American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Key West's Hemingway Days and Other Literary Tributes
For well over a decade, my husband, Dan, and I have relished our visits to Key West, a quirky town situated at the southern end of the Florida Keys. Though accessible via plane, boat, and the 110-mile Overseas Highway, Key West – nicknamed the Southernmost City – often feels like a remote island paradise, separated from the rest of the Sunshine State by more than just a lengthy stretch of concrete and asphalt.
During the past year, I've written about several of my favorite Key West attractions, from Captain Tony's Saloon to the Better Than Sex dessert lounge. In addition to its plethora of memorable sights, hotels, shops, bars, and restaurants, however, Key West also offers its share of festive events, from the 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration in late April to the 10-day Fantasy Fest in late October. Of course, I well remembered this fact while writing about Key West in the first edition of Moon Florida Keys.
As luck would have it, one of the must-see festivals included in this guide is just around the corner – next week, in fact. The 30th Annual Hemingway Days, a much-anticipated event for residents and tourists alike, will run from Tuesday, July 20, through Sunday, July 25 – and really, what better place to hold such a zany, fun-loving celebration than in Key West? After all, the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, one of the Southernmost City's most beloved former residents, still endures here – especially through popular attractions like the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (907 Whitehead St., Key West, 305/294-1136, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $12 adults, $6 children, children under 5 free), where the writer, big-game hunter, sportfisherman, war veteran, and unabashed adventurer once lived and which now lures curious sightseers every day.
Built in 1851 by marine architect and salvage wrecker Asa Tift, this breezy, two-story mansion became home to Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in 1931. Today, visitors can stroll along the wraparound porches and view plenty of original artwork, family photographs, and memorabilia, including some of Hemingway's war medals. The lovingly preserved home looks much as it did during the 1930s, when Hemingway lived here. Of course, some of the docents, while happy to share stories about Hemingway during the 30-minute guided tour, joke that they wish Pauline hadn't replaced all of the original ceiling fans with chandeliers – a decision that seems regrettable on the hottest days, when box fans can be found throughout the house.
Beyond the house itself, visitors can wander amid picturesque palm trees and blooming foliage and observe descendants of the family's six-toed felines – many of whom bear the names of famous movie stars, from the calico called Audrey Hepburn to a much-photographed, black-and-white cat named after classic film star Charlie Chaplin. Here, you can also view the separate writing studio above the pool house, where the Nobel Prize-winning novelist penned several famous short stories and books, including To Have and Have Not (1937), the story of a fishing boat captain who runs contraband between Cuba and Florida.
Naturally, this isn't the sole remnant of Hemingway's time in Key West. Not only does every train, trolley, and walking tour mention his name, but you'll also find some of his former belongings in places like the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum (108 Duval St., Key West, 305/293-9939, 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, $15 adults, $12 children 5-12, children under 5 free) and the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House (281 Front St., Key West, 305/295-6616, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, $10 adults, $9 seniors 62 and over and Key West residents, $5 children and students, children under 6 free). In addition, several hotels and watering holes claim ties to Papa Hemingway. The private Mediterranean Revival-style home known as Casa Antigua (314 Simonton St.), for instance, was once a residential hotel above a Ford dealership, and it was here that Hemingway and Pauline stayed during their first visit to Key West. He even finished the initial draft of A Farewell to Arms (1929) while awaiting the delivery of his new Model A. Supposedly, Hemingway also stayed at The Southernmost House (1400 Duval St., Key West, 305/296-3141, $280-385 d), and he frequented Captain Tony's Saloon (428 Greene St., Key West, 305/294-1838, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-2 a.m. Sun.) when it was the original location of Sloppy Joe's Bar. Today, you'll even catch a glimpse of Hemingway's former bar stool at Captain Tony's.
Hemingway, who was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, first came to Key West in 1928 at the urging of a fellow writer. For the next few years, he and Pauline spent winters in the Florida Keys and summers in Europe and Wyoming. Then, in 1931, they acquired the house at 907 Whitehead Street, where they even raised their sons, Patrick and Gregory. During this prolific period, Hemingway's schedule consisted of writing every morning and relaxing every afternoon and evening with his friends, with whom he drank, swam, fished, and boxed. One particularly close pal was Joe Russell, an irascible fisherman and owner of Sloppy Joe's, initially a speakeasy that moved to 428 Greene Street in 1933. Russell introduced Hemingway to one of his lifelong passions – deep-sea fishing – and he repaid the favor by immortalizing his friend as Harry Morgan, captain of the Queen Conch charter boat in To Have and Have Not. Interestingly, the backyard drinking fountain that Hemingway built for his cats is actually a refurbished urinal from Sloppy Joe's, which was also where, in 1936, Hemingway met reporter Martha Gellhorn, who would later become his third wife.
Originally, Hemingway's home was surrounded by a chain-link fence, but in 1935, he erected the perimeter wall that exists today, in the hopes of providing his family a modicum of privacy from gawking tourist hordes. Between 1937 and 1938, while Hemingway was serving as a war correspondent for the Spanish Civil War, Pauline supervised the construction of the first residential swimming pool in Key West. When he returned, he was allegedly shocked by the final price tag of $20,000, at which point he removed a penny from his pocket and told her that she might as well take his last cent. Today, you can see this supposed penny embedded beside the pool.
Hemingway stayed in Key West for well over a decade before divorcing Pauline in 1940, marrying Martha, and heading to Cuba. Pauline, meanwhile, stayed in the Key West home until her death in 1951. Although Hemingway still lived in Cuba, he and his fourth wife, Mary, visited Key West often during the 1950s. In 1959, the Cuban Revolution sent them to Idaho, where he died in 1961. Upon his death, the Key West home was sold to local businesswoman Bernice Dickson, who lived in the main house until turning it into a museum in 1964. The home, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, remains the property of Dickson's family, though Hemingway's spirit is alive and well.
For more juicy bits about Hemingway's time in Key West, consult Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), an engrossing look at the writer's world travels, including his ties to the Southernmost City. Of course, you'll also discover some intriguing tales in Stuart B. McIver's book, the aptly named Hemingway's Key West (Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2002), which even offers a two-hour "Walk with Papa" tour of the city.
Still, if you really want a taste of Hemingway's Key West, simply head to the city next week for the aforementioned Hemingway Days, a six-day event that usually coincides with Hemingway's July 21st birthday and commemorates this fascinating man's lust for life; his adoration of Key West; his passion for activities like writing and deep-sea fishing; and, of course, his literary works. Scheduled events include a museum exhibit of rare Hemingway photographs and memorabilia at the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House; readings and presentations by nationally acclaimed authors and photographers at the Wyland Galleries flagship store (623 Duval St., Key West, 305/292-4998, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, free) that I mentioned yesterday; a four-day marlin tournament (entry fees apply); a one-man play about Hemingway's life, to be staged at The Red Barn Theatre (319 Duval St., Key West, 305/296-9911 or 866/870-9911, $10 adults, $5 students); a free-to-attend awards ceremony for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition at Casa Antigua; a Caribbean-style street fair on Duval Street; and an arm-wrestling championship ($5 entry fee) at the most recent incarnation of Sloppy Joe's Bar (201 Duval St., Key West, 305/294-5717, 9 a.m.-close daily), which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Perhaps the festival's most famous event, though, is the free-to-watch Hemingway Look-Alike Contest ($35 entry fee) at Sloppy Joe's, for which upwards of 150 stocky, white-bearded men flock to town to demonstrate their uncanny resemblance to this one-of-a-kind American writer. Truly, I'd find it difficult to choose the best among this photogenic bunch. Another not-to-be-missed event, of course, is the wacky, free-to-watch "Running of the Bulls," a slow-moving parade that features the "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alikes, dressed in Pamplona-style apparel, including khaki shorts and red berets, and riding or strolling beside phony bulls-on-wheels. For more information about Hemingway Days, contact the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (1201 White St., Ste. 102, Key West, 305/296-1552 or 800/352-5397, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.).
Granted, Hemingway isn't the only famous American writer who's celebrated annually. In the next few months, three other unique literary tributes are planned, including the 30th annual Steinbeck Festival (Aug. 5-8), which will celebrate Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, and at literary locales around the world; the 16th annual H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival (Oct. 1-3), a Portland, Oregon, event that promotes the cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft's well-respected literary horror stories; and the annual Words & Music (Nov. 17-21), a New Orleans arts festival that honors the imagination and achievements of Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner. Still, there's no event quite like Hemingway Days, and no town quite like Key West, which is why I plan to honor the upcoming event with a series of blog posts about some of my favorite Key West haunts. So, stay tuned!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone