Thank you for your patience. The more I researched about this larger-than-life man, the more contradictions I encountered. The Hemingway Resource Center website suggests, “To find the truth about Hemingway, look first to his fiction.”
I did just that, along with gathering information from the Key West Museum, chatting with Key West historians, and poring through published biographies and online sources. If you find Hemingway a fascinating figure, too, you may wish to read his work and research to draw your own conclusions.
Ernest Miller Hemingway was an accomplished writer by the time he and his second wife arrived in Key West. John Dos Passos, his friend at the time, had recommended they stop there for a holiday on their return from Paris in April 1928.
Like many tourists to the tiny island, Ernest and Pauline were instant converts and determined to settle there. Perhaps it reminded them of the foreign lands they loved, while still part of the United States, situated as it is on the southernmost tip of Florida’s westward archipelago. After three years of renting apartments, the couple purchased a house in Old Town with money loaned by Pauline’s uncle.
Hemingway wrote the final draft of his bestselling A Farewell to Arms at their new home on 907 Whitehead Street, rising early each morning to write. He also published works such as Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and two of his most beloved short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” during his Key West years. As for his family life, Pauline gave birth to two sons during this time, and outfitted their property with a luxurious 20′ x 60′ pool, carved out of the island’s coral bedrock for $20,000 in 1938.
When the midday tropical sun drove him away from his writing, Hemingway gravitated toward the water or his favorite watering hole. Whether his time away from home was a consequence or cause of an unhappy marriage, only Pauline and he would know for sure. Whatever the case, Papa Hemingway as the macho persona developed during this decade.
On land, Papa continued his lifelong enjoyment of boxing. The backyard of a brothel in Bahama Village constructed a boxing ring where he spent many happy hours. This site is now home to the popular Blue Heaven restaurant. According to R. Andrew Wilson’s Write Like Hemingway, Papa “was known to exaggerate his own experience in the ring,” athough Key West historians assure me he did spar with locals and won quite often.
He enjoyed his drink as much as the next man, spotted at Sloppy Joe’s most afternoons. The original Sloppy Joes was located on 428 Greene Street and has been renamed Capt. Tony’s Saloon. (The current Sloppy Joe’s bar at the corner of lower Duval and Greene came to be when the owner refused to pay a rent increase at the former site and relocated in 1937.) Joe “Josie” Russell, the bar’s owner, is said to have cashed a $1,000 royalty check for Hemingway when all the banks refused, earning him a close friendship with the writer.
Papa was an avid fisherman, the photos of him throughout present-day Key West establishments an apparent testament to his prowess. The picture to the right can be seen at the Turtle Kraals Bar & Restaurant. For his extended fishing trips to Havana, Papa would charter Josie Russell’s boat. Fans of Hemingway’s final novel, The Old Man and the Sea, may be interested to learn that the character, Santiago, was inspired by Papa’s Cuban mate, Carlos Gutierrez. According to Hemingway’s personal accounts, this mate had fished marlin for forty years and was a gifted storyteller. Photos, including one of Carlos Gutierrez with Papa, can be viewed here.
Why did Papa ultimately leave Key West?
At some point in his island adventures, Hemingway met journalist Martha Gellhorn, his future third wife. As with Pauline while still married to Hadley, he had an affair with Martha before divorcing Pauline in 1940. In addition, his last book written in Key West, To Have and Have Not, was considered by many critics to be second-rate. Some say he moved on with a new wife to a new life for a rebirth of his career. Although he owned the house until his death in 1961, Ernest Miller Hemingway’s life in Key West ended in 1939.
Was Hemingway an example of art imitating life, or life imitating art? Or were both so intertwined it’s impossible to separate the legend from the writer?
What are your thoughts about Hemingway, either as a historical figure or American writer?