The Hype Also Rises

In the early Thirties the town was nearly bankrupt and barely surviving the Depression. By 1934 tourism appeared to be its salvation, and thus began a federally sponsored, large-scale clean-up program and PR campaign. Meanwhile, Hemingway's own fortunes had changed. When he first arrived in Key West in 1928, he was a moderately famous author after the publication two years earlier of The Sun Also Rises. He and his then-wife Pauline decided to settle in town.

Within a few years, he was the world-famous author of a best-selling wartime romance, A Farewell to Arms. Pauline's wealthy uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, bought the couple the large house, located at 907 Whitehead St. In 1934 Hemingway learned, to his dismay, that it was featured on a map of local tourist attractions. He wrote in Esquire: "The house at present occupied by your correspondent is listed as number eighteen in a compilation of the 48 things for a tourist to see in Key West." He went on to complain at length that he was distracted from his work. People walked by to gawk at him; some even rang the doorbell and asked to chat for a while. He was only in his thirties, but already people wanted to meet him and feel the magic.

I started work on Halloween 1997. That day went well for me; I was enthusiastic and my groups seemed to have a good time. Within a few weeks I began to hit my stride. Cute young tourists would ask me to pose with them for snapshots by the pool, and I felt like a minor celebrity myself. I even took several women I'd met at the house to the Half Shell Raw Bar for happy hour and showed them around town. I was expansive, ready to live large, the way Papa did.

Working seemed free and easy, one's fantasy of life in Key West. There were no strictly enforced rules, no dress codes, and no one looking over my shoulder. I wore shorts and T-shirts and didn't always shave. People sometimes said I looked as though I'd just rolled out of bed. But hey, that's what Hemingway did. He'd get up at the crack of dawn, walk across a catwalk from the second-floor bedroom to his writing study in the coach house, and proceed to work. Then he'd go around town looking like a bum, his pants held up with a hunk of rope tied outside the belt loops, his face unshaven and sunburned.

The chief concern was that we keep it clean; I'd heard about one guide who was fired for telling his groups that if they climbed to the top of the lighthouse across the street, they could look down at the nude men lounging around the pool of the gay guesthouse below.

The only requirement was that we stop at designated points throughout the house and grounds to present relevant tidbits of information. High points of the tour included the living and dining rooms, several upstairs bedrooms, his writing room, the pool, and a urinal that Hemingway had brought home from Sloppy Joe's and converted into a drinking fountain for his pets. The guides told Hemingway's purported story in their own words, embellishing favorite anecdotes and emphasizing those details most interesting to them, no matter how erroneous, insignificant, or apocryphal.

For the most part we enjoyed making our groups laugh. Humor is good because tourists can easily become bored and restless, ready to move on to tropical thrills elsewhere. What worked best was to play up the legend of Papa as party animal -- the brawling bear of a man who boxed and fished and made love to many women, and who drank with uncommon gusto. At the end of each tour we'd point out that the house has a basement, a rarity in the Keys. Some guides used these lines to get a laugh: "The basement made a great wine cellar. This worked out well because Pauline was a wine connoisseur and Hemingway was a wine consumer."

But that joke played on a false image of Hemingway as a heavy boozer in Key West. When he lived there, he was a youthful and hard-working writer, lean, athletic, and prolific. He was liked and respected in town -- hardly a drunk. In addition, I'd never read that Pauline was a wine connoisseur. If anything, her husband was the wine expert. But by repeating such fictions with group after group I was quickly growing as jaded as some of my cohorts. Since I didn't believe a good deal of what I said on the tour anyway, what was one more little half-truth, especially if it got a laugh?

Somehow cats and the Hemingway House have become inextricable. One of the first things guides are trained to say on every tour is "Here are two Lalique crystal cats that Pauline gave Ernest for one of his birthdays. There are between 50 and 60 cats living on the grounds now, just as there were when Hemingway lived here."

Many tourists have heard the myth of the six-toed Hemingway cats. One guide used to say, "It all began when Hemingway was sitting in Sloppy Joe's and a sea captain walked in with a six-toed cat under his arm. Hemingway admired the cat and bought the sea captain many drinks. By the end of the evening, Hemingway walked out with that six-toed cat under his arm. Now the descendants of that cat roam these grounds."

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