The Hype Also Rises

If you dream of the high-bohemian version of the writer's life, slip on your safari jacket, polish your daiquiri glass, grab your fishing gear, and come on down to Key West for Hemingway Days, which start this Friday, July 17. You can enjoy ten days of the legend -- fishing, drinking at Sloppy Joe's, even writing a short story or two. You can take part in arm-wrestling contests, golf tournaments, painted-car parades, and a dozen other things Hemingway never did here or anywhere else. It's a lot of fun if you can ignore the fact that, aside from his books, the most substantial thing Ernest Hemingway left behind in Key West is the legend of a deity called "Papa," now worth millions to a few lucky individuals, such as those who own the Hemingway House.

Hemingway's short stories were a revelation when I read them in my twenties. They changed my outlook on life, in fact. After reading his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, I decided to write novels myself. So when I first visited Key West in 1989, I eagerly took the tour of the house he lived in from 1931 until 1939: an expansive, two-story place with broad verandas on both floors. Located on a large lot, it features beautiful subtropical gardens, a large saltwater swimming pool, and wide green lawns scattered with wood-chip paths laid out for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the commercially operated museum each year. In one of the gardens, I picked up a small stone as a Hemingway talisman of my own, a good-luck charm to help me succeed as a novelist.

In the mid-Nineties I lived in Key West and often rode by the house on my bike. I'd touch the brick wall that surrounds the property for more good luck. I believed that Hemingway himself had built the wall, just as the tour guide had said. Then last fall, after two years "off the rock," I moved back to town and began looking for work. Key West had grown more touristy than ever, and I answered ads for jobs such as selling whale art at the Wyland Gallery and vacation condo time-shares for Hyatt. Then I saw an ad for an opening in the bookstore of a house museum. There are other house museums in Key West, but only the Hemingway House calls its gift shop a bookstore.

Using all the pull I could muster, I secured an interview with Linda, the manager. We got along well, though I was a little distracted by her deep, throaty voice -- the result, other employees told me later, of having given too many tours for too many years. Linda told me the bookstore job had been filled but that she was looking for guides. I replied that I was a big fan of Hemingway, had read several books about his life, and enjoyed talking to groups of people.

I would never have imagined, twenty years earlier, that instead of hobnobbing with fellow writers at the Paris Ritz, I might be leading tourists around Hemingway's old house. But when Linda offered me a job the following week, I was delighted. I didn't expect to earn much, but I thought I'd have fun. What could be better than talking to people about one of my favorite writers? I'd show them around his home and have occasional literary conversations about his books. In theory it all sounded fine.

My training materials consisted of a couple of typed pages, a scripted tour that had been compiled from those given by various guides over the years. It included details about Papa, the house and its furnishings, and the grounds. Having read several Hemingway biographies, I suspected that no serious Hemingway scholar, much less his three sons, had verified the text. But I dismissed such thoughts in the excitement of my new venture.

I also trained by listening to other guides as they led groups through the property. There were eight guides on staff; six worked on any given day. A few, such as Eric, a trained actor I began calling Maestro, were very entertaining; others were curt, even dour in their presentations. "I actually despise Hemingway as a man, and his books," one later confessed to me. "But I don't say that. I just present the facts."

But that was the problem at Hemingway House -- and why I slowly lost it over the next few months. No one seemed to know the facts. Histories and anecdotes were as varied as the guides who told them, and the Hemingway House management seemed either oblivious to or unconcerned with the misrepresentations and outright fabrications that passed as fact.

The house was bought by a local businesswoman, Bernice Dickson, from Hemingway's widow Mary after his death in 1961. Dickson soon opened the place for tours. When she died, her sister and her sister's children inherited the property. They now run the house, the gift shop, and, as of 1997, the Hemingway Days festival as well, taking a lion's share of the many tourist dollars generated in Key West by the Hemingway legend.

I intended to at least brush up on the man's life and be prepared for questions, so I dropped by the Key West library to look through some articles and books about Hemingway. It was there that I discovered his own humorous account, written for Esquire in 1935, when he found himself an unwilling but central figure in Key West's tourism industry.

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