Ernest Hemingway conjures up images of bullfights, safaris and of course, Key West where her purchased a dignified Victorian home and lived there from 1931 until 1939.The 1851 structure was built for Key West settler Asa Tift, who made his fortune in a way admirable to Hemingway – as marine architect and salvage wrecker. In a studio above the carriage house Hemingway worked on A Farewell to Arms, The Snows of Kilimanjaro,
I pictured Hemingway’s residence as a thatched bungalow accessible only by rope-bridge, not a Southern home. However tour guides reveal Hemingway crossed from courtyard to writing studio via a long board from the balcony of the main house, which he would pull in afterwards. All writers are envious of such sanctuary.
In the first floor hall one learns the provenance of a bench brought over from an ancient Spanish monastery, which complements the headboard in the master bedroom. Tour guides tell you it came from the same monastery in Spain, and originated as a gate. Hemingway needed a large headboard bed to accommodate his bed, which in turn complemented his legendary size.
In the garden many cats, famed creatures with six toes on each paw are descended from a cat named Snowball. His son brought the cat home and the Hemingways mated the cats with other six-toed cats to ensure a progeny of anomaly.
However, while the museum claims contents of the house were Hemingway’s, other records show at his death in 1961 it was empty. The story of the bench in the hall, and Spanish headboard, are probably legends. In terms of the cats his son Patrick said there were no six-toed cats in Key West.
Hemingway’s sexuality has long been one of speculation. Many people – when considering his robust identity – interpret this as hyper-homosexuality. Locals imparted Hemingway would take young men out fishing. During the excursion – and who wouldn’t want to fish with Hemingway? – he’d seduce them. Subsequently Key West patricians burned down the fishing hut where he took their sons for trysts. An interesting tidbit – whether or not it’s true.
Despite the murkiness of history and lore, there is the unavoidable weight of Hemingway at the house. To walk among rooms where he worked and sated insatiable appetites is akin to pilgrimage.
A few blocks away, at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Key West a smaller exhibit honors Tennessee Williams, the quintessential playwright of the American South. Williams’ would have turned 100-years-old this year. He became a habitué of Key West in 1941, wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 and bought a permanent home in 1949 where he lived until his death in 1983.
The exhibit has many items which can be authenticated as having been Williams.’ There is a typewriter he used and gifted to a local resident as well as pictures of he and his lover, Frank “Little Horse” Merlo, with whom he lived at 1431 Duncan Street. With figures like Hemingway and Williams inspired by the beauty and mystery of America’s southern-most city, perhaps you too will be inspired to produce a poem or piece of fiction when visiting Key West.
Please visit HemingwayHome.com and 513 Truman Avenue, Key West, FL 33040-3140 (305) 292-3223 for the Tennessee Williams Exhibit.