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.
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."
It's true that the grounds are loaded with cats. About 50 live there full-time, and the guides are taught to say that they're all descendants of Hemingway cats. It sounds good, but there's no evidence to support the story. Hemingway might have owned a few cats while he lived in Key West. He also owned a few raccoons and peacocks. But it wasn't until he lived in Cuba that he had 50 cats, a fact documented by Miami-based Cuban scholar Norberto Fuentes, who wrote, "At one time he had 57 cats, most of whom lived on the first floor of the tower at Finca Vigia." And in fact, a long-time Key West resident told me that back in the Seventies, people who had cats they no longer wanted took them to the Hemingway House and tossed them over the six-foot brick wall, knowing the animals would be fed.
Several groundskeepers work daily to feed them and clean up after them, but even so, pungent odors were always wafting through the air. Some of the cats had mange. Others looked pretty ill, and tourists would occasionally accost me, saying we should be taking the animals to a vet rather than let them languish.
Most visitors, though, ignored the scruffy and sickly cats and cooed over the healthy ones, petting and photographing them. Though they weren't allowed in the house, one big yellow cat always sneaked into Hemingway's bedroom and slept on the bed. Every time I led a group into that room, people would whip out their cameras and begin taking pictures of him. Once as I brought a group in, the cat began dragging his posterior across the white bedspread in a manner that suggested a bad case of worms. The tourists laughed but no one took pictures.
Of course, if you wanted to get full-color, extremely cute cat pictures, you could go to the gift shop and buy a book co-written by Linda, the manager. Pictures of cats are also found on T-shirts, mugs, scented candles, art objects, and magnets, all bearing the words "Hemingway House."
The tourists often asked inane questions about the cats. "How did Hemingway control the cat odor?" one man asked me. "Where do they give birth?" a woman asked. "Who feeds the cats?" was a question I was asked several times a day, slowly eroding my desire to have anything to do with the bogus legends promoted by the Hemingway House. I could never bring myself to tell the cat stories. But I heard them often.
One day I ran into a local author, one of the founders of Key West's prestigious annual literary seminar that takes place in January. When I mentioned that I was working as a guide at the Hemingway House, he became irate. "They lie," he said. "It's not about literature." And I had to agree.
The tour, for example, includes a visit to Hemingway's study in the old coach house. It's well known that Hemingway wrote in the early morning. He was also an insomniac. He'd get up very early, often at sunrise, get to work, then go fishing in the afternoons. Yet depending on the guide, groups heard various stories. One would say Hemingway usually awoke around nine, and after breakfast in bed with Pauline he'd cross the catwalk to his writing room. Another would say he worked until noon, then went fishing. Yet another said he wrote 500 or 600 words, then went fishing and usually ended up Sloppy Joe's. The Maestro liked to say he wrote in an uncomfortable chair so he wouldn't fall asleep.
A few of the guides just couldn't help themselves. I remember the relentless fibber, for example. Mention nuclear physics and she'd tell you about her friend Albert Einstein. Mention any city in the world and she'd been there. Somehow she was an expert in nearly every field and had made a fortune in each. Why then was she working at the Hemingway House? I guessed it gave her a place to practice her favorite activity -- telling tall tales, something Hemingway himself indulged in.
For a time, a fun-loving guide named Eddie grew out his white beard and became a Hemingway look-alike. It was as though Papa himself were leading the tours. By the time I worked there, he'd gotten rid of the beard and always dashed off when he finished his tour, apparently having tired of tourists' questions and attention. Another co-worker, a tall, lanky fellow with shoulder-length gray hair, showed up occasionally in a miniskirt, sporting huge fake breasts under a skintight tank top. On Halloween he worked in drag. Between tours he invariably scribbled notes on tiny scraps of paper. He was working on a book about freedom in society, he said.
Hemingway's gender-bending sexual fantasies, disclosed in his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, were a source of much speculation. Tourists asked, "He was quite the womanizer, wasn't he? Four wives and many mistresses. But wasn't he AC/DC?" When I first began leading groups, a gay guide insisted, "Hemingway was gay. He had an experience as a young man in Europe, and it scared him so much he ran from it for the rest of his life. He overcompensated by being a macho bully. Guess which of his wives slept together?"
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.
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?
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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.