“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
Key West in July. An explosion of tropical colors, pastel bungalows, red flame trees arching over streets and gardenias perfuming the air. Breezeless air hangs heavy; the rhythms of the island, slow and sweat-drenched. I came to join in the Hemingway Days Festival, an annual summer celebration of the author’s larger-than-life persona. This is the time when white-bearded Papa Look-Alikes stroll the streets in safari dress or khaki shorts.
Hemingway first came to Key West in 1928, accompanied by his second wife, Pauline, to pick up a Model A Ford roadster, a wedding gift from her Uncle Gus. Its delivery was delayed several weeks, so the dealership invited the Hemingways to stay in an apartment above the showroom. He worked on A Farewell to Arms there and fell in love with the sleepy fishing village.
They returned in 1931, bought the house on Whitehead Street, and raised two sons. The great thing about the Hemingway House guides is that they tell tales. Some may be apocryphal, but they certainly jazz up the tour. Steve, our guide, blamed the stylish Pauline for our sweaty discomfort. She had all the ceiling fans removed and replaced with electric chandeliers crafted in Europe. With no central air and 20 tourists in our group, we relied on the sad upright fans in each room.
The second-floor balcony gave us a burst of fresh air and a look at the nearby lighthouse. In the 1930s, it offered a beacon to Hemingway whenever he emerged from a bar – Sloppy Joe’s was a favorite – and sloshed his way home. Joe Russell, the bar’s owner and Hemingway’s buddy, became outraged when his landlord raised rent a dollar per month. He and patrons ripped out sinks, urinals, whatever, before they vacated. One of those urinals, flipped on its side, now adorns the Hemingway garden, although Hemingway claimed to have no recollection of how it got there. Today it provides a fresh water bowl for the cats, but when the lovely Pauline first saw it, she protested. Her husband prevailed, arguing, “I passed a fortune through this urinal.”
Forty-four cats – that day’s count – trace their origins to Hemingway’s Snowball, a six-toed (polydactyl) gift from a sea captain. Females are allowed one litter before spaying. Only a few toms roam the property; the remaining males are neutered and serve as “consultants.” Half of all the kittens are born with the genetic polydactyl trait. Steve explained Hemingway believed the polydactyls brought good luck and, since he was accident prone, he needed a larger share of luck.
Pablo Picasso, knowing Hemingway’s fondness for cats, gave him an abstract ceramic cat in Paris. A reproduction sits on a cabinet in the upstairs bedroom because the original, from the 1920s, was stolen in 2000. The thief smashed the cat before being apprehended. Steve snarled that Key West’s old hanging tree still exists, and suggested that lynching would have provided a more suitable resolution than the burglar’s short jail stint. If rope were available to our tour group, I think a mob could have formed.
Hemingway called Key West home from 1931 until 1939 and wrote 70% of his work here, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The house’s interior reflects Pauline, but the second floor of the old carriage house, Hemingway’s writing study, pulls us into his world. Horned animal heads and fish hanging on the walls remind us of his passion for the outdoors. A small round table holding a typewriter anchors the room. The chair is the kind used by Cuban cigar makers. Visitors showed a greater solemnity in this room because miracles happened here.
Despite the heat, we regretted leaving the compound. The only thing to be done was cross the street to toast Papa, man and myth, with a cold mojito.
—Ann Marie Byrd