So this winter vacation I found myself in Key West and of course . . . .
I love Hemingway's writing without loving the whole Hemingway mythos, but still, in Key West it was a must see for me, and so I spent the money and took the tour and saw the rather lovely Hemingway house:
and the Hemingway bed (shudder):
(notice the guide with his obligatory white Hemingway beard), and the Hemingway toilet (Oh the stories it could tell!):
and the Hemingway pool, with its cement elephants to hold the Hemingway drinks:
and the Hemingway pond (it is the obligatory writer thing to have a pool and a pond, I suppose):
and the Hemingway grounds:
and the Hemingway shrines:
and the famous Hemingway six-toed cats:
and I have to say I enjoyed it all more than I thought I would.
Hemingway lived in Key West with his second wife, after divorcing his first wife and leaving Paris. (An interesting novel about that time is THE PARIS WIFE
by Paula McLain, which I enjoyed. The prologue of the novel is beautifully written and you get a sense of Hemingway's time in Paris, though I must admit it absolutely ruined THE SUN ALSO RISES
for me.) After his Key West time, and after divorcing his second wife, he moved to Cuba with his third wife, to a house called Finca Vigia. My collection of Hemingway's stories, which I think might be the best collection of stories anywhere, is the Finca Vigia Edition
. Hemingway seems to have been as attached to his houses as to his wives.
We seem to have a fascination with writer's lives, as if that gives us an insight into the beauty of their work, but I think it's a false insight, and Hemingway is the prime example. He lived his life as if he were putting on an act of what he thought a writer should be, and most of it was unpleasant. (Another example is Eugene O'Neil, whose plays are transcendent, especially "Long Day's Journey into Night
" and the "The Iceman Cometh
" but whose life is full of outright nastiness.) All of Hemingway's boxing and macho showing off and trading wives and brutal competitiveness turns a lot of modern readers off, but some of his stories and novels are just sublime. I think "Hills Like White Elephants" is as close to a perfect story as I've ever read - it moves me every time I read it and I read it often - and I do love A FAREWELL TO ARMS
with its brilliant first paragraph.
Which brings me to the one holy place I found in Key West. Hemingway's writing studio was atop an outbuilding to the house (you can see it here behind the main house):
There are steps now leading up to the studio, but in Hemingway's day there was a kitchen building between the two buildings and Hemingway built a walkway atop that building so he could take the dangerous walk from the house to the studio without ever touching the ground. It is as if in the course of that walk Hemingway would strip away the whole of the personality he wore like a mask and become what he truly was. In that room he wrote A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
, and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." And I must admit , it was a pretty terrific setup:
I could imagine him pounding out his sweet and simple sentences on the manual typewriter, forefinger by forefinger, as the mounted animal head looked on. He can have the rest of it, the estates and the wives and the boxing matches, I'll just take those few moments when the words felt right and thing within the pages started coming alive.