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Papa & Pauline's Place

by Janet Groene

IF YOU'RE A LITERARY BUFF so much the better, but you don’t have to read Hemingway to groove to a guided tour of one of Key West’s oldest and most interesting historic treasures. The next time you kick back in the Keys, put Papa on your to-do list.

Any story about Key West must begin with the warning that driving there can be cumbersome and parking impossible. Thanks to the air-conditioned, sea-kindly, high-speed boat that whisks passengers from Fort Myers Beach to Key West in 31/2 hours, there’s also the choice of boating both ways or boating down and flying back. What with dolphin watching and other pleasures of a sea voyage, going to Key West by boat adds an entirely new dimension for even the most jaded Keys regulars.

The house that today is the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum was built in 1851 for Asa Tift, Key West’s wealthy shipwreck king. Much of it is original and, as time continues to prove, virtually hurricane proof. When you tour the island’s Shipwreck Museum you’ll meet “Tift “ himself.

Dressed in period costume he’ll tell you about the days when ships wrecked on the long reefs that stretch along the Keys’ coastline. After rescuing survivors, wreckers could help themselves to rich cargoes, making Key West for a time the wealthiest city in the United States. Tift’s spacious home, built on one of the highest spots on the key, is surrounded by lush and lovely grounds and overlooks the majestic Key West Lighthouse.
Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Pauline (the second of his four wives) moved to the house in 1931. She proceeded to furnish it with fashionable things bought in Paris while he worked on books including Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, To Have And Have Not, For Whom The Bell Tolls and short stories including ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’ His upstairs studio is much as he left it, complete with battered typewriter, bookshelves, and his special seat. It’s a unique, cigar roller’s chair brought from his beloved Cuba.

Thanks to knowledgeable guides who dish on Hemingway’s rocky private life, visitors get all the juicy gossip about the stormy marriage and its bitter breakup. You’ll see Ernest’s ‘last penny’, bedded in the patio after Pauline took him to the cleaners in their divorce, and the saloon urinal that Ernest passed off on his unsuspecting wife as a planter. You’ll hear how he and his cronies snuck in and drank up the entire contents of a priceless wine cellar, replacing corks so Pauline wouldn’t discover the theft until long after he had moved out.

Furnishings reflect the Hemingway lifestyle. Visitors can imagine intimate dinners with friends at the 18th century Spanish table while a fire crackles in the dining room fireplace. Crockery collected in Europe by Pauline still sits in the butler’s pantry. In the living room, guests ranging from international glitterati to crusty, Key West fisherfolk chatted while surrounded by works of art.

Throughout the house see photographs of Hemingway’s friends, boat, and of himself as a wounded war hero. One lithograph shows his friend Gregorio Fuentes, cook and mate on board Hemingway’s boat Pilar. Some say Fuentes was the author’s model for the Old Man and the Sea. To see a full-size replica of that boat, by the way, stop at the Bass Pro Shop in Islamorada.

Upstairs, see Hemingway’s bedroom and, over the bed, one of the chandeliers Pauline had added. Much to the discomfort of today’s visitors she replaced all the home’s ceiling fans with what she considered the latest fashion in lighting decor. Now the depression-era chandeliers are merely dated and declassé, monuments to the tastes of a bygone time.

Hemingway’s two sons by Pauline were raised in the Key West house and you’ll see their bedrooms as well as the nursemaid’s room. Don’t miss the photo of Ernest in his World War I uniform. He was wounded in Italy, fell in love with his nurse and is said to have modeled a character after her in A Farewell to Arms. Throughout the home and grounds you’ll also see dozens of cats. They are descended from cats owned by the Hemingways, clearly identified because of a genetic fluke that gives them six toes.

‘Papa’Hemingway fled Key West for Cuba and went on to acquire Wife #3, leaving Pauline in possession of the Tift house. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the confiscation by Castro of his holdings there, Papa went to Ketchum, Idaho, where he took his own life in 1961 and left Wife #4 a widow. When Pauline died in 1951, the Key West house was rented fully furnished until Ernest’s death, when his estate sold the house to Key West businesswoman Bernice Dickson. She opened it as a museum in 1964 and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968. It is still owned by Mrs. Dickson’s family.

Driving down? Key West is a tiny island and its narrow streets were laid out in the horse-and-buggy era. A new bridge from the mainland to Key Largo eases congestion as you enter the Keys but the 100-mile-long drive can be slow because of many long no-passing zones. Relax and enjoy the view of the shining Atlantic on one side while Florida Bay and its green mangrove islands slip by on the other.

Along the way, stop at the Rain Barrel to see local crafters, Theater of the Sea for a nature walk, the History of Diving Museum at Islamorada and many other points of interest. Once checked into one of Key West’s hotels or B&B’s it’s best to see the city on foot. City bus transportation is good and the trolley tour allows visitors to get off and on at points of interest all day.

For more information about the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, call 800-FLA-KEYS. Reservations for the Key West Express must be made 24 hours in advance—call 888-539-2628 for information. •

from the January-February 2009 issue

Hemingway's studio is much as he left it, with his special seat, a cigar roller's chair brought from Cuba.

Throughout the home and grounds you'll see several dozen cats, descendants of a six-toed cat given to the Hemingways as a gift.