I have always had a love/hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For a long time, all the machismo got in my way: the big game hunting, the bull fighting, the boxing, the boasting, the egoism, all seemed to be compensating for something, a sense of insecurity perhaps, to put it in simplest terms.
And yet, I love his writing. It is pure and clean and powerful and elemental. I can still feel the the visceral punch in “Indian Camp” when the father removed the blanket from the young husband in the upper bunk. Or, the pared-down, gradual dawning of realization in reading “Hills Like White Elephants” or the existential abyss yawning at the end of a “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”
It’s been a while since I read one of the novels. I remember A Sun Also Rises fondly. The damaged romanticism of Jake Barnes, the alluring aloofness of Brett Ashley, the thirsty landscape of Spain are all still vivid in my mind despite how long ago I last read it. And while critics claim A Farewell to Arms to be the better written novel, The Sun Also Rises remains more important to me. (A colleague just last month called it the worst novel written in English! Oh well.)
And so, with this ambivalence about Hemingway, I visited his home while in Key West in early June.
The home is extraordinary–and rich in story and history.
In the 1930s, Hemingway moved to Key West with his second wife–Pauline Pfeiffer–whose uncle purchased the house on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. And although, Hemingway claimed that he was “restless” in Key West, at this house he wrote a great deal of what would be his most important work.
The house is a two level structure built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a successful architect and salvager, and the Hemingways bought it in 1931. Today, the home is an Historic Site and remains filled with the Hemingways’ furniture and artifacts. Throughout each room are both original furnishings and memorabilia–posters of movies made from his novels, photos of Hemingway at various stages of his life, of his family, and of various celebrities and writers. The bed in the master bedroom is actually two double beds that Hemingway wired together and the headboard is a gate made of Spanish mahogany that Hemingway and his wife had seen in a monastery in Spain. A bench in the foyer is from the same monastery.
Behind the main house is a “carriage house” in which Hemingway had built a writing studio on the second floor. In order to ensure his privacy, Hemingway had a wrought-iron catwalk stretched across the patio from the bedroom to his studio. This was the only means in and out. Today, the catwalk has been taken down and there is a narrow stairway from the patio to the studio door. It is an ideal working space.
The house also has a large pool–the first ever in Key West. Hemingway and Pauline had wanted to build a pool, but cost was prohibitive. They had bought the house for $8000 dollars, but building a pool in the remote Keys was expensive. Instead, Hemingway built a regulation sized boxing ring. Much to Pauline’s dismay, her dream of lounging poolside had given way to a ring side seat to her husband’s sparring bouts.
However, Pauline got her way (and ultimately the house itself). Hemingway had started an affair with the writer Martha Gelhorn, and the two of them had met up in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. When Pauline caught wind of the tryst, she promptly had a over-sized pool built–at the cost of $20,000, two and half times the cost of the house.
When Hemingway returned he was none too pleased. In one gesture of comeuppance, he dragged a urinal from what was then Sloppy Joe’s (and is now Captain Tony’s) which had been thrown curbside during renovations, and brought it home as a watering trough for his many cats. As he told his wife, “you have your pool, and now I have mine.”
And it is the cats that retain their residency. Hemingway loved cats, particularly 6-fingered, “polydactyl” cats. He believed them to be good luck. There are countless photos of Hemingway with them–while he wrote and while he lounged. (Apparently, they were the only others who had access to his studio.) Today, all of the 48 or so cats on the property are descendants of Hemingway’s cats–and all of them carry the gene for the polydactyl mutation.
But after the cats and the pools and the writing studios, after the womanizing, the wives, and the bluster, after the houses and the legends and the suicide, what we are left with in the end is the writing. As I said earlier, it is pristine and clear and purposeful. Hemingway was a great reviser, mostly paring down and paring down to the very essence of what he wanted to say. As he famously told an interviewer, the hardest part is getting the words right:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)