The Hype Also Rises

I shrugged. He said, "Pauline and Mary. Somewhere around here there's a photo of them together."

It only emphasized that all of us, tour guides included, shape reality to fit our world view. But at the Hemingway House, it all added up to scripted chaos. Who knew what to believe? And who believed what we were saying anyway?

Some of the guides liked to tell the story of Mary Hemingway's discovery of manuscripts in a safe after her husband's death. (The safe itself is now in the gift shop.) Inside was the manuscript for the novel Islands in the Stream, the tale went. All Mary had to do was add the title and it was ready to go to the printer. But in truth the book was written years after Hemingway left Key West and was kept in a safe deposit box at the National Bank of Cuba. Mary obtained permission from the Cuban government to remove it and other personal items after the revolution, according to scholar Norberto Fuentes.

I knew Hemingway wrote Islands in the Stream after he left Key West, but I didn't try to correct the other guides. To attempt that seemed overwhelming, a task better suited for a recognized Hemingway authority. Why make waves?

A major stop on the tour was the swimming pool. Pauline, wealthy in her own right, had it built for Hemingway. But for the sake of drama, few guides mentioned that fact. One guide explained it this way: "When Hemingway came home from Spain and found that the pool cost $20,000, he had a royal hissy fit. He took a penny out of his pocket and said, 'Woman, you've just about bankrupted me. You might as well have my last penny.' He threw the coin on the ground and stormed off to Sloppy Joe's. Pauline put a Plexiglas cover over it to save it -- and there it is."

It was around Thanksgiving that I began to lose perspective. Maybe because I was working the holiday for no extra pay. Maybe I was reeling from the misinformation disseminated at the Hemingway House. Maybe the thousands of tourists who went through the house each week -- some blank-faced and bored, others grumpy over the lengthy wait before their tour began -- were wearing me down. Maybe I was undone by the sickly cats. I asked for part-time hours.

Then just after Christmas, a sore throat caused me to miss a few days. The absence only served to increase my cynicism. I had lost all sight of Papa the writer, my hero. Each tour was a sideshow, and I began to revel in flights of goofy humor, such as saying that Hemingway played with a model of his fishing boat in the bathtub at night -- then admitting I was kidding. Occasionally I'd respond rudely to questions such as "Did Hemingway win the Nobel Prize for Moby-Dick?" Or "Is that cat one of Hemingway's cats?"

Most of the guides, myself included, didn't mention his suicide. Whether you did or not, every day someone new wanted to know the full details of how and why he died, so we constantly relived the images of Hemingway putting his favorite shotgun to his head and tripping the triggers. I still remember the woman who was in town for a conference on Buddhism. She took the tour and told me she had picked up dark, tormented spiritual vibes. Other patrons said they felt the house was haunted. Maybe I too was being brought down by the place.

One day I asked Larry, the oldest of the guides, if he thought our tours were an insult to Hemingway. He was offended. "No, not at all!" he replied. I asked if he thought they were accurate. "Yes, indeed. Very accurate indeed." But Hemingway's three sons -- John, born in 1923; Patrick, born in 1928; and Gregory, born in 1931 -- apparently disagree. Last year they made an effort to take control of the manner in which Hemingway is presented by organizations like the Hemingway House. For years Key West businesses such as Sloppy Joe's and the Hemingway House had made millions from often inaccurate presentations of their father's life, and the sons decided to try to gain some control over his image, and to share in the profits as well. They formed Hemingway Ltd. to copyright the Hemingway name and likeness, and in the spring of 1997 they demanded ten percent of the profits from the Hemingway Days festival. Moreover, they objected to the way the festival tended to emphasize the hard-drinking, hard-playing legend while placing lesser emphasis on his literary achievements. They also had similar complaints about the Hemingway House.

Unwilling to face a legal battle, Michael Whalton, founder and organizer of the festival, canceled it. However, in June 1997, the owners of the Hemingway House filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming a common-law trademark and stating that their use of the Hemingway image dated to at least 1965 and thus predated the formation of Hemingway Ltd. and the claims of the sons. Eventually the owners of the Hemingway House took over the festival and came to terms with Hemingway's sons. The details of the agreement have not been released, and perhaps the way that the Hemingway House guides and staff handle the legend is changing.

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