Sunday, February 12, 2017

Florida Keys, Part IV:
Ernest Hemingway house is worth the tour

When Lee Ann and I arrived at Ernest Hemingway's house and museum around 5:30 p.m. the night of Jan. 17, and we realized that the attraction had closed for the day a half-hour earliar, I knew I'd have to come back. I was a career journalist, and out of all of Key West's attractions, I wanted to explore Hemingway's house foremost.

On Thursday, Jan. 19, we made a point of setting out for Key West several hours earlier in the day, and it made a difference. We accomplished a lot more than we had two days earlier. Tuesday's trip had been leisurely; we had been "assessing the situation," as the saying goes. Thursday we were mostly all business (sprinkling in lots of fun along the way, of course). What's more, we got over to Mallory Square, on the opposite side of the island (from where Hemingway's house, the Key West Lighthouse and the southern-most point on the continental United States were located), in plenty of time to photograph the sunset. Missions accomplished!

Hence, the Jan. 19 trip to Key West will be broken into several posts, this being the first. I'll also devote one to our visits to the lighthouse tour and southern-most point, another to Mallory Square and the sunset, and possibly another to everything else (this latter one is in a state of flux).

The Hemingway house tour is worth the $14 cash-only admission (no senior or military discounts offered) for a several reasons. One is that you get access to everything on the grounds, with one important qualification. "Access" to the upper-floor carriage house that Hemingway used as his writing studio is limited. You can peer into the room from the doorway, which enables you to see his desk and typewriter, as depicted in the photo leading off the post. But a velvet rope stops you from entering. The photo at left is a closeup of the typewriter, taken at maximum zoom (300mm) on my Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di PZD VC lens.

Thus, only two or three people can actually appreciate the sight at a time, standing at the rope. Museum operators don't want folks trampling through the room.

Another reason the tour is worthwhile is that a tour guides provides good information about the house and Hemingway family,
including the story about his six-toed cats and their descendants, many of which still roam the grounds. (If you look at my Hemingway house picture in yesterday's post, you can see a couple of cats in the foreground). The two photos you see here were my best chance at a closeup of one of the cats' toes. After shooting the full-cat and paw shots, I moved delicately to my right to see if I could face the cat squarely for a closeup of all of a paw's toes/claws ... but the cat bolted. So, I failed in documenting that fact, but hey, being wickedly allergic to cat dander, I think I soldiered pretty well to at least try for it, all things considered!

And thirdly, there are no photograph restrictions on visitors. The tour guide simply asks that visitors wait until after the tour to do their photography so as not to interfere with the guide's movements and/or with the sight lines and attention of people taking the tour, which I thought was a perfectly reasonable request.

Here's a quick run through some of the more important facts about the house. The French Colonial style residence at the corner of Whitehead and Olivia streets was built in 1851 and designed by marine architect Asa Tift, whose image and biography (right) is presented in a display in the house.

Tift picked the highest available spot on the island -- 16 feet above sea level, which also happened to be the second-highest point on Key West (the highest, at 17 feet, our guide told us, is in one of the cemeteries).  It was built, including a full basement, with extremely thick walls and foundation using limestone mined from the quarry on which it was built. The walls' thickness is substantial enough to have prevented any flooding or structural damage from the sundry hurricanes and/or tropical storms that have hit the Keys through the years.

Hemingway lived in the house only for nine years, but he held onto its title until his death. Only one of his four wives, Pauline Pfeiffer, lived there with him, and it was her uncle who bought the home for the couple in late 1931 for $8,000. Ernest and Pauline were divorced in 1940, not long after he moved to Cuba, where his third wife, Martha, would join him. the Key West residence was sold by the Hemingway family for $80,000 shortly after Ernest committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, in July 1961.

While Hemingway was out of the country in the early 1930s, Pauline had a pool installed in front of the carriage house (Hemingway writing studio). When Hemingway returned and saw the pool, he was not pleased. He asked his wife how much it cost, and after she responded, he derisively tossed a penny at her as a way of showing that her decision had drained him financially. The pool continues to be maintained, and the penny is encased in a square in the concrete walkway near the pool, very close to the carriage house.

Early in his years at the home, Hemingway had a 6-foot-tall brick wall built along the property's borders to keep away tourists and local gawkers. At some point, another foot and a half of wire was installed on top of the bricks.

The books Hemingway wrote while living in Key West were "Death in the Afternoon" (1932); "Winner Take Nothing" (1933), a collection of short stories; "Green Hills of Africa" (1935); "To Have and Have Not" (1937); "The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories" (1938) and probably most of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1940).

Photo geek stuff: Everything in this post was taken with my Canon 6D equipped with a Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di PZD VC lens. Most outdoor shots were taken with a 67mm B&W polarizing filter, which I ceased using near dusk. I bracketed most compositions for three exposures that I processed in Photomatix high-dynamic range (HDR) software.

And as usual, if you'd like to see a larger, sharper version of an image, click on the image. This is particularly important if you access the blog using a mobile device. I've devoted a full gallery to my shots at the Hemingway house; to view all of those, visit my site at

Above: A view of the southeast side of the house overlooking the yard, the view Hemingway had from the balcony outside his bedroom.

The pool (above) that Hemingway's wife Pauline had built in front of the carriage house while Hemingway was out of the country in the early 1930s, and the penny (below) Hemingway threw at her mockingly when he found out about it upon his return. The penny is preserved in an encasement embedded in the plaza at the end closest to the viewer in the picture above. 

Above: The grounds have a heavy amount of green landscaping and foliage.

Above: Agnes von Kurowsky Standfield was Hemingway's first love. She was an American and Red Cross nurse who tended to Hemingway in Milan, Italy, while the writer recovered from injuries suffered in World War I. They had promised to marry, but after Hemingway had returned to the United States after the war, Kurowsky wrote to him to say she had become engaged to an Italian officer (she would not marry him, either). Our guide told us it was likely that Hemingway left all of his wives first because he never again wanted to be jilted or rejected by another lover. It is believed that Kurowsky, who died in 1984 at the age of 92, inspired the character of nurse Catherine Barkley in Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms.' 

Hemingway's bed (above) on which lay two of the descendant cats (below). 

Hemingway's bedroom had glass doors that opened to a wide balcony (above) overlooking the southeast side of his property (below). 

Above: A piece of wooden sculpture in his bedroom. I don't know if this was authentic to the period, but given that Hemingway made at least two safaris to Africa, it's possible it is something he brought back. 

On the ground level, the main room (parlor), above, is to the left as you enter the house, and the dining room (below) is to the left. 

Above: A closeup of the wall display at the end of the parlor pictured two photos above this. 

Above and next two below: These are samples of the many wall photos and displays visitors will find throughout the house. I have many more of these in pictures at the full gallery at The ones above feature actress Ingrid Bergman, whom Hemingway strongly lobbied for (successfully) to play the role of Maria in the motion picture adaptation of his "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943). She received a best actress Academy Award nomination for the performance.  

The kitchen (above) and a bench (below) whose back support, if I remember the guide's information correctly, was crafted from the head board of a bed frame.

Above: Stairs to the upper level. 

A tub in one bathroom (above), and a mostly full-view shot of another bathroom (below).

Above: Another piece of artwork in the house. I'm not positive where in the house I found this, but it might have been in the bathroom with the tub pictured two photos above. 

Up next: Key West Lighthouse and the southern-most point

Previous posts in this series:

Part I: Not bad for 'almost paradise'

Part II: Sombrero Beach strikingly beautiful

Part III: Key West packed with sights and attractions

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