local hardware store owner Charles Thompson and loved it. Along with friends from his Paris days and his friends Charles Thompson, “Sloppy” Joe Russell and Captain Eddie Saunders, Hemingway became part of a group of fishermen who called themselves the Key West Mob. The men gave each other nicknames and Ernest was dubbed “Papa,” a nickname still in use today.
For all the good times Hemingway enjoyed with his friends, he still found time to write and the ten years he lived in Key West were some of his most prolific, including the completion of For Whom the Bell Tolls. He used Key West in the great Depression as the background for his novel To Have and Have Not.
When Ernest and Pauline divorced in 1939, Hemingway moved on to Cuba, although he continued to own the Key West house and visited it frequently until his death in 1961.
Open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., the house is one of the prized sights in Key West. Dating from 1851, the two-story home is much as Ernest Hemingway left it. His writing studio is essentially untouched; with his Royal typewriter still in place and original Hemingway furnishings on view throughout the house.
In the expansive gardens, visitors can see the first swimming pool in Key West, the 65-foot saltwater pool at the Hemingway House. It was built at a cost of $20,000 and completed while Hemingway was abroad as a correspondent in Spain covering the Spanish Civil War. When he returned to Key West, Pauline showed him the bill for the nine-foot-deep swimming pool. Upon seeing it, he is reported to have reached into his pocket and pulled out a penny. Then he gave it to Pauline, telling her, “You might as well have my last cent.” That penny is still on display, a treasured souvenir of one of America’s best-known and best-loved novelists.