Last week we returned home from a vacation that included our first trip to Key West. I have to say, I loved it! Not only was it much warmer than at home (where snow continues to fall, despite the fact that March has changed to April) but the laid-back island life was a whole different world; different, even, than the rest of south Florida. My favorite was our tour of Hemingway’s house.
It was his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer who made the house a home, decorating it with antiques and trophies from their travel adventures. She oversaw the planting of palms, tropical flowers, bushes, and trees. I can only imagine that if it wasn’t for her the house would have been run down, furnished with old but serviceable furniture, and the only thing in the kitchen would have been a well-stocked supply of liquor for when he wasn’t imbibing with the locals down at Sloppy Joe’s. It’s unlikely it would have been his home at all if it wasn’t for Pauline. It was her uncle who purchased it as a gift for them in 1931 at the cost of $8,000. The initial plan was to stay on the island for six weeks, but Hemingway fell in love with the characters who lived there, making life-long friends with George Brooks, Charles Thompson, Captain “Bra” Saunders (the model for The Old Man And The Sea), and Sloppy Joe Russell. Except for a few trips to Cuba and Spain, Hemingway lived there until their divorce in 1940. Pauline stayed in the house until her death in 1951, at which time their two sons took over ownership.
Hemingway loved the island life. His writing studio was on the second floor of the carriage house. He wrote all his best-selling novels in that studio during the brief time he lived in Key West. He liked to write in the mornings. He’d start at 6am and wrote until noon, 2pm if the writing was going well, and averaged 300-700 words a day. He loved to deep sea fish in the afternoon and in the evening, of course, he could often be found at such local haunts as Sloppy Joe’s drinking with his friends into the night. He wore old cut-off pants held up by a piece of rope when he was out about the town. He had a boxing ring set-up in his backyard and paid local boxers to spar with him. Before Pauline built the pool, he swam in the waters near the old naval base.
While Hemingway was assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War in 1937-1938, Pauline had his boxing ring removed and a salt water pool built in its place. This would be the first swimming pool on Key West because the difficulty of building one made them cost prohibitive. (They also have one of the only basements, which proved to be a great cool place to store his liquor.) When Pauline initially discussed this with her husband his answer was an emphatic no; and when he returned from Spain to find she’d done it anyway, removing his beloved boxing ring, and at a cost of $20,000, he exploded with rage. He yelled, “You may as well take my last penny too,” and threw one at her. Pauline kept that penny and had it cemented into the tiles by the side of the pool, where she enjoyed telling the story to any and all who asked. It’s still there.
Hemingway was equally as underhanded in his response to Pauline’s pool. His favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, was being forced to move when the building landlord raised the rent. Joe Russell decided everything, including the fixtures, was rightfully his. When Hemingway arrived to find the men’s urinals standing all in a row against the wall he asked his friend why. His response to Joe’s explanation was that he felt he rightfully owned one of them because of all the money he’d poured down them over the years. His friend agreed. How Hemingway got it home that night I don’t know but when Pauline woke the next morning to find a urinal in her garden she was outraged and told her husband to have it removed immediately. He agreed to remove the urinal as soon as she removed the pool. The urinal remains to this day. Pauline tried to pretty it up with decorative tiles and bought an antique Spanish olive jar to act as a fountain.
You can’t talk about Hemingway’s house without talking about the cats. He loved cats and was enthralled by his friend the captain’s six-toed (polydactyl) cat. The captain gave the cat to Hemingway as a gift and dozens of the cat’s descendents can still be seen wandering the grounds. They’re accustomed to the many visitors that walk through every day, taking their picture, and just go about their own island life.
For more pictures and details, check out their website at https://www.hemingwayhome.com. And if you find yourself on the Keys, be sure and stop in and see for yourself. And after, check out Mallory Square for the nightly sunset festival; or, better yet, take a sunset cruise.