In April of 1928, Ernest Hemingway first set foot in Key West, originally arriving to collect a Ford Roadster; a wedding gift from Pauline Hemingway’s wealthy uncle.
Location: 907 Whitehead St., Key West, FL 33040
Hours: 9:00am-5:00pm, 365 days a year
Admission: Adult $14 │ Child $6 │ 5 years old and under are free
- The tour is more fun if you do ten minutes of research on Hemingway. I recommend reading Hemingway’s Wikipedia page if you don’t know much about him. For more in-depth info, you should check out the book Hemingway’s Key West.
- The only book Hemingway wrote with a Florida / Key West setting is To Have and Have Not. It’s certainly not one of his best, but I am happy that we have a Hemingway Florida book.
As fate would have it, the car was slow in transit and hadn’t yet arrived. The Ford dealership insisted that Ernest and Pauline take accommodation in an apartment above the dealership. It would be three weeks before the car arrived, giving Ernest time to explore and fall in love with the island, and also to complete a novel called A Farewell to Arms.
While there, Ernest was introduced to the sport of big game fishing. Both Ernest and Pauline made lifetime friends and both of them fell for the island’s charm. The Hemingway’s spent two seasons in Key West before the same wealthy uncle bought them a house on Whitehead Street in 1931.
Constructing the Hemingway House
The Hemingway House was constructed in 1851 by Asa Tift, a ship architect and captain. The limestone used to build the house was directly taken from underneath it. The house is situated on the second highest point in Key West, 16 feet above sea level. Most likely, Tift used his 14 slaves to build the house. Tift lived in the house until his death in 1889.
The house was boarded up and eventually caught the attention of Ernest and Pauline. They purchased the house, with the help of their uncle, in 1931 for $8,000. Pauline moved in her furniture she collected while in Paris, including a chandelier collection, which replaced the entire house’s ceiling fans. Ernest furnished the house with a lot of 17th and 18th century Spanish pieces that he had collected.
One of the most impressive features of the Hemingway House is the pool in the backyard, a rarity for its time. Ernest planned the pool himself, but left the supervision to Pauline, as he was gone as a war correspondent for the Spanish Civil War. It cost $20,000 to complete…in 1938 dollars.
Legend has it that when Ernest returned from the war, he took a penny from his pocket and flung it in the air, saying, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!” The story goes Pauline snatched it from the air before it hit the ground and embedded it in cement at the north end of the pool. Nobody is sure if the story really is true, but if you visit, you certainly will see a penny embedded in cement beside the pool.
Near the other side of the pool can be found a urinal that has been converted into a fountain, a drunken Ernest once tore it out from a bar, carried it home, and threw it in the backyard. He told Pauline she can take it out when the pool is taken out. So she turned it into a fountain.
The pool sits at the current location where Ernest used to have his boxing ring set up, in which he would spar with local boxers and referee matches. And despite the stories, Ernest swam in and enjoyed the pool many evenings.
Cats, cats, cats
The story goes that one of Ernest’s sons ran an errand for a sea captain and was rewarded with a six-toed cat, which superstition says is lucky. His son brought the cat home to a pleased Ernest. The cat was named Snowball.
Visit today and you will see cats everywhere, many of them descendants of Snowball. There are about 50 cats at the house and about half of those have the polydactyl (six-toed) trait. The cats are named after famous people, and in the back gardens you can see some of the stone graves for the famous cats that have passed on.
Visiting the Hemingway House
Visiting the Hemingway House feels like visiting mecca for aspiring writers, knowing a legend walked those halls and penned The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, To Have And Have Not, and The Green Hills of Africa while living there.
Inside the house, visitors are greeted by Hemingway inspired art, notably paintings of marlins leaping out of the water, which Hemmingway loved to hunt for and which appeared in his famous novella The Old Man and the Sea.
Included with admission are tours that consistently run throughout the day. They start in that first room and are the best way to tour the house. The guides are knowledgeable of the house and Hemingway’s life and tell good stories.
Large industrial fans are set up all over the house to cool guests, as there is no air conditioning, and as noted before, Pauline replaced all the ceiling fans with chandeliers. I can’t imagine how hot and muggy the house must have been during the summer months.
The guide takes visitors to every room of the house, including the master bedroom and verandas. At the top of the main flight of stairs can be found a collection of some of Ernest’s books, which I found interesting. There are old copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a few books on hobbies that Ernest must have been curious about, such as an old book on photography.
Ernest’s writing desk is in a separate writing studio in the backyard which can be seen, but can’t be accessed. A typewriter is set on the desk. The tour lasts about 30 minutes, and afterwards you can explore the grounds yourself.
It is a grand day trip, one that will leave you aching to put pen to paper, or at least fingertip to keyboard.