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A Key West Must-See: the Unforgettable Hemingway House

There’s one island I can’t get off my mind. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been, how many walks I’ve taken through its streets, or how many rum cocktails I’ve sipped there after sunset...I never get tired of it. Which tropical isle am I talking about? It's Key West, of course.

(Hemingway House in Key West, Florida. Photo by Eric Salard, Flickr.)

From my first visit at the age of 14 to our recent island runaway last summer, Key West continues to lure both Zickie and me to walk its tree-lined streets and explore its louche bars. It’s a quirky, eccentric kind of town, brimming with history and artistic mystique. And one place in Key West that I never get tired of visiting is the Hemingway house. Or, to give it its complete name, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, which is located on Whitehead Street, just one block off buzzing Duval but practically in its own special universe.

(A guide inside the Hemingway Home. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)

I’m not sure how many times I’ve gone on the tour here. Five, possibly six? It's enough so that I remember many of the stories the guides recount about this Nobel Prize winning writer, big-game hunter, and war-time correspondent. A larger-than-life character, Hemingway found his perfect refuge in Key West, where he could write in the mornings and fish away the afternoons…and drink with friends like barkeep Sloppy Joe Russell all night.

The Hemingway house itself was built in 1851, and doesn’t look like the typical Key West Victorian with their charming gingerbread trim and shutters. Its style owes more to New Orleans, particularly the iron railings on the upstairs veranda. Ernest Hemingway purchased the house and moved in with his wife Pauline in 1931. The famous author wrote To Have and Have Not and Green Hills of Africa in the second story writing studio out back.

(Ernest Hemingway's study with his typewriter. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)

When I go on the tour, we always start in the parlor, where there’s a replica of Hemingway’s beloved boat the Pilar. Then the guide leads you into a next room lined with photographs. The tour doesn’t just focus on a house: you learn about Hemingway, both the artist and the man. Has any writer led a more colorful life? Or had wilder adventures? Or married more women? Most writers (and I can say this, since I am one) aren’t all that exciting; we sit at our desks, using pen and paper, typewriter, or computer, obsessing over commas, rewording sentences, and finessing paragraphs in absolute solitude. It outwardly appears pretty tame. But “Hem,” as some friends called him, was different.

He not only wrote the novel The Sun Also Rises, with its bullfighting and scandalous lady aristocrat, he also really lived. Maybe that’s why I never grow tried of walking through his house, or going on the tour. Room after room reminds you that he didn’t do anything halfway. His bed? Brought back from Spain, fashioned from a gate.

(The guide discussing Hemingway's bed. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

His cellar? The only one of its kind in Key West. (The water table is generally too high for homes to have cellars.) His cats? They had six toes; their descendants still roam the grounds. (And these are incredibly well cared for felines.)

(One of the six toed cats getting a treat. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

His pool? His wife put it in at the shocking expense of $10,000 (truly an enormous sum in that day and age). He grumpily protested, but still enjoyed many a swim there.

(One pricey pool. Photo (c) Zickie Allgrove.)

His fountain? A discarded urinal from Sloppy Joe’s bar. He was not content to live in a quiet, beige world. Back in those days, Key West was a down-at-heels town of outlaws and sailors, far away from “civilization” and Hemingway, with his flamboyance and gusto, fit right in. In fact, his life was so entertaining that sometimes you can almost forget his outsized talent. (Then you pick up a copy of A Moveable Feast and read the first line…)

Perhaps most of us don't live extravagantly dramatic lives like Hemingway, but for the span of an afternoon tour in Key West, we get to peek inside the private world of a fascinating writer and wonder...what it would be like.

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