Ernest Hemingway and Key West

If Ernest Hemingway were alive today, you’d probably find him hanging out at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West, Florida, recovering from a gigantic hangover after the 100th birthday bash the world celebrated in his honour last July. Or you might find him at his nearby home, boxing a few rounds with Shine, his favourite sparring mate.

Although the legendary author died in 1961, his fame – and notoriety – is very much alive. Indeed, as the century rushes to a close, many literary critics have gone as far as proclaiming Hemingway the greatest North American fiction writer of the 20th century. Need more convincing? Well, 38 years after Hemingway committed suicide at age 62, his books add $1.3 million annually to his estate’s coffers.

The Key West home he owned from 1931 until his passing is the most popular attraction in this off-beat, funky city at the end of the Florida Keys, the southernmost city in the U.S. The mansion (now a registered U.S. national historic landmark) – where he wrote many of his best known works, including A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Green Hills of Africa and To Have and Have Not – remains much as he left it. His genius was cognized in 1954 with the Nobel Prize for Literature, following the 1952 publication of his classic The Old Man and the Sea. It’s here Hemingway lived full-time before taking up residence in Cuba. He did, however, continue to visit the house right up until his death. Built of coral rock and white pine, the Spanish Colonial-style mansion has a wraparound veranda, arched windows, a fireplace and a herd of cats – the descendants of the author’s famed six-toed felines. It may be an historic landmark, but the live-in cats act as if they’re the real owners, lounging on the beds and sofas, eyeing the tourists haughtily as they troop past.

Built in 1851, the house was purchased for Hemingway and Pauline Pfieffer, his then wife, for $8,000 by Pauline’s wealthy uncle. (She continued to live in the house until her death in 1951.) While Hemingway was in Europe covering the Spanish Civil War, Pauline had a $20,000 swimming pool – the first in Key West – built beside the house. Upon his return he flew into a rage and threw a penny at her, shouting: “Here, you might as well take my last cent.” The flung penny was later cemented into the pool where it remains on display today. Many of the furnishings still in the home were of special importance to the Hemingways, including the 18th century Spanish furniture, Venetian-glass chandeliers, Cuban tiles, rattan sofas, African safari trophies, mounted heads of animals and fish, and an irreplaceable ceramic cat given to Hemingway by his friend, artist Pablo Picasso. Hemingway’s favourite Key West hangout was Sloppy Joe’s bar, where he and his drinking buddies were dubbed “The Mob.” There’s still a Sloppy Joe’s in the area but it’s not the original Hemingway hangout, which moved to larger quarters some years ago to capitalize on its fame. Everyone in “The Mob” had a nickname – Hemingway’s tag was “Papa,” a moniker which stayed with him until his death.

Key West itself is sassy and eccentric. In protest to the federal government, it seceded from the U.S. in 1982 and almost immediately declared war. It also just as quickly surrendered, and requested $1 million in foreign aid.

U.S. President Harry Truman was a fan of the region. Seeking a quiet place away from Washington where he could play poker with his buddies, he established his summer White House at the Key West naval base.

To this day, the island city of Key West is a great place to visit, with its palm-lined streets, Victorian homes and gingerbread houses. But beware – it has the highest cost of living in the U.S., and relies entirely upon tourism as its economic base. With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, visitors flock there to enjoy the fabulous weather, fine cuisine and pristine beaches. The best way for first-time visitors to see the city is on the enjoyable “Conch Tour Train,” in business for 25 years. The one-and-a-half-hour ride, which takes in 60 unusual and historic sites, runs at regular intervals throughout the day, every day of the year. The “Old Town Trolley Tours” also visit the city’s main sights.

Celebrated bird artist John Audubon also lived in Key West and a museum in his honour features many of his original drawings.