Monday, February 18, 2013

Travels with Dad: Hemingway House

Today I'm going to take you on a virtual tour of the Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida. Of course, you can get a much better one here, but it won't be nearly as personal. Heh.

Key West is celebrating their *500th* anniversary. You read that correctly. The island was settled in 1513. Three-and-a-half centuries later a former ship captain-turned-merchant named Asa Tift built this home (in 1851). It has stood for more than 160 years with no hurricane damage. The reason? Asa built the walls out of 18" thick limestone blocks. He quarried the blocks from the property the house sits on. What did he do with the hole he made? Turned it into the only basement in Key West. And it's a dry basement. Why? Because Asa built this home on a "hill." The Hemingway House is a whopping 16 feet above sea level. The average for the rest of Key West is 5 feet above sea level.

The house was purchased by Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Pauline (nee Pfeffer), in 1931 by paying the $8,000 back taxes owed. By then the house needed major renovations and Pauline - a former fashion editor with Vogue magazine in Paris - undertook the task with relish. The first thing she did was get rid of all the ceiling fans. She thought they were tacky. And she replaced them with all manner of chandeliers. Some very fancy, some that looked like they belonged over a pool table.

The couple wanted a large bed, but in the '30s, the king-sized bed hadn't been invented yet. So they made one. Problem? No king-sized headboard. The couple solved the problem by adapting this piece you see here to the right ... it's the gate from a Spanish monastery.

During the renovation, they also added a second floor bathroom. The first one in Key West. They were able to do it by adding a pair of I-beams to the ceiling and putting a 500-gallon cistern on the roof to provide water for flushing and bathing. Worked great during the rainy season....

Hemingway was given a six-toed (polydactyl) cat by a local ship's captain, which he named "Snowball." There are now 45 cats on the property (all of whom are used to people and quietly oblivious of them), and all of the cats are supposedly descendents of Snowball. They are all six-toed cats or carry the six-toe gene. Toby here, is an example. He was asleep on the bed above as we walked through the room. You can see the sixth toe - it resembles a thumb - on his front left paw.

The cats are cared for extensively by staff and a local veterinarian. There is even a cat cemetery on the property.

In 1938, Hemingway went to Europe for 10 months, and Pauline decided to surprise him by putting in a pool. It was the only pool within 100 miles. The cost, however, was exorbitant. Pauline spent $20,000 on the project. When Hemingway came home, he angrily told Pauline, "You've taken all my money. You might as well get the last cent." And he took a penny out of his pocket and ground it into the still-wet cement. You can still see it there.

This final picture is, basically, of a urinal. A local bar was doing some renovations and Hemingway saw an old men's urinal laying there. He was struck by the idea that it would make an ideal watering trough for the burgeoning cat population on the property. Pauline was, needless to say, less than thrilled at finding a man's toilet in her backyard. So she tried to dress it up by adding colorful mosaic tile to the sides and capping it off with a large Spanish olive jar brought home from one of their trips abroad.

Hemingway divorced Pauline in 1940 and married journalist Martha Gellhorn. You may have seen this all detailed in the recent HBO special. The house remained in Pauline's care and when she passed in 1951, it reverted to the Hemingway family. When Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, the family put the estate up for sale and it came into the hands of the philanthropical organization that runs it as a tourist attraction today.

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