The Hype Also Rises

Clearly, the Hemingway House is a very profitable business. I estimated that on average some 1000 tourists per day went through the property. Thus more than a quarter-million people passed through the house each year, possibly more, since the place never closes. Admission is $6.50. Let's say tours bring in two to three million dollars in ticket sales, and more than a million in other revenues, such as the highly profitable gift shop. The Key West Citizen, the local daily, reported earlier this year that the operating budget was $2.4 million. This no doubt includes a substantial salary for the person operating the house, Mike Morawski (Dickson's nephew), and may include payments to partners in the business such as Morawski's sisters and mother. It wasn't surprising, then, that Morawski drove a new Jaguar convertible to work. Because his aunt had made a lucky, or perhaps canny, purchase nearly 40 years ago, he was getting rich off Hemingway's legacy.

So it made no sense to me that, with all the money available, greater efforts weren't made to check facts with scholars and Hemingway's sons. Couldn't the provenance of the furniture be established, for example? Couldn't a museum program director or Hemingway scholar be hired to script the tours accurately and to create a lecture program?

Hemingway's whole life was heavily mythologized. Even he perpetuated lies about himself, the most famous being his claims of front-line combat during World War I, when in fact he drove an ambulance for the American Red Cross. And people confuse him with characters in his books. Fans come to Key West in search of Harry Morgan from To Have and Have Not. They go to Pamplona, Spain, for the bullfights enjoyed by Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises. The white-bearded Papa is often seen as the aged fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. And to some extent, his devotees are right to make such assumptions. Hemingway lived an oversize life, and he drew from it for his fiction. He spent seven years in Paris and vacationed in Spain and the Swiss Alps. He fished in the Gulf Stream, lived in a mansion in Key West, hunted in Wyoming and Africa, worked as a war correspondent in Spain -- the list goes on and hardly needs embellishment.

His Key West years ended in 1939, when he moved to Havana. His marriage to Pauline was crumbling, and perhaps he was tired of the weight of being Papa in a tourist-filled town.

I know I found the tide of tourism difficult to deal with. Late in January I realized I had just about come to my breaking point. On a day not long after, with one tour left on my schedule, I went to my boss and told her I couldn't face another group. I walked along the path toward the rear gate to get my bike. It was leaning against a tree in a fenced-in area where the ground was covered with wood chips, a minefield of cat crap. A strong odor hung in the air. "How did Hemingway control the odor?" The honest answer: He didn't have to. He never had 50 cats in Key West.

I rode off breathing a little easier. It would take some time, but I felt confident that in six months or so -- maybe by August -- I'd be able to enjoy reading Hemingway again. That time is fast approaching, and I'm still here in this tourist haven now called Margaritaville. But these days I no longer ride by to touch the Hemingway House wall for luck. Papa didn't build it anyway. It was built in 1937 by his friend and assistant, Toby Bruce, while Hemingway was in Europe. I read that in a biography by Michael Reynolds.

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