Key West: Living With the Ghost of Hemingway
By Troy Petenbrink
On this day in 1899, a legendary writer (and traveler) was born.
While many cities around the world—from Paris to Cuba and Kenya to Idaho—can and do lay claim to Hemingway, the writer’s imprint is most prominent in Florida’s bohemian city of Key West.
On a friend’s recommendation, Hemingway and his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer (not to be confused with his first, third or fourth wife) visited Key West in 1928. He immediately fell in love with the island and the island with him. He would call Key West home for the next decade.
“It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.” – Ernest Hemingway
The most visible reminder of Hemingway’s time in Key West is the house where he and Pauline lived and raised their 2 sons. Now known as the Hemingway Home, it is a privately-owned museum and National Historical Landmark.
Built in Spanish Colonial style, the house is filled with family photos, furniture collected from Europe, and many trophy mounts and skins from African safaris and hunting trips in the American west. The exterior appears almost exactly as it was while Hemingway lived there, with dozens of descendents of Snowball, Hemingway’s famed 6-toed cat, roaming the beautiful gardens that surround the house.
When not deep-sea fishing in the beautiful waters that surrounded his island home, Hemingway would religiously spend his morning in his studio located behind his house. It is here that he produced some of his most well-known works, including “Death in the Afternoon,” “Green Hills of Africa” and “To Have and Have Not.” The writer’s typewriter and desk sit prominently in the center of the room.
Local lure is that the reason Hemingway picked his house at 907 Whitehead Street was its proximity to the Key West Lighthouse . It’s said that the 46-foot-tall tower would serve as a beacon to guide Hemingway home after his infamous nights of drinking and brawling (many Key West establishments can proudly proclaim “Hemingway fought here”).
Hemingway’s favorite watering hole was a rustic bar at 428 Greene Street that was originally named the Blind Pig and later renamed Sloppy Joe’s at Hemingway’s suggestion. A bar called Capt. Tony’s Saloon now occupies the building.
Just a short walk from Capt. Tony’s is the historic Custom House that now houses the Key West Art & Historical Society. On the third floor, visitors can find a small but important exhibit dedicated to Hemingway. A bloodstained WWI uniform, a pair of boxing gloves and a notebook that Hemingway used as a child to learn how to draw letters are among the personal items on display.
Outside of the Custom House is a statue of the Hemingway that captures his youthful appearance from his days in Key West; however, hundreds of “Hemingways” can be seen wandering the streets during Hemingway Days.
For more than 30 years, Hemingway Days have been held during the anniversary of the author’s birth to commemorate his life and legacy. The many events include a look-a-like contest for stocky white-bearded men resembling “Papa” Hemingway during his later years.
Happy birthday, Ernest Hemingway.