What a singularly unpleasant man Ernest Hemingway could be. Even the earthly paradise of Key West in the 1930s sometimes made him grouchy as a spiny blowfish and was an occasion for him to spew off a bit at Sloppy Joe's bar and in the pages of the nation's periodicals.
"It's the St. Tropez of the poor," he once called Key West. This backhanded compliment from a man who was provided (largely through the finanical largesse of his second wife Pauline and her uncle) an ideal spot for writing, fishing, drinking, slumming and, as it turned out, third-wife hunting before his 30th birthday. A visitor who comes to visit the Hemingway House has a perfect opportunity to imagine the pleasures of "old Key West" and may wonder how Hemingway could have said a single mean word about the place.
Happily, his descriptions of the place in his fictional work -- especially in "To Have and Have Not" -- are more generous and true to an island and a period that most certainly deserved an adept chronicler. In "To Have and Have Not," Hemingway writes in affectionate detail of "the dark blue Gulf water," the creaky fishing boats, the rum-runners and immigrant smugglers, the "schools of small fish, about two inches long, oval-shaped, golden-colored, with faint purple stripes." By all accounts, Hemingway's depiction of the island's rakish spirit is keen, even if the story is not.
Key West was good to Hemingway. He wrote nearly three-quarters of his published work there, and his eccentricities were regarded with tolerance. Hemingway caused no great outrage when he became the first man on the island to build a swimming pool and, as legend has it, wear short pants.
After publishing his first novel, "The Sun Also Rises," in the late 1920s, Hemingway and Pauline grew tired of Paris. (Tired of Paris! It's true; Carlos Baker's definitive biography says so.) John Dos Passos had recommended the island and the road south along the keys as a "dreamlike crossing." The Hemingways took a slightly different route. They left France in the spring of 1928 on the Royal Mail Packet "Orita" and made the 18-day voyage to Cuba. From there it was a 90-mile ferry ride to Key West, the southernmost point in the United States. Pauline's Uncle Gus Pfieffer made their arrival quite easy. He showed them around the island and provided the couple with a new yellow Ford runabout.
Uncle Gus was a fairly wealthy man and a generous one. With his help, the Hemingways found a grand, two-tiered home at 907 Whitehead St. made of coral stone quarried on the property. Asa Tift, a shipping magnate with a fine sense of design, built the house in 1851, but it had gone to seed and was long vacant. The city required $6,300 in back taxes plus another $2,000 for the house, and generous Gus was obliging as ever. (The house was sold to Bernice Dickson after Hemingway's death in 1961 for $80,000.) While Pauline had the house refurbished -- replacing paddle fans with French chandeliers and straw with fine rugs -- Hemingway wrote in the mornings and went exploring through the mangroves or fishing with his cronies aboard the mahogany boat Pilar in the afternoons.
Hemingway met Martha Gellhorn in Key West. Eventually he fell in love with her, divorced Pauline and, in 1939, made Cuba his base. But until then, Hemingway thrived on Key West. He was at the peak of his powers, writing "Death in the Afternoon," "The Green Hills of Africa," much of "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Fifth Column," numerous stories, including "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," and the Key West novel, "To Have and Have Not." He used a cool, roomy pool house as his study and worked there sitting in a cigarmaker's chair before a small gate-leg writing table. He was a slow, careful worker who would chart his daily progress: 500 handwritten words comprised a robust day. When his morning's labor was done, Hemingway went off to slaughter sea beasts with his buddies.When it grew too hot and humid to work and fish in Key West, the Hemingways picked up and went off for the summer to Africa or Wyoming to work and level beasts of the land.
And still Hemingway could whine -- as he did in "The Sights of Whitehead Street: A Key West Letter," which appeared in Esquire in April 1935:
"The house at present occupied by your correspondent is listed at number eighteen in a compilation of the forty-eight things for a tourist to see in Key West. So there will be no difficulty in a tourist finding it or any other of the sights of the city, a map has been prepared by the local authorties to be presented to each arriving visitor. Your correspondent is a modest and retiring chap with no desire to compete with the Sponge Lofts (number 13 of the sights), the Turtle Crawl (number 3 on the map), the Ice Factory (number 4), the Tropical Open Air Aquarium containing the 627 pound jewfish (number 9) or the Monroe County Courthouse (number 14) . . .
"This is all very flattering to the easily bloated ego of your correspondent but very hard on production. To discourage visitors while he is at work your correspondent has hired an ancient Negro who appears to be the victim of an odd disease resembling leprosy who meets visitors at the gate and says, 'I'se Mr. Hemingway and I'se crazy about you.' "
Lovely stuff. Be kind, if you can. Blame it on the era that Hemingway wrote his satire and self-promotion in such a bigoted, self-satisfied way. Be kind, or, perhaps, blind.
It's reverence, or at least a desire to rub literary shoulders with one of the century's foremost novelists and personalities, that brings one to visit Hemingway's house on Key West. You come to the house on Whitehead Street not only to breathe the Hemingway air and meet the six-toed cats that slink through every room of his house, but also to get a sense of the island's grandeur in decades past.
It can be hard to find that grandeur. Beautiful as it is, Key West has become not so much the "St. Tropez of the poor" as the South Hampton of the south. Beautiful but on the brink of overpopulation. Even Tennessee Williams, one of the island's most unquestioning boosters before his death last year, admitted Key West has suffered some decline since he moved there in 1941. One end of the island is lined with Holiday Inns and Marriotts, and the rest of it has become increasingly cluttered with boxy concrete condominium complexes that have the sensual air of high Stalinist architecture.
This dialogue from "To Have and Have Not" predicts the key's literal and spiritual paving:
"What they're trying to do is starve you Conchs out of here so they can burn down the shacks and put up apartments and make this a tourist town. That's what I hear. I hear they're buying up lots, and then after the poor people are starved out and gone somewhere else to starve some more, they're going to come in and make it a beauty spot for tourists."
For further pessimism and a picture of Key West that chills the spine, consult Thomas McGuane's novel, "Ninety-Two In the Shade." Tourists, perhaps, should read Hemingway before visiting Key West and save McGuane for after. Otherwise the tourist might redirect his flight from Florida to Hawaii.
But the island does retain much of its beauty. It's still easy to forego the hotels and stay in fine guest houses and eat well-prepared seafood and watch the sun, like a great dollop of orange cream, dip down under the horizon.
But some of paradise, as Dos Passos and Hemingway found it before the Depression and the boom that followed, is lost. The history of Key West is one of transformation, from tropical peace to piecemeal commercialization.
Seminole and Calusa Indians were the first occupants of Key West. The island is small, just a four-mile-long, one-mile-wide skillet resting on coral. Sixteenth-century Spanish settlers found the beaches littered with the detritus of Indian battles and thus named the place Cayo Hueso (Island of Bones). The Spaniards used the island as a fishing base in the 18th century, but in 1815 King Ferdinand gave Key West to a young infantryman named Juan Pablo Salas for "services rendered to the crown." Seven years later, Salas sold the island for $2,000 to John Simonton, a businessman from Alabama.
In the 1830s Key West was the wealthiest city per capita in the country. First, islanders made money by salvaging cargoes from ships that had wrecked on the reefs. Eventually, Key West became a major coaling station and shipping port. Cubans, who had left their country rather than live under Spanish rule, worked largely in cigar-making factories until that industry moved north to Tampa in 1886. During the Civil War, Key West was the only southern city to remain in Union hands.
The Overseas Railroad, a miraculous engineering project built in 1912, helped the island become extremely prosperous. But for the most part, Key West lived easily with its success. It was not choked with crowds. There was more charm than chic. Halston had not yet arrived. The big worry was of hurricanes. That was the sort of island that Dos Passos and then Hemingway knew. The landscape was as rich as the community: The coconut palms and hibiscus and bougainvillea made the Gulf air a heady drug.
But the Depression had a vicious effect on the island population, and more than three-quarters of the people were soon on relief. In 1935 a devastating hurricane leveled the railroad. In 1938, the rail system was replaced by a 138-mile Overseas Highway. Hemingway moaned that the highway would turn the island into a southern Atlantic City. Happily, Key West is far from that and most people who make the leisurely three-hour drive from Miami to Key West find it nearly as calming an experience as arriving.
The construction of a Navy base and the establishment of more and more tourist comforts helped bolster the local economy, and the Roosevelt administration dispatched various authors to write guidebooks. Dos Passos and Hemingway were certainly not alone in their affection for Key West. Wallace Stevens, the author of "Ideas of Order at Key West," Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Ralph Ellison, John Hersey, Alison Lurie and McGuane are but a few of the writers who have spent at least part of their year on the island.
But Hemingway's house is the presiding literary attraction. It was the first house Hemingway ever owned and is, in its way, as spectacular as the homes he occupied in Cuba from 1940 to 1959 and Ketchum, Idaho, from 1959 until his suicide in 1961.
The grounds of the Key West house are a jungle, rich with philodendron undergrowth and trees of all sorts -- Indian banyans, date palms, African sandbox trees with poisonous red berries. Ernest and Pauline had 72 cats padding around the house when they were living there; more than 40 descendants still lounge around the grounds.
Hemingway once said -- enigmatically -- that his house looked like Miro's "The Farm" as if painted by Utrillo. The tour guides at 907 Whitehead St. provide a somewhat more understandable description of the house's artifacts. The dining room reflects Hemingway's obsession with Spain. Pauline bought dining-room chairs that featured sword racks on their leather backs and, above the mantle, a liquor lock known as a "bottle safe." Hemingway often entertained upstairs in the bedroom. He would hold court in bed and send out for drinks. The children's rooms are now used to display such odd documents as Hemingway's local tax forms and a one-line poem: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want him for long." The pool house is well preserved, and features a large portion of Hemingway's extensive, eccentric library.
Pauline installed the swimming pool at a cost of $20,000 while Hemingway was off covering the Spanish Civil War. When Hemingway returned, he took one look at the new construction, pulled a penny out of his pocket and flipped it to his wife.
"Here," he growled. "You might as well take the last penny I've got and put it in the pool."
Pauline had the penny preserved in the concrete.
Hemingway enjoyed the opulence of his home and the quiet of his workroom, but he found numerous pleasures outside the house, as well. Eddie "Bra" Saunders, a charterboat captain, and Joe "Josie" Russell, a rum-runner and the owner of Sloppy Joe's Bar, were fast friends. Saunders showed Hemingway where he could fish for amberjack, snapper and tarpon. Russell provided Hemingway with an ideal working-class venue to drink and observe the locals. War veterans and workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps on Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys drank with Hemingway. They were, the author said, "husky, hardworking and simply out of luck." Sloppy Joe's is still in operation and sells more Hemingway memorabilia than one might prefer.
Hemingway's adventures as an ambulance driver in World War I and as a bohemian in Paris gave him a certain bank of luster and experience. The years of peaceful and steady labor in Key West helped transform those experiences into great literature.
Key West, Hemingway said, was "a St. Tropez of the poor." In a more charitable mood, Hemingway also saw the island as a source of endless pleasure. Key West was "a fine place to come back to." It still is, and one hopes it will stay that way.