Hemingway’s Key West Years 1928 – 1939

Hemingway lived his dreams, as shown by this grade school assignment. ( KW Museum)   Click for a larger view.

Thank you for your patience. The more I researched about this larger-than-life man, the more contradictions I encountered. The Hemingway Resource Center website suggests, “To find the truth about Hemingway, look first to his fiction.”

I did just that, along with gathering information from the Key West Museum, chatting with Key West historians, and poring through published biographies and online sources. If you find Hemingway a fascinating figure, too, you may wish to read his work and research to draw your own conclusions.

Ernest Miller Hemingway was an accomplished writer by the time he and his second wife arrived in Key West. John Dos Passos, his friend at the time, had recommended they stop there for a holiday on their return from Paris in April 1928.

Like many tourists to the tiny island, Ernest and Pauline were instant converts and determined to settle there. Perhaps it reminded them of the foreign lands they loved, while still part of the United States, situated as it is on the southernmost tip of Florida’s westward archipelago. After three years of renting apartments, the couple purchased a house in Old Town with money loaned by Pauline’s uncle.

907 Whitehead Street

Hemingway wrote the final draft of his bestselling A Farewell to Arms at their new home on 907 Whitehead Street, rising early each morning to write. He also published works such as Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and two of his most beloved short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” during his Key West years. As for his family life, Pauline gave birth to two sons during this time, and outfitted their property with a luxurious 20′ x 60′ pool, carved out of the island’s coral bedrock for $20,000 in 1938.

At home by the pool (Courtesy Hemingway House)

When the midday tropical sun drove him away from his writing, Hemingway gravitated toward the water or his favorite watering hole. Whether his time away from home was a consequence or cause of an unhappy marriage, only Pauline and he would know for sure. Whatever the case, Papa Hemingway as the macho persona developed during this decade.

On land, Papa continued his lifelong enjoyment of boxing. The backyard of a brothel in Bahama Village constructed a boxing ring where he spent many happy hours. This site is now home to the popular Blue Heaven restaurant. According to R. Andrew Wilson’s Write Like Hemingway, Papa “was known to exaggerate his own experience in the ring,” athough Key West historians assure me he did spar with locals and won quite often.

He enjoyed his drink as much as the next man, spotted at Sloppy Joe’s most afternoons. The original Sloppy Joes was located on 428 Greene Street and has been renamed Capt. Tony’s Saloon. (The current Sloppy Joe’s bar at the corner of lower Duval and Greene came to be when the owner refused to pay a rent increase at the former site and relocated in 1937.) Joe “Josie” Russell, the bar’s owner, is said to have cashed a $1,000 royalty check for Hemingway when all the banks refused, earning him a close friendship with the writer.

“Tag and Release. Not!”

Papa was an avid fisherman, the photos of him throughout present-day Key West establishments an apparent  testament to his prowess. The picture to the right can be seen at the Turtle Kraals Bar & Restaurant.  For his extended fishing trips to Havana, Papa would charter Josie Russell’s boat. Fans of Hemingway’s final novel, The Old Man and the Sea, may be interested to learn that the character, Santiago, was inspired by Papa’s Cuban mate, Carlos Gutierrez. According to Hemingway’s personal accounts, this mate had fished marlin for forty years and was a gifted storyteller. Photos, including one of Carlos Gutierrez with Papa, can be viewed here.

Why did Papa ultimately leave Key West?

At some point in his island adventures, Hemingway met journalist Martha Gellhorn, his future third wife. As with Pauline while still married to Hadley, he had an affair with Martha before divorcing Pauline in 1940. In addition, his last book written in Key West, To Have and Have Not, was considered by many critics to be second-rate. Some say he moved on with a new wife to a new life for a rebirth of his career. Although he owned the house until his death in 1961, Ernest Miller Hemingway’s life in Key West ended in 1939.

Was Hemingway an example of art imitating life, or life imitating art? Or were both so intertwined it’s impossible to separate the legend from the writer?

What are your thoughts about Hemingway, either as a historical figure or American writer?


The Help

Hi! Today, I debut as a guest poster on Nicole Basaraba’s Uni-Verse-City blog. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual blog fare, as my history buff side shows itself in my book review of THE HELP. For a taste, read on.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and major motion picture. A good friend of mine recommended it to me as a must-read.

The novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960’s. This was a time of great social upheaval in America’s Deep South. Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement featuring real-life figures Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, the setting is anchored by Stockett with historical references.

Stockett sprinkles in popular 60’s TV, inventions, personalities, and music. Jackson life is depicted through three main characters—Abileen, Minnie, and Skeeter. I enjoyed a trip down memory lane…

This is one of those rare books whose characters will live on your head . Join me over at Nicole Basaraba’s Uni-Verse-City blog to understand why.

Remember to stop by here for your weekly dose of Margarita Moments on Monday. I’ll be ready for an escape after all this academia. Wait a minute, I hear the blender whirring. Gotta go! Until then…

Blue Heaven

Welcome to Blue Heaven!

Food can be a mini-escape of its own. Combine that pleasure with an exotic atmosphere, and the result can be out-of-this-world. Like many tourist destinations, there are a plethora of restaurants to chose from when staying in Key West. According to Trip Advisor, Old Town has close to two hundred. Each year, my honey and I enjoy different eateries in addition to our regular haunt, El Siboney, a locals’ hotspot around the corner from our Bed & Breakfast. (We crave El Siboney’s Cuban sandwich!)

During our 2009 getaway to the Conch Republic, we were eager to try out Blue Heaven, rated as one of the island’s top ten restaurants. We wanted to visit it not only for the food, but for its colorful history. This site is where Ernest Hemingway once refereed and sparred in Friday night boxing matches during the 1930’s. The restaurant building a bordello back then, and hosted cock fights and gambling at other times.

Biking here is the way to go!

Blue Heaven is located at the corner of Thomas and Petronia in Bahama Village. We biked there, happy to find plenty of bike-friendly parking. In fact, the restaurant’s blogsite recommends their customers “walk, bike, or taxi” since car parking is at a premium in this section of town.

The atmosphere at Blue Heaven is quintessentially Key West, reflecting the Florida Keys slogan, “Come As You Are.” I’d call the style rustic-casual, which suited us fine for lunch. For an informal tour of Blue Heaven, inside and out, check out this video:

Simple and Delicious

Their menu features Caribbean fare. Feeling tame, I ordered the blackened shrimp caesar salad. My honey was a little more daring, and selected their famous yellowtail snapper with black beans, veggies, brown rice, and cornbread. We didn’t eat dessert that day, but we’ve heard rumors this restaurant makes a fine key lime pie.

Happy Rooster

If you like birds, Blue Heaven is the place to be. I’d recommend eating outside unless it’s raining, and soak in the ambiance of their signature courtyard. We listened to the tweets and cock-a-doodle-doos while waiting for our meal, astonished that resident roosters not only pecked around our tables for goodies (They like cornbread, too!), but also perched in the trees above us. I’m a country girl, but I’d never seen anything like that before.

A rooster in a tree??

We didn’t have to wait to be seated for lunch, but those interested in eating breakfast at Blue Heaven are wise to plan ahead. The wait may be well over an hour, and the restaurant’s website warns they serve from the lunch menu at the scheduled time. For evening meals, diners may be entertained by live music as well as by the wildlife. I wouldn’t consider this a romantic dinner option, but a nice place for couples looking for a relaxed evening with interesting sights, Caribbean food, and great drinks.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most interesting restaurant you’ve enjoyed?

Hurricanes, Pirates, and Really Cool Drinks

Good morning??

As Hurricane Irene swirled past my island home off the North Atlantic coast this weekend, my thoughts turned to another island over fourteen hundred miles south of New York. As the wind and rain attacked, littering lawns, roads, and pools with branches and leaves, I thought of that island’s turbulent past–its history drawing me as much as its tropical climate. For Irene’s last hurrah to us, she demolished a mature oak lining our street. The tree’s fifty foot trunk lay across our front yard and unlucky car like a mast of an old-time ship laid flat by unforeseen dangers. Again, I was reminded of the island I view as my second home.

Sexy Pirates Johnny Depp & Orlando Bloom

In 1513, explorer Ponce de Leon claimed La Florida for Spain. Indian tribes were scattered across the tiny islands that fan out from the mainland peninsula. Spanish control of the region, now known as the Florida Keys, was ineffectual to say the least. The island farthest west in the chain, known as Cayo Hueso, or Key West, was also one of the wildest, with feuding tribes whose battles left bones of its victims to bleach on the sandy shore. This is how the island earned the nicknames Skull Island and Bone Key. Eventually, the indians were pushed out by Spanish settlers focused on agriculture. The waters held hidden perils for Spanish ships transporting cargo between Havana, Cuba and Key West farms in the form of coral reefs seven miles offshore as well as rogue ships captained by infamous pirates–such as Blackbeard and Captain Kid. This era of life on the high seas during the 1600-1700s has often been romanticized in literature and movies, like the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” titles.

Gold coins sought by pirates, later by wreckers and treasure hunters

When Florida joined the United States in 1819, Key West was sold to American businessman John Simonton for two thousand dollars. He divided the island into quarters and split it with colleagues Greene, Whitehead, and Fleming. Simonton then convinced higher-ups within the United States government the southernmost point of the United States would make an excellent naval base. The formidable United States Navy made quick work of the piracy problem. However, clever residents soon made wrecking a profitable business, and Key West became the richest city in America by 1830. It retained that status for approximately twenty years.

Treasure hunters are modern-day pirates, legally plundering sunken ships for their cargo. Anyone who has seen “Titanic” knows what I mean. Mel Fisher was one such person. I find it no coincidence the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is hosting a piracy exhibit through June 2012. We plan to bike on over to 200 Greene Street to explore all that pirate booty during our next getaway this autumn. For now, I’ll happily settle for cuddling on the couch with my honey to watch our favorite adventure movie. He’s enjoying some grog, of course, a recipe shown on Pirate Soul’s website:


* 2oz Light Rum
* 1oz Spiced Rum
* 2tbsp Amaretto
* 2tbsp Grenadine
* 1tsp Lime Juice
* 1tsp Lemon Juice
* Combine ingredients with ice in cocktail shaker and shake well
* Strain into an old-fashioned glass and garnish with a twist

And me? I’m enjoying a Hurricane. My sister-in-law introduced me to this simple yet delicious beverage the evening after our family’s brush with Irene. I was suspicious, having a bad experience with the other by the same name. The color convinced me to give it a try, and I liked its light sweetness–perfect over ice. I also think it’s a good option when the power’s out or you’re away from that kitchen blender. Hurricane Warning: Sip or else it may blow you over!

What’s your recipe for restoring calm after a harrowing experience?

Chichen Itza or Senor Frogs?

Overlooking Key West

I love to travel. To celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband and I were fortunate enough to take a Western Carribbean cruise. Strong believers in the mantra, “Work Hard, Play Hard,” we vacationed with gusto. We listened to live bands in Key West, savored local foods and water sports at a Cozumel beach resort, and ziplined through a Belizan rainforest. For our stop in Playa del Carmen, we were tempted to join many of our shipmates at Senor Frogs for a day of partying. Being a history buff, I had signed us up for a tour of a Mayan pyramid instead. I’m so happy I did!

We rise early for our tour. The tender ride to port is short and smooth. We are herded through the busy town to the waiting bus with forty other tourists. As we ride inland for three hours, our Mayan guide, Humberto, makes the time fly–entertaining us with interesting facts about the Yucatan Peninsula.

El Castillo at Chichen Itza

The grounds at Chichen Itza are tremendous. We only have enough time to focus on three sections of the ruins today, including the main pyramid, known as El Castillo. Humberto tells us the ninety-five foot tall El Castillo has ninety steps on each of four sides, equalling 364 days plus one platform for a total of 365. Nine bump-outs on two sides of it represent the eighteen months on the Mayan calendar and five statues on each of four sides equals twenty, representing the number of days in a Mayan month. There’s more, but all this math is making my head spin. If you want to learn other details about this feat of Mayan architecture, click here.

Humberto explains Chichen Itza’s pyramid is hollow, with a smaller pyramid inside the larger. Like Egyptian pyramids, one purpose of El Castillo was to serve as a burial site for their royalty. The adventurous side of me is disappointed we’re not allowed to see the crypts surrounded by protective stone figures or climb all those steps to the top.

Building of One Thousand Columns

Skull Etching in Stone Wall

The gruesome aspect of Chichen Itza’s history centers around the ball court, where Mayan teams competed using a rubber ball about the size of a softball. We learn that the “winning” team’s captain would be decapitated as a sign of honor to the Mayan gods. No wonder a game could last for days, no one wanted to win! The captain’s head would then be displayed on a low stone wall etched with skull heads across the many rocks. I’m not creeped out so much as interested in the heiroglyphs located at either end of the ball court walls. They include an etching of Quetzalcoatl, whom Humberto says the Mayan believe to be Jesus Christ.

We have some time to wander around on our own. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything here. When I approach the base of El Castillo, I realize how steep the steps are and why the rumor we heard about tourists accidentally falling to their deaths while attempting the climb may be true. The official reason Humberto has given us for no one being allowed to climb it is to “prevent the ruins from being ruined.”

The last area we explore is “The Building of One Thousand Columns.” There must be at least one hundred columns, if not more as its name suggests. I’m impressed by the architectural precision. Before we head back to the bus, we experience one of my favorite parts of the trip–bartering with the on-site vendors. We purchase silver items, an embroidered top, and carved figures. The shopping is fun, but chatting with these native people and getting a peek into their daily life is priceless.

A Yucatan Roadside Store

On our relaxing bus ride back to port, we realize by traveling a little off the beaten path we experienced more than a place, we experienced its people. We hope to return to the Yucatan for a longer stay and learn more about the Mayan culture. Oh, and we may have to stop at Senor Frogs, too. I hear they make a heck of an ice blue margarita!

Have you ever explored a place, only to find what fascinated you most were the people? I’d love to hear about your experience.

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