Hemingway in Key West

An Online Exhibition

One of Key West’s most famous residents of all time, Ernest Hemingway, spent many happy years on the island writing, fishing, drinking, and boxing.  Stories of his vivacious life in Key West continue to captivate enthusiasts, and lend themselves to the annual festivities held during Hemingway Days.

A Happy Accident

It happened by accident: when they arrived in Key West from Paris via Havana on April 7, 1928, Ernest and the very pregnant Pauline Hemingway did not plan on staying on the island for more than two days.  They intended to pick up the Ford motorcar Pauline’s Uncle Gus had ordered for them and drive to her family’s estate in Piggott, Arkansas, then to Kansas City where she would give birth to their first child, Patrick.

A Move to Key West

But the automobile was not there, and did not arrive for six weeks.  During this time, Hemingway worked on the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms and learned about fishing in the waters of the Keys back-country and off the Keys bridges from Captain Edward “Bra” Saunders and Charles Thompson.  While Pauline befriended Charles’ wife Lorine and others, her husband expanded his acquaintances to include Joe Russell, a saloon owner, fisherman and liquor-smuggler, the lawyer George Brooks, and J. B. Sullivan, an iron monger and fisherman.

The Hemingways returned to rented houses in Key West every winter between 1928 and 1931.  In April 1931, they purchased the large house at 907 Whitehead Street, which remained his residence until December 1939 when he moved to Cuba with a new wife.  Pauline and her sons remained in the Key West house until her death in 1951.  After Hemingway’s suicide in July 1961, his estate sold the property and it is now an island attraction.

An International Celebrity

Hemingway became the international public figure we know today while living in Key West.  He wrote many of his major works here: the books Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not (the novel in which he used several of his Key West friends as the basis for some of the characters), and the short stories ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ and ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’.  From the Whitehead Street house he became famous not only for his writing, but also for his fishing prowess in the waters in the Gulf Stream off Cuba and the Bahamas.  In the early years of his residence on the island he and his friends fished from Bra Saunders’ unnamed boat and Joe Russell’s Anita, and in 1934 he purchased is own ‘fishing machine’ he named Pilar.

The citizens of Key West soon became accustomed to the sight of the burly figure in stained shorts and a shirt tromping or driving down the streets on one errand or another, including refereeing boxing matches in the yard at what is now the Blue Heaven restaurant and serving as a judge at one Women’s Club flower show with fellow writers John Dos Passos and Elmer Davis.

A Farewell to Key West

Hemingway left Key West for long stints, spending months over a period of several years in Spain as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War and carrying on a semi-secret affair with the writer Martha Gellhorn who became his third wife in 1940.   He returned to Key West from time to time to visit friends and check on the house but he never lived here again.

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