Saturday, July 23, 2011

Is This The Way To The Hemingway House?

Key West's #1 Tourist Attraction: The Ernest Hemingway Home  
It’s Hemingway Days again in Key West and you just can’t avoid thinking about Hemingway and what his celebrity has brought to our island city. Whenever we go out on our front porch we are asked by tourists for directions to Key West's number one tourist attraction. In fact, it’s just around the corner, but the appearance of locals, who might know the way to Hemingway's, is apparently irresistible and one or another in every passing pair or party pauses to ask “is this the way to the Hemingway House?”  Maybe they expect the appearance of something more spectacular, something like a Vanderbilt Mansion looming majestically above the modest tin roofs of the neighborhood’s wooden houses. The Hemingway House is surrounded by a red brick wall, its gates locked tight every day at 5 p.m. unless someone rents the grounds for a party or a wedding or something like that. I always tell tourists to look for the red brick wall.  Just about anytime you walk past the Hemingway House there is a crowd of people there, waiting to get in, or posing for photos, or jumping up for a peek over the wall after 5 p.m.   
Ernest and Pauline around the time of their marriage
    The late Jeanne Porter, who grew up on Whitehead Street, played with Hemingway's sons when she was a little girl.  One day she told us this story: The boys kept several raccoons in cages outside in the yard. The animals were named after movie stars. One day it was discovered that a raccoon named Greta Garbo had killed and was eating her cage mate, Harold Lloyd. Although disturbing Papa Hemingway when he was in his writing studio was strictly taboo, the children’s horrified screams brought him to the scene. When he saw what was happening he went into the house and returned with a shotgun. Then, in full view of the children, he wordlessly shot off the head of Greta Garbo and returned to his studio. Jeanne said they thought perhaps Papa suspected that Greta Garbo had rabies. But the episode shook her badly, so badly that she remembered it quite clearly 60 years later.
"That writer with the bullfights." The Hemingways in Pamploma, 1928
    I was in the eighth grade when I read The Old Man and the Sea and wrote an essay that made me very proud indeed. It may have been the first time I realized that a story can be much more than just a story, that a whole can be way bigger than the sum of its parts. I wanted to be a writer and understanding Hemingway’s brevity was a wonderful lesson. Many years later, when my son read The Old Man and the Sea, as a junior in college majoring in English, he was so swept away by the tale he said he wanted to get a tattoo honoring Hemingway. I told him he should maybe know a little bit more about the writer before tattooing himself for life with the image of Hemingway.  
Ernest and Pauline, Key West, 1930's
    Hemingway came to Key West with his second wife, Pauline, in search of a quiet place to write, it is said. Pauline was from Piggott, Arkansas. The house in which she grew up is also preserved as a museum, and in touring it you learn that Pauline grew up with many advantages. Her family had money. And connections. That’s how Pauline got a job with Vogue Magazine in Paris, where Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley were living, supported by Hadley’s modest inheritance. In spite of her strict Catholic upbringing, Pauline found herself hopelessly in love with Hemingway and soon became the second Mrs. Hemingway. Financially she was far better off than Hadley.  Her uncle, founder of the Richard Hudnut cosmetic brand, bought his niece and her writer husband the house in Key West as a wedding present in 1931. It cost him $8,000. It was the first house Hemingway owned. He was 32 years old.
    He did not live for long in the Key West house. In 1936, at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, he met the woman who was to become his third wife, a renowned journalist with a thirst for adventure. He divorced Pauline and married Martha Gellhorn, who writes, in her memoirs, that the great Hemingway was not much of a lover. In fact, she wrote, she was certain that in spite of his macho reputation, the only women he’d ever bedded were the four women he married.
    “I want to write a blog about why I think Hemingway was a lousy lay,” I told an artist friend the other day.
    “Of course he was,” my friend said. “He hated women.”
    So that’s the general take on Hemingway’s machismo around here. 
Peeking over the wall
    In the television series The Sopranos, young Christopher Montelsanti wants to be a writer. As he struggles over his computer, bemoaning the agony of creating enough pages to add up to something publishable, wise guy Paulie Walnuts warns him about the frustration of writing: “That writer, with the bullfights!” he says. “ He blew his own f’ing head off.”
    People touring the Hemingway House often ask the guides to show them the room where Hemingway shot himself. It happened in Idaho, not Key West. Hemingway was 61 years old, and had just complained to a close friend that as a writer, he could not retire (in fact, a rather cheering thought for me). Writers have to write and produce, no matter their age, he said. And Hemingway could write no more. It made him crazy enough to kill himself. 
Spencer Tracy and Hemingway during the filming The Old Man And the Sea, Cuba 1957. Tracy was nominated for the best actor Oscar. He lost to David Niven's performance in Separate Tables.
    The Old Man and the Sea will show at the Tropic Theater tonight. Tickets are $50 as it is a fundraiser for the local suicide hot line. The film is about a Cuban fisherman down on his luck when he hooks a giant fish that pulls him way out to sea. Hemingway was at the top of his game when he wrote Old Man, his finest work, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hemingway’s story is much bigger, but every bit as sad as the old Cuban fisherman’s. Hemingway hooked a big fish, too, the big fish of fame, and that fish pulled him far out into the sea of insanity, from which he could not return.

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