A great writer transcends people and places to reach the core of man’s soul. The Hemingway Home in Key West took me on an expected journey deep into my spirit and introduced me to a side of my humanity that I usually dare not go. Through Hemingway’s courageous suffering, I could see the heroism of loving, and living life, the best you can with every day you have.
I wasn’t a huge Hemingway fan before this tour. The primary reason we visited Hemingway’s House in the first place was that the last Conch Train of the evening had already departed and we had a couple of hours to kill before the sunset at Mallory Square.
Hemingway Home Cats
To be honest, we were mostly there for the Hemingway Cats. I mean, the Hemingway Home is literally a registered zoo where 50-60 polydactyl (6-toed) cats get to roam the grounds of the largest private house in Key West. Being cat people, we couldn’t pass that up.
The Hemingway Cats are descendants of Snowball, who was owned by Captain Dexter, a highly regarded wrecker captain in Key West. One cat just leads to another and Captain Dexter gave Hemingway one of Snowball’s kittens named Snow White. Snow White’s kittens were named after Hemingway’s famous friends and that tradition continues today.
I never stopped to think why the most macho man in literature would own a cat, let alone have his house full of them. Then again, I haven’t thought much about Hemingway since high school, and that was a mistake that was soon corrected on the Hemmingway Home tour.
Hemingway’s Place in American Literature
Mrs. Wilson, my American Lit. teacher, loved Hemingway in the way that a lily-white suburban Ohio teacher would. She raved about how his newspaper background allowed him to focus on the story and characters and less on the prose. Her class focused on Hemingway’s “Write hard and clear” battle cry while forgetting the ending “about what hurts.”
She taught the concept of the Hemingway Code Hero – a stoic man doing manly things- while glossing over who the protagonist was. She claimed the stories were naturalism, where the conflict was man versus nature. I now think Hemingway wrote about man versus self, where the hero was battling his personal demons.
When she asked us to identify a code hero in our lives, I picked my father. He wasn’t terribly manly. He was just so brave and quiet I forgot he was suffering.
My dad never hunted in Africa or went deep sea fishing. He didn’t fit the mold of my teacher’s idolized Code Hero. He did suffer in silence, aided by copious amounts of alcohol. Perhaps he wasn’t Mrs. Wilson’s idea of a code hero, but I now believe he was closer to Hemingway than I ever imagined. I felt closer to the memories of my father walking through Hemingway’s home than I have in many years.
Entering Hemingway’s Home
The iconic entrance to the Hemingway Home befits the man’s grandiose public personality. Outside, the two-story Spanish Colonial mansion was surrounded on both levels by wrap-around porches. Inside, movie posters, game trophies, and fishing memorabilia told the story of Hemingway the hero. He met Presidents. Drank with actors and had enough adventures to fill multiple lifetimes. This was the Hemingway that Mrs. Wilson loved and admired.
We walked upstairs and joined up with a tour group in the bedroom. Above the bed sat a Faulkner painting of the Hemingway Home. It depicted a purple night scene with fluffy cats of all sized lounging about the grounds.
Ironically, Faulkner and Hemingway never met in person, although their literary feud has been well recorded. Faulkner lauded Hemingway’s limited choice of vocabulary. To which, Hemingway replied “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” After suffering through The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick in school, I appreciate the simple elegance of Ernest Hemingway’s writing.
It was in the bedroom, where our guide introduced Hemingway’s fears. The man feared nothing. That is to say; he feared nada. The darkness and quiet of the night became a tangible force in his life and something to be avoided. I wonder how many nights Hemingway sat in this bed with the light on gazing at his rival’s painting to keep him company, perhaps with a cat or two by his side.
The Fear of Nada and Things That Go Bump in the Night
I have spent enough sleepless nights to know that Nada is real. After all, cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination. In the depth of night, the imagination has a way of running amock without the distractions of day to keep it in check. I have watched my father, like Hemingway, curb his imagination with a bottle. My drug of choice was always more physical.
What can I say about my first marriage other than the first draft of anything is shit. When I got married, I could count the number of women I slept with on my fingers. After, let’s just say, aggressive post-divorce dating, I switched to counting in binary. There were many sleepless nights, and I was lucky to meet Jenn before I ran out of fingers.
She was my light in the darkness that guided me home like the Key West Lighthouse did for Hemingway in a literal sense, and his second wife – Pauline Pfeiffer- did in a figurative sense. A good woman can create a clean, well-lit place that keeps the nada at bay.
Hemingway’s Clean, Well Lit Writing Studio
While nada ruled the night, the sun also rises. In the bright quiet of the morning, Hemingway would walk from his bedroom to his writing studio via a catwalk. The catwalk collapsed in 1948, so we had to cross a courtyard to reach it on our tour.
It was here in this studio that Hemingway wrote 70% of his life work, a remarkable feat considering he only lived in the house for seven years from 1931 to 1937. What’s also interesting is that he would only write in the mornings and then head out to other distractions.
The studio was sweltering hot on the late summer afternoon of my visit. I could understand why Hemingway would bug out during the heat of the day, but I feel it was more than just the temperature. Physics defines heat as the random motion of molecules. I posit that the random motion of his thoughts drove him from his desk in the afternoons.
Hemingway said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” For me, I can’t sit down and type once the screeching of stray thoughts wreck the silence of my mind. I need the mornings if I am going to write at all. Unfortunately for literature, sometimes, even the start of a new day can’t keep out the darkness. Hemingway left the sanctuary of Key West to cover the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and he was never able to find peace here again.
Hemingways’ Civil War
Nothing ruins peace like war. Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the war as a correspondent, but he also spent the time overseas with his lover and future wife, Martha Gellhorn.
Pauline, his wife he left in Key West, took some offense to this turn of events. While Earnest was abroad with a broad, she built the pool she had always coveted.
Our tour took us to this pool that sat in the back garden behind the writing studio. It still the largest private pool south of Miami, cost a small fortune and was built right over top of Earnest’s beloved boxing ring.
Papa was furious when he returned to find this monstrous pool filling his garden with the concrete still drying. He pulled a penny out of his pocket and flipped it to Pauline saying “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!” Our guide showed us that penny still stuck in cement where it landed.
Hemingway’s tirade didn’t end there. He went down to Sloppy Joe’s, his favorite Key West Bar, and got particularly pissed that night. How pissed? He ripped a urinal off the wall and dragged it home with him proclaiming it to be his pool.
Ernest Hemingway didn’t stay long in Key West after that. By 1939, he was living in Havana with Martha Gellhorn. The urinal? Pauline turned it into Key West’s most curious fountain, and it’s still watering the Hemingway Cats today.
Discovering My Code Hero at Last
Hemingway said, “as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.” When I was younger, I couldn’t understand the heroism or the necessity, because I didn’t know what suffering was.
Hemingway suffered his entire life. In World War One, a mortar round riddled his body with 237 pieces of shrapnel. In 1954, while en route to Murchison Falls in Africa, Hemingway, and his wife fourth wife, Mary, got in not one but two plane crashes.
The first crash wasn’t too bad. They landed in the brush and had to wait until morning to be rescued. The awful part was that their rescue plane also crashed in a fiery wreck so bad the headlines proclaimed them dead until they walked out of the jungle a day later. An amazing feat considering he had two cracked discs, a kidney and liver rupture, a dislocated shoulder and a broken skull.
The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are stronger at the broken places, but not Hemingway. After the crash, his health and mood continued to deteriorate. By 1959, he entered psychiatric care and began receiving electroshock therapy that left him more hurt and confused. In 1961, he ended his life on his own terms and was buried near his home in Ketchum Idaho. When Mary died 25 years later, she was entombed next to him to be together forever.
It wasn’t Hemingway’s actions that make him my hero and definitely not his death. Instead, it’s his emotional honesty that he puts forth in all of his writing. He said “a cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not. ” Now that I understand the language, I can see how emotionally honest Hemingway was and how much he needed the company of cats.
“The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Reflecting on My Visit to Hemingway’s Home
While visiting Hemingway’s home at 907 Whitehead Street, I realized what he meant when he said – We are all broken – That’s how the light gets in. His pain spurred him onto many adventures, which he bled into many fabulous stories.
Hemingway lived the life I dream of, both in my dreams and nightmares. From brilliant writing to summers in the Rockies with winters in the tropics, and excursions to exotic places in between. In the end, he found his eternal soulmate, but he had a hard time getting out of his own way to get there. Thankfully, along the way, he was able to escape into enough clean, well-lit places to write his literary legacy.
Disclosure: A big thank you to The Florida Keys and Key West for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.
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