Searching For Hemingway

A couple of weeks ago while visiting Key West, I went around to 907 Whitehead Street, the home for nine years in the 1930s of America’s most famous novelist, Ernest Hemingway.

In Paris, in June, as I always do, I had dinner at La Closerie des Lilas, one of Hemingway’s haunts when he lived in Paris in the 1920s. I had my picture taken near the plaque on the bar where Hemingway supposedly sat when he was at the Closerie. This, I should add, is not the first time I have had that particular picture taken.

I’ve also wandered through the house in Oak Park, Illinois where he was born (but not raised) and of course have visited the Hemingway museum down the street from the house.

In the early 1970s, I came for the first time to the Finca Vigía, the lovely white house nestled in the hills fifteen minutes outside Havana where Hemingway spent much of his life after Key West. I was with my old pal, Brian Vallée, a lifelong Hemingway admirer.

We arrived little more than a decade after Hemingway committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961. His wire-rimmed glasses still lay on the day’s papers in the bedroom. It looked as though he had just left and might return any moment to find two young reporters staring in his open window.

I’ve also been in the room he rented at the Hotel Ambos Mundos when he first came to Havana, and I sipped a “Papa Doble” daiquiri (created by the author) at El Floridita, the Havana cocktail bar-restaurant he frequented. Yes, I did sit on a high bar stool at  the massive, burnished mahogany bar, the same spot where Hemingway supposedly held court.

And, oh yeah, I used to work for the Toronto Star, the newspaper where Hemingway famously got his start. Like Ernest, I went to Paris for the first time because the newspaper sent me there.

As a kid I read Hemingway’s first and perhaps his greatest novel, The Sun Also Rises, enthralled by the story of Jake Barnes, a Paris reporter, and his tragic love for the beautiful and promiscuous Lady Brett Ashley (tragic because the war left Jake impotent).

I wanted to be like Jake (except for the impotent part), youthful, yet already world-weary, romantically lost in Paris, writing stories, drinking at the Closerie and Café Select, dining at La Coupole, buying books at Shakespeare & Company (where its owner, the enduring George Whitman, died this week at the age of 98).

From the severely restricted and (for me) dull vantage point of a small Eastern Ontario town, it  all seemed so exciting and enchanting. Reading The Sun Also Rises, I believe, planted in me a  lifelong infatuation with Paris that Paris, despite occasionally strenuous efforts, has been unable to defeat.

I’m less certain about what fuels my continuing fascination with Hemingway. I wondered again about this in Key West, standing momentarily alone in the second-story office above the pool house adjacent to the main residence.

This is where Hemingway wrote each morning. An antelope head stares glassy-eyed from its perch on the wall over the writing-table and the typewriter where, one imagines, Ernest poked out To Have and Have Not, the only novel he actually finished in this room, and to my mind the worst thing he ever wrote.

Pauline Pfeiffer was Hemingway’s second wife (she replaced Hadley, the Paris wife), and her rich Uncle Gus bought the couple the two-story Spanish Colonial house with its wrap-around porches. It remains one of the loveliest houses in town.

What with one thing and another, including the Spanish Civil War, a summer home in Wyoming, and chasing after Martha Gelhorn, who became his third wife, Hemingway didn’t spend all that much time at Key West.

That doesn’t seem to bother the tourists who still crowd through the interior, gazing into the Hemingway bedroom (two double beds pushed together to accommodate the large Hemingway frame), and pet the six–(or seven–)toed cats, said to be descendents of the original cats who prowled the place when Hemingway was in residence (although that claim is generally discounted; Hemingway acquired cats in Cuba, not in Key West).

Certainly no other writer remains as celebrated, despite the critical slings and arrows he has suffered in the years since his death. How many other authors end up with plaques on the various bars where they drank or attract  hundreds of tourists to peer into their bedrooms in Key West and Havana and Oak Park?

As a young man, I once went up to a cottage overlooking Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. This is where Hemingway spent his summers as a child and where he set the Nick Adams short stories.

I set up a typewriter on the kitchen table and spent a month channeling Hemingway, trying to write a novel. Alas, it takes more than proximity to Hemingway’s youth. I finished the book, but it was never published.

I’m not certain what I wanted from all this. I suppose every young (male) reporter of my generation tried to imitate Hemingway (safari jackets, anyone?).

Back then he seemed the personification of the tough, hard-drinking, two-fisted, globe-trotting, woman-loving writer–just ask Norman Mailer or Irwin Shaw or James Jones, macho writers of that era straight out of the Hemingway mold.

We were all in love with a certain mythology, of course, and the myth had little to do with the reality of Hemingway. The only two people I ever met who actually knew him were the writer George Plimpton and the Toronto novelist, Morley Callaghan, and neither of them had any illusions about who he really was.

Plimpton, a delightfully charming writer who many years ago penned Paper Lion, a bestselling account of trying to play football with the Detroit Lions, had gotten to know Hemingway in Havana. One night over a lot of drinks in Detroit, he regaled me with tales of the last days of Papa (as everyone called him).

Plimpton adored Hemingway, even as he saw that Papa was deteriorating badly–he finally turned a shotgun on himself, unable to overcome the effects of what we know today as bipolar disorder.

Callaghan, who at one time was a better known writer than Hemingway, had met him when they both lived in Paris in the twenties. Part of the legend of those years had the diminutive Morley taking on the giant Hemingway in a boxing match, and defeating him; David slaying Goliath.

Hemingway got his revenge (Callaghan is not mentioned in A Movable Feast, Hemingway’s acclaimed memoir of his Paris years) by becoming, well, Hemingway. Callaghan meanwhile retreated back to his native Canada and faded into relative obscurity.

By the time I met him, Morley was an elderly man, sick and tired of being asked about Hemingway. He  finally talked to me about his old Paris nemesis if only because it was pretty well impossible not to. However, I don’t think he particularly liked Hemingway or what he represented.

The Hemingway ideal of the manly writer has, of course, gone the way of the Underwood typewriter. As I stood peering into Hemingway’s office, I could not take my eyes off that antelope on the wall–the victim of one of Hemingway’s early African forays? What was I doing here? I wondered. Did I still, after all these years, somehow identify with Papa?

How was this possible? I had never shot anything, I don’t drink any more, I am crazy about my wife, hate fishing, and probably no one will ever want to peer into the bedroom where I once slept (I haven’t even made the bed today). Worse, there are no plaques on any of the bars I used to frequent. Hell, most of the bars aren’t even there, anymore.

I staggered away from the office and the antelope head, back down the stairs into the bright Florida sunlight, realizing that in all likelihood, none of the furniture in the house, including the antelope head in the office, actually belonged to Hemingway since the place was emptied when Pauline sold it after their divorce.

More mythology. Hemingway remains draped in it. I was far too old now to be taken in by this.

I headed for the street. Then I stopped and turned for one last look. I asked my wife to take my picture and make sure she got the house in the background.

She rolled her eyes.

Well, I did resist the impulse to buy an Ernest Hemingway T-shirt.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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2 comments on “Searching For Hemingway
  1. Jim Wilkes says:

    I’ve been to Hemingway’s place in Key West and you made it come alive with this lovely word picture.
    Ditto for the other locations to which you’ve traveled and returned.
    Nice touch!!!


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