Ernest Hemingway House
Ernest Hemingway House – 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida
Although the weather may not have been ideal for a typical Key West day, it made for the perfect excuse for us to visit the Ernest Hemingway house. We’d been in Key West for several days already, and persistent high winds and scattered rain showers kept even cruise ships from docking—which meant it was as good a time as any to visit one of the usually crowded tourist destinations. At times, the line to get into the Ernest Hemingway house can stretch halfway around the block, so it’s crucial to plan your visit wisely. As luck would have it, though, there was only one group of people ahead of us in line the day we visited.
The museum is open 365 days a year from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. A nominal fee of $15 per person ($6 for kids 6 to 12 years), cash only (based on December 2019 prices) affords you entrance to the house and gardens, as well as a 30-minute guided tour given by extremely knowledgeable staff members who know all there is to know about the house, history and cats (yes, you read that right). After the tour, you’re free to explore the grounds, gardens and gift store.
Though the house is known as Ernest Hemingway’s house, it was originally built in 1851 by Asa Forsythe Tift, who was a marine architect and salvage wrecker in Key West. The Tift family was one of the earliest settlers of Key West, as well of one of the wealthiest families in the area. The lot of this limestone French Colonial home sits 16 feet above sea level, and stones for the home were quarried directly off the site, giving the home the only dry basement in all of Key West. In real estate, location is key, and the Ernest Hemingway house is no exception. Its location and the home itself have stood the test of time, withstanding multiple hurricanes. In fact, during 2017’s Hurricane Irma, several of the workers (including our tour guide) decided to stay at the home to keep the aforementioned cats company and to ensure the house stayed shuttered. All survived the storm unscathed.
A little bit of history: In April 1928, Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline spent three weeks in Key West and ended up falling in love with the area and the locals. After two subsequent seasons, they decided to make permanent residence. Fortunately, Pauline’s rich uncle Gus purchased the now Ernest Hemingway home for them in 1931 for a mere $8,000. The house was in a horrible state of disrepair, but Ernest and Pauline could see the home’s potential and spent several years renovating.
Among the renovations, I found the inground pool installation in 1937/38 to be one of the most interesting and notable additions. Ernest had a love for boxing; so much so that he had a boxing ring built in his yard and held amateur matches. He was known to throw a few punches and considered the boxing ring one of his favorite places at the house. Unfortunately, Ernest always seemed to be looking for love in all the wrong places. Pauline discovered Ernest’s cheating ways and decided that revenge was in order—and the quickest way to make her point was through the boxing ring. Instead of just tearing it down, she commissioned a $20,000 inground pool to be built in its place, making it the only pool within 100 miles and the only inground pool in all of Key West. When he learned of what she had done to his boxing ring and the enormous cost to build the pool, Ernest took a penny from his pocket, pushed it into the wet cement surrounding the pool and said, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got!” That very penny is still encased in cement poolside.
Not surprisingly, Pauline and Ernest eventually divorced. Pauline’s family kept the home until 1951, when she gave it back to Ernest and their sons. After Ernest’s death in 1961, the sons sold the home for $80,000. That buyer turned the home into a museum, and, in 1968, was designated a US National Historic Landmark.
This article would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the cats. Some are descendants from the original six-toed cat gifted to Ernest by a sea captain whom he had befriended. Today, there are 59 cats roaming the house and grounds, and all have free reign. Once the center of a federal litigation, the cats are federally protected and well cared for by four cat employees. The cats also have an exclusive vet who cares for only them. During the tour, you’ll likely meet several of the cats and catch them napping on the furniture throughout the house.
The Ernest Hemingway house is full of history, intrigue, feline-fun and lover’s drama. It’s a must-visit while in Key West, so plan accordingly to add it to your list of places to check off. But please, take the cat out from under your shirt before you leave.