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KEY WEST, Fla. / HAVANA, Cuba — Ernest Hemingway spent a lifetime cultivating a masculine image and personas. War correspondent, cigar lover, big game hunter, deep sea fisherman, boxer, liberal with liquor, minimalist with words — all done to maximum effect. Predictably, evidence of his adventures fills the writer’s two tropical homes in Key West and Havana.
Hunting and fishing trophies stare down from the walls in nearly every room, as well as photos of his exploits and famous friends. He was a legend in his own time, and movie posters from his books such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls that were made into films adorn the walls. But it’s the spirit of the other kind of trophy he collected, his wives, that helps to distinguish his island retreats.
Venetian chandeliers and Spanish and European antique furnishings decorate the Key West home he shared with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and their two sons, Patrick and Gregory. He met her in Paris while still married to first wife Hadley Richardson. They were married and moved to Key West in 1931. The Spanish Colonial-style house was built in 1851 and bought for the Hemingways by her uncle. Today, it’s a museum and wedding venue often filled with camera-toting tourists, much like Key West itself.
The home was in disrepair when they bought it, but the second Mrs. Hemingway brought it back to life. She removed a wall that divided the living room and took out two of the floor-to-ceiling arched doors that surrounded the space so she could hang paintings. According to the tour guides, the author was also interested in unusual antique furniture. In the master bedroom, two twin beds are pushed together and an old gate from a Spanish monastery serves as the headboard.
The second-floor wraparound porch, lined with arched windows, has ceiling fans to keep the upstairs rooms comfortable in the tropic heat. The real escape from the heat is the in-ground pool. The first in Key West was designed by Hemingway but built under his wife’s direction because he had left to cover the Spanish Civil War. Originally, it was a saltwater pool that had to be drained every few days and refilled to keep it fresh. The guides like to point out a penny embedded in the concrete near the pool. The story goes that Hemingway was unhappy with the soaring cost and tossed it into the wet cement, saying something to the effect of “you might as well take my last penny.”
Above the pool house is his writing room, preserved just as it was when he wrote there. The first floor is now the gift shop, although Papa would have preferred a bar. His home away from home was the local watering hole Sloppy Joe’s, but anywhere he bellied up now makes note of it, particularly in Cuba.
He also frequented the Floridita in Havana, where a bronze statue of him is polished by visitors who cozy up to it for a photo op. It is here that the Hemingway Daiquiri or the “Papa Doble” was invented with his help. It’s served at Sloppy Joe’s as well. His favorite mojito hangout in Havana was La Bodeguita de Medio, and like the other bars he frequented, it is overrun with fans and tourists.
Although he loved the masculine pursuits, Hemingway was also a romantic, and some might say a womanizing misogynist. Married four times, his love life was a complication of the challenge of the chase, the excitement of new love, and pain of divorce. Pfeiffer was an editor at Paris Vogue when she met Hemingway. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain takes the first wife’s point of view, but Richardson had her turn on his romance merry-go-round.
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It could be said that it was Hemingway’s philandering that brought him to Cuba. While still married to Pauline Pfeiffer, he met fellow writer, novelist, and journalist Martha Gellhorn at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West. It was another near-immediate attraction. Shortly after they were in Spain covering the Civil War and the rise of Franco together. He divorced Pfeiffer not long after. HBO’s movie Hemingway and Gellhorn depicts her as most like him, competitive and adventurous. She found Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm in San Francisco de Paula, approximately 12 miles outside of Havana proper. They rented it the first year, and he bought it in 1940. From the tower that adjoins the house he could see the Atlantic Ocean, Havana, and the horizon. What he couldn’t see was that this marriage would end like the first two. They divorced in 1945, but he kept the house and lived there with his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh, until 1960.
The Cuban guides say that everything is left as it was the day he walked out the door. Because of the humidity, the home is not open for tours, but guests are welcome to peer through the windows and French doors. His study and desk are visible and so is a typewriter on top of a bookshelf. He liked to write standing up. A few Cuban CUCs will get the guard to open a door to the dining room for a quick picture. In the bathroom you can see where Hemingway had started to write his weight in pencil on the wall behind the door. His health was declining, and it was one way he tried to monitor it.
The property includes a pool and tennis courts. Today the pool is empty and the Pilar, his famous fishing boat — which he had outfitted with guns during World War II to hunt Nazi submarines — sits in dry dock on the tennis courts. A ramp has been built around the boat for tourists to get a better look. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Cuban government collaborated with the United States and the Finca Vigia Foundation and began to restore the property, which had fallen on hard times. It was turned into a museum in 2007 and the guest house into a gift shop, yet it is still considered an endangered historic site.
The Cubans are very territorial about “Papa,” and the writer seems to haunt every other bar in Havana. Photos of him with Fidel Castro are also evident in many establishments, but according to his secretary, Valerie Hemingway (she married his youngest son, Gregory), they only met once when the dictator won a fishing tournament sponsored by the novelist in May, 1960.
Along with the tropical settings and mounted animal heads, both homes have cats in common. They wander the grounds at Finca Vigia and are found sleeping on the bed or various chairs at the Key West home. In Florida, the guides say they are direct descendants of Hemingway’s cat, Snowball.
He left Cuba on July 25, 1960. Some say the U.S. government forced him to leave, others that it was his choice. Either way, he left his book manuscripts and other personal items believing he would be back. A year later he ended his life with a gun. His wife, Mary, and his secretary, Valerie, went back in 1961 to retrieve some of his things.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Patrician Sheridan is a writer for the Post-Gazette. Contact her at: email@example.com.