Ernest Hemingway’s famous Key West home offers an insight into the writer and his tumultuous life and loves
Story by Petti Fong, Vacay.ca editor
KEY WEST, FLORIDA – They were setting up for an elaborate wedding in the outdoor courtyard the day we visited Key West’s most famous house, a bit of irony for those who know the history of Ernest Hemingway’s many wives.
Hemingway was still married to his first wife Hadley Richardson when he began an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a Vogue writer. Pfeiffer became his second wife.
Pfeiffer’s uncle Gus Pfeifffer paid $8,000 in 1931 for the house as a wedding gift to the newlyweds as they resettled back in America.
It was a gift that paid off for Hemingway’s writing career.
He wrote some of his most famous works while huddled away in the studio of the house, including the short stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Death in the Afternoon” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Hemingway also worked on his novel To Have and Have Not here, a book about a small fishing boat captain name Harry Morgan in Depression-era Florida Keys who becomes entangled in dangerous smuggling interactions between the U.S. and Cuba.
That world of deep sea smuggling and fishing also became part of Hemingway’s world in Key West. The immersion into sport fishing also paid off. His love of fishing later manifested in Hemingway’s subsequent works, most notably The Old Man and the Sea.
The house, located at 907 Whitehead Street in the historic district known as Old Town in Key West, was Hemingway and Pfeiffer’s home until he went to report on the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
To exact her revenge after Hemingway became entangled with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who would become his third wife, Pfeiffer undertook a major renovation of the house on Whitehead Street.
It already was the first house in Key West to have indoor plumbing and the first to have running water in an upstairs bathroom, made possible in the two-storey house because of a rain cistern on the room. Pfeiffer wanted something to make the home even grander.
While Hemingway was away in Spain, Pfeiffer had the first swimming pool in Key West constructed on the property. It remained the only pool within 160 kilometres around and cost $20,000.
In today’s dollars, the pool, which is still on the grounds but not available to the public for a dip, would have cost the equivalent of about $350,000.
Hemingway’s response when he saw the elaborate pool and the toll it was taking on his bank account was to purportedly throw a penny down on the pool patio.
“You’ve spent all but my last penny,” he apparently told Pauline. “So you might as well have that!”
Visitors to the home can choose to believe the story or not. But what isn’t in doubt is there is a penny embedded in cement at the north end of the pool, the alleged penny Hemingway flung in his outburst.
Even after leaving Key West, Hemingway’s legacy, including the descendants of the six-toed cats that lived there during the author’s life, remains in this tropical Florida city.
David Gonzales, curator of the Hemingway House museum, says writers and artists still flock to Key West as Hemingway did back in the early 1930s.
“There’s a very creative energy that some feel on this island and Hemingway felt that energy initially and introduced other artists and poets to it.”
Twenty-eight Pulitzer Prize winning writers have called Key West home, more than any other city per capita. They include poets Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur. Playwright Tennessee Williams also made Key West his home for a period of time. But Key West remains Hemingway’s home, a place where the writer produced the works that made him famous around the world and cost him, ultimately, a wife. After their divorce, Pfeiffer remained in Key West until her death in 1951.
Getting there: It will take about four hours to drive to Key West from Miami to Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street.
From Miami (I 95 South turns into US 1) take US 1 south along the Florida Keys into Key West. US 1 is also called “Oversea Highway”. Upon entering the island of Key West at the fork continue to the right US1 as it enters Key West and is also called “North Roosevelt Blvd.” Continue on North Roosevelt which will turn into Truman Avenue. Continue on Truman to Whitehead Street (one block after Duval Street) and turn right onto Whitehead St., Key West Lighthouse will be on your right, ahead The Hemingway Home & Museum will be on your right with brick wall surrounding it.
Book a tour: For adults, general admission is $13 or $10.75 for group rate. Children 6-12 years pay $6 and those under 5 are free. Tours are 30-minutes guided tours that run continuously throughout the day.
Hours of Operation: 9am-5pm, 365 days a year, including all Holidays