The day has barely started but Key West is already in a tailspin. At the corner of South St. and Whitehead St., the line of visitors eager to photograph themselves at the monument at the southernmost point of the continental United States swells and generates increasingly ludicrous discussions.
“Honestly… can't you even get out of there? Do you think people want to take photos with you behind the landmark instead of the Caribbean Sea?” a German teenager infuriates, in vain.
The most curious thing is that this is not even the last southern point of the country. Whitehead Spit, the real one, is inside a military complex.
For the crowd excited by the heat and the Caribbean location of the town, just 151km from Cuba, it doesn't matter that the colorful, bullet-shaped monument is just another forced attraction of the huge tourist fair that has become Key West.
In this village, even so, marginal, only a handful of places stand out from the panoply of museums and somewhat tacky shows. Hemingway House is one of them.
Hemingway's Love at First Sight by Key West
It was 1928. Until some time ago, Hemingway had lived in Paris in a bohemian and creative frenzy in communion with artists from various countries of what writer Gertrude Stein would call the Lost Generation.
He had recently become involved with Pauline Pfeiffer and divorced the first of his four wives, Hadley Richardson. Pauline got pregnant. The couple agreed to return to United States. Around this time, John dos Passos, a friend himself a writer, spoke to Hemingway of Key West.
Always eager for discovery and adventure, in April, Hemingway and Pauline were disembarking from a cruise to the city. They stayed in a certain Trev-Mor Hotel, courtesy of the Trev-Mor Ford Agency, which thus sought to compensate them for not having the car reserved for the visit, ready in time.
The hotel pleased the couple who returned to stay there for the next two years, when they returned to the city. Key West, on the other hand, left them ecstatic.
Even if part of the territory of the USA, the remote city proved to be a wonderful world apart. “It's the best place I've ever been, no matter when or where. Flowers, guava trees, tamarinds, coconut trees…”
The writer couldn't resist diverging from the crazed drunken forays with which he would end most days: "I bottled absinthe last night and did some knife tricks."
Three decades after the turn of the XNUMXth century, in the midst of the Great Recession, Key West had evolved into the largest and richest city in Florida, yet a true last tropical frontier, inhabited by just over twelve thousand inhabitants, ship rescuers, fishermen, industrialists and traders.
The Tropical and Cuban Soul of Key West
So, like today, Key West was closer to Havana than to Miami. More than half of its inhabitants had Cuban origin and the city was even ruled by major Cubans. About two hundred cigar factories in the city had Cuban owners or partners.
They produced around 100 million cigars every year. During Mariel's famous rescue, Key West was flooded with many more Cuban refugees. This new influx reinforced the Latin American atmosphere of the city. Hemingway couldn't wish for more. But there was more.
The surrounding nature was vigorous. As we saw as we covered the endless bridges on the Overseas Highway, the sea only has two shades: either turquoise or emerald.
He suggested frequent adventurous fishing trips that Hemingway would return to displaying huge fish – tuna, swordfish and the like – on the deck of his boat “Pilar”. It also challenged him to socialize with local characters that Ernest saw as almost mythical.
In the two years following their first visit, the Hemingways would often return.
Lost Generation's Invitation to an Inhabited House of Nothing
They would invite Lost Generation friends for fishing seasons during the spring, before the excruciating heat and humidity of the summer months. They were accompanied by the person responsible for everything, John dos Passos. Also F. Scott Fitzgerald, Waldo Pierce and others.
Until 1931, the Hemingways, these, spent four to six full months in Key West, first installed in an apartment, then, in a house, both rented. In 1931, Pauline was once again pregnant. With the help of Pauline's millionaire uncle Gus, who gave them $12.500, the couple bought a large house at 907 Whitehead Street.
When they found it, it was abandoned and half-sealed by wooden boards. This condition did not prevent Pauline from realizing her potential for a warm and airy home.
The Tift House was built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a merchant dedicated to rescuing the many wrecked ships in the waters filled with shallows and reefs around the islands. Florida Keys, a succession of stepping stone islets and islands that stretch from the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula to precisely Key West.
Asa Tift built it in French colonial style, using limestone taken from the site. And lifted it well. The house survived several cyclones and its deep cellar remains dry today.
Uncle Gus bought it for $8.000 at a Finance auction and offered it to the Hemingways as a wedding gift. From then on, their lives, as a couple and not only, flowed, like all of them, full of storms and calms. We were about to unveil several of your episodes.
A Guided Tour of Hemingway's Floridian Life
A blonde guide with an air and brutish manner gathers the first group of the day for a guided tour of the house. The space of each division is indeed contained. It amplifies the bass voice of the cicerone who strives to emphasize the most comical or striking episodes that took place there or in Key West.
Not that they needed more drama than what Ernest Hemingway had already guaranteed them. As a rule, Ernest devoted the morning to his writing, some time after they were installed, in a studio on the upper floor of an annex added to the house, which he accessed in slide mode by a rope he installed between the two buildings.
His work in Key West was fruitful. Hemingway created or completed some of the works that made him eternal there: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “The Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, the novel “Ter e Não Ter” and “The Green Hills of Africa".
But, as we have seen, in Key West, Hemingway drank as much as he wrote. The guides tell that, on the wildest nights, he used to take the lighthouse in front of his house to get there.
Hemingway's favorite bar was “Sloppy Joe's”, also on these days a city classic, always crammed with outsiders, many bent on emulating or exaggerating Ernest's crazy nights. On one of those nights, the writer and Russell, one of the “Sloppy Joe's” figures, hand-carried a urinal from the den to Ernest's house.
They placed it by the swimming pool that Pauline had built and which still serves as a drinking fountain for the many descendants of the family's cats. Both the cats and the pool are curious and unmissable attractions at the Hemingway mansion. Let's start with the pool.
Professional Covenants and Marital Disagreements with the Pauline Wife
As might be expected, during the period in which he shared the house with Pauline and her children, Hemingway was absent, devoted to the most different projects. In 1937, he moved to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the US newspaper Alliance.
There he fell in love with what would become his third wife, fellow war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Now, Pauline had long wanted a swimming pool in her Key West house.
When her husband's betrayal reached her ears, either out of revenge or to soothe her anger, she had it built. The whole house had cost $8.000. The pool was at 20.000. It became the only one in Key West.
The version is that when he returned and found out about the cost, Hemingway threw him a penny and complained: “Pauline, you just didn't spend my last penny. You might as well stay with him.”
The coin remains enclosed in glass between the pool and the outbuilding. The adventure delights all visitors. It should be noted that, with the pool project, Pauline not only spent too much of the couple's money, but also ended up with the ring in which Ernest was used to receiving Key West boxers paid to fight him.
Boxing and Cats. Many Cats.
Hemingway was a serious boxing buff. In addition to fighting, he refereed fights in a saloon called Blue Haven, now a restaurant. It doesn't hurt, therefore, to understand why he earned the name of Pope, The Biggest Daddy of them All. And yet, Hemingway had a soft spot for cats. Not by any ones, of course.
During his fishing trips and socializing with the old sea wolves of Key West, he learned that the captains of sailboats insisted on having cats with six fingers on board. The legend explained that they believed that the extra finger helped those cats to protect the boats from rats.
And also that they had mystical powers that guaranteed the captains calmer seas, prevailing winds and safe navigation. Fascinated, Hemingway began collecting them. In compensation, he gave in to Pauline's whim of having peacocks in the garden.
Today the cats are over forty and are all over the house. They delight the visitors but aroused a strong controversy with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which after a complaint about a more nitpicky visitor, appeared at the house and demanded that the museum have a license as required by the Animal Welfare Act, the same law that regulates circuses, zoos and other animal shows.
In American fundamentalist fashion, it also demanded that the house cats be in small individual cages or that a higher wall be built around the property or an electric fence around it, complemented by a night watchman who kept an eye on the cats.
It also required that each of the cats be kept with an identification. If the museum did not comply, it would have to pay fines. The Hemingway House responded in Hemingway's manner by stressing that the USDA had no authority over the writer's cats. The dispute remains.
Hemingway's feud with Pauline ended abruptly. In 1939, the writer moved from Key West, 151 km south, to neighboring Cuba, leaving his wife and children behind.
In Cuba, he tried to overcome several torments in his life: deteriorating health, largely due to excess alcohol, depression and even some accidents. There he became acquainted with Fidel Castro's regime and wrote “The Old Man and The Sea” with which he won a Pulitzer Prize (1953) and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1954).