Ernest Hemingway ended up living in Key West quite by accident. During a trip between Cuba and the U.S., he stopped in Key West to pick up a new Ford Roadster that his wife’s wealthy uncle had purchased for them. As usual, things were happening on “island time” – the car had not yet arrived. The Ford dealership insisted Hemingway stay in the apartment above the showroom while waiting for it to arrive. By the time the Roadster hit the docks, Key West had worked its magic on Ernest.
When the same generous uncle purchased the Hemingway House in Key West home for the couple two years later, they happily settled into the community on a full time basis. Ernest spent mornings writing and afternoons on a bar stool at Sloppy Joe’s Saloon, gathering fodder for his books. From from wealthy merchants, to the down-on-their-luck fishermen and wreckers, Hemingways books are filled with Key West characters. Hemingway contentment was so great in Key West that more than half of his published novels were written during the ten years he resided on the island.
Today the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is open for tours every day of the year. From his collection of hand-carved Spanish furniture to the “room over the carriage house” that served as his studio, it offers a fascinating glimpse into Hemingway’s life, but the most interesting part of the tour may be the more than 60 cats that live on the grounds. The felines, descendants of a cat gifted to Hemingway by a local sea captain, are notable in that many have extra toes. Normal cats have five front toes and four back toes. About half of the Hemingway cats have extra toes – mostly on their front feet but occasionally on their back feet. Sometimes it looks as if they are wearing mittens because they appear to have a thumb on their paw.
Although I could have wandered the house and gardens on my own, I decided to join one of the tours that are conducted regularly throughout the day. My guide provided an entertaining, if somewhat less than accurate history of the house and lives of the Hemingways. For the correct facts, I later visited the Key West Museum of Art and History, where I watched an hour long documentary about the author in a room filled with Hemingway memorabilia. Afterward, I roamed two floors filled with works of local artists, scale models of the town as it appeared in the 1800’s, historical documents, and fascinating oil portraits of early settlers – a cast of characters that includes pirates, fishermen, shipwreck victims, merchants, and wreckers, among others.
The museum is housed in the historic Custom House. Built in 1891, it served as a post office, court house, and government center in the days when wrecking (recovery of goods from shipwrecked vessels) made Key West the richest city, per capita, in the U.S. Its heyday was short lived; by the 1930s, the Key West was bankrupt and the building was boarded up and abandoned until a nine-year, $9 million restoration project by the Key West Art & Historical Society returned the big red brick building to its former glory.
No visit to the island is complete without a stop at both the Hemingway House and the Key West Museum of Art and History and I heartily recommend both. Hemingway’s House is located at 907 Whitehead Street, in the center of Old Town Key West. Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children (under six free). The Museum, located at 281 Front Street, is open every day except Christmas. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children (under six free) and students, $9 for seniors and locals.