If you’re in Key West (and especially if you’re a writer, I suppose) it is de rigueur to visit Papa Hemingway’s house. No matter how you feel about his writing (I like it, although he is by no means my favorite author) he is a towering figure in 20th century literature.
Before we left Key West for northern destinations, then, we drove by Hemingway’s House for a tour. We made the mistake of showing up with no cash – only a debit card. They don’t take debit cards, so I asked if they had an ATM. They did, in their bookstore, but they shackled Dawn to a bench outside while I went in to get the money. Okay, truth be told, she wasn’t actually shackled, but they acted like we were trying to scam them out of their $13 per person. Maybe I looked suspicious. 🙂
Money in hand, I sprung Dawn from bench jail and we went in. We got lucky and arrived just as a tour was starting. Along with reading probably half of what Hemingway wrote, I knew a few things about him, but I am no expert. I learned a lot today. I think most of us know that his personal life is messy, but I didn’t know how messy. I didn’t know that just a few months prior to his suicide, he had undergone electroshock therapy a number of times at the Mayo Clinic. The guide said that the electroshocks left him unable to think creatively or write. I don’t know if that’s the case or not.
Have you ever seen the meme that writers like to circulate? It says, “Don’t make me angry, or I’ll put you in one of my books and kill you off,” or some such. Hemingway did exactly that. In World War I, Hemingway was badly injured and had hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in his legs. He was nursed back to health by a woman he fell in love with – Agnes von Kurowski. He pledged his love, but she brushed him off, as she was several years older than he. Here’s a picture of both of them:
In his first bestseller, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote of a similar situation. In the final chapter, he killed the character of the nurse. This is how a writer gets revenge.
Hemingway’s house is beautiful, and when you think of how old it is (built in 1851) it is stunning. The things I most wanted to see (aside from the cats) was his writing studio. It did not disappoint. It sits at the top of a staircase in a separate building at the back of the house. Since Hemingway created approximately 70% of his life’s work in the nine years he lived in Key West, he created a lot of stories here:
If you don’t know about the cats, they are everywhere. Hemingway was given a six toed cat by a sea captain. He believed them to be good luck, so he kept her and she had many litters. Many of the cats living in the house today are descended from that original cat. During his lifetime, he had as many as seventy cats living with him. Papa was kind of a crazy cat man. Here are a few we saw today.
One other favorite thing on the tour was this:
Although it is gussied up, it is still a urinal from a Key West bar that Hemingway used to frequent. After the bar was moved, the urinals were ripped out. Hemingway told the owner that he had poured so much money down the drain of the urinal, he felt he should own it. The bar owner agreed, and Hemingway brought it home, much to the dismay of his wife at the time. She had someone put those tiles around it to disguise it. Today, it is used to give water to the cats.
On our way out of Key West, we made one last tourist-y stop – at the Southernmost Buoy. Like many things, it’s not quite what it appears. In reality, it is the almost Southernmost Buoy. The real southernmost point isn’t publicly accessible, so millions of people have taken pictures right here:
If you’d like to see the real southernmost point, (if you don’t count Dry Tortugas National Park, see how complicated this stuff gets?) it’s the point behind this statue, with the giant golf ball in it.
That’s a statue of Bishop Albert Key, a man who was famous for the sunny greeting he delivered to literally millions of people who entered Key West. As these things go, being famous for being friendly ain’t a bad thing. And, here’s a better shot of the real southernmost point:
As we drove north up the Keys, we stopped at what is sometimes called the Wrong Way Memorial, a monument to the people who died in the spectacular storm of September 2nd, 1935. Here’s the memorial itself and why it is called the Wrong Way Memorial by some people:
The problem with the image is that it shows the whipping palm trees blowing exactly into the direction of the 200 mph winds that accompanied the storm.
Things were very different in 1935, of course. The science of meteorology was crude compared to today. There was no Highway One that ran the length of the keys – the only way off was via boat or train.
On the day the storm hit – Labor Day, 1935 – a train was dispatched to rescue a large group of veterans who were working on the Keys, along with a number of civilians. In a comedy of errors that are almost unbelievable in combination, the train was delayed again and again. Eventually the storm, one of the few Category Five hurricanes to retain that designation at landfall, swept over the Keys, killing almost everyone in its path, including the people trying to escape via the train. Today, the remains of 300 people are buried in the front of the memorial.
So many places that we’ve gone in the south, including the Keys, New Orleans and Galveston, have been decimated by storm after storm. Dawn and I live now on an ocean beach that sits over a famous fault line. If it shifts and “the big one” hits, we will be in major trouble. The odds of that happening in any given year are remote, though, so it is easy to put it out of our minds. It is hard for me to imagine living in an area where it is possible that a storm can change your lives at any time. I feel for the people of the Gulf coast.
Tomorrow, we are heading a bit more north to spend the night. A friend and reader who works at Universal Studios has offered us passes to go to the park, so we are going to do that on Wednesday. Since were weren’t going to add any stops like that on this trip, how could we resist? Honestly, we didn’t try to resist all that hard. 🙂
Cheers, and safe travels!