Past, Prose, & Polydactyly in Paradise

A visit to the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West is a perfect encapsulation of the uniquity of the southernmost point in the United States.

The Florida Keys – and Key West in particular – have always been something of a peculiar place.

The southernmost island chain in the United States, the Keys sit astride the Straits of Florida, the passage between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico trafficked for centuries by commercial vessels of all kinds. Their idyllic tropical location, combined with the availability of fish and safe harbors, made the islands simultaneously a place of refuge and of peril. Due to their strategic geography, the Keys were often passed through by European treasure galleons on the long journey back to the Continent. The myriad cays, inlets, channels, and atolls of the archipelago – and the storms which could whip up a frenzy – made navigation treacherous for even the most professional of crews. Wrecks abounded, heavily laden with the precious cargo of the New World.

The opportunity these treasure fleets represented – and the lack of oversight from the distant Spanish Crown – drew a whole host of marginal characters to this isolated outpost, this Gibraltar of the West. Even after the American government purchased Florida in 1819 and officially took possession two years later, governance in these remote islands was spotty at best. Pirates, wreckers, con men, outlaws, and adventurers all found their way to the Keys. And so did their cavalier and freewheeling lifestyle. Brothels, drink, illicit trade, and a laissez-faire attitude proliferated, eventually centering around the farthest large island, Key West. This cultural largesse was financed by economic largesse; the scavenging of rich local shipwrecks, combined with its low population, made mid-19th century Key West one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.

Until the late 1800s, the isles which form this barrier reef were only accessible from the mainland by water, further rendering the region as a place apart. That distance and inaccessibility also made an impact during the Civil War. Although Florida sided with the Confederacy, the Keys, buttressed by naval outposts in Key West and Dry Tortugas, remained in Union hands through the war. Within the city of Key West itself, Southern Fire-Eaters uneasily coexisted with Union sympathizers who outwardly celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. The history of the Keys since the turn of the 20th century is somewhat of a microcosm of the broader American story – increasing federal expansion and involvement pressing against the particularity of the previously more regionalized United States.

Of course, in the Florida Keys, this process was met with its own distinct tongue-in-cheek style. The exemplar of this semi-satirical bent came in 1982, when the US Border Patrol sought to stem the tide of illicit drugs and illegal immigrants, mostly from Cuba, only 90 miles away from Key West. After the imposition of a mandatory checkpoint at the mainland terminus of U.S. 1, the sole road running the length of the Keys, residents were furious – well, as furious as one can be in a laid-back tropical paradise. To resist and protest this effective blockade, Key West chose to ‘secede’ from the United States and declare itself a sovereign state: the Conch Republic. This was nothing but a publicity stunt, but it succeeded beyond all expectations. The mock secession generated significant media attention on the roadblock, while boosting tourism demand for the Keys themselves; the Border Patrol inspections stopped shortly thereafter.

Today, the Keys retain this inimitable culture, and it is nowhere more evident than in Key West. Drag brunches are advertised in the windows of stores selling “F*** Joe Biden” merchandise, modern Starbucks stores inhabit 19th century buildings, organizations supporting exile Cubans are across the street from bookstores selling Marxist tracts, cannabis dispensaries and centuries-old churches reside on the same block, roosters freely roam the sidewalks, and you can buy alcohol from street vendors and drink it while waiting for the chicken to cross the road. One of the best historical experiences in this fascinating and eclectic locale is the former home of the embodiment of the city’s esprit de corps: Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway’s home, now a museum, is a testament to the spirit of the man and of the city he profoundly loved and took after. The legendary writer, correspondent, and mercurial bon vivant was an avatar of Key West: individualistic, hard-living, laid-back, adventurous, amiable, eccentric, complex, and witty. His Key West home, in which he lived with his second wife Pauline from 1931 to 1940 (at which time he absconded to Havana with his third wife Martha Gellhorn), explores all of these multifaceted aspects of Hemingway’s personality in an engaging fashion. The home is laid out nearly as it was when Hemingway resided there with his family, apart from the exhibits and depictions on the walls. The furniture is original, as are some of the wall hangings, which range from taxidermy, to carved tribal masks, to portraits. Books from Hemingway’s personal library are exhibited, as are several of his typewriters and effects from his beloved fishing boat, the Pilar, which remains in Cuba where it was stranded by Castro’s revolution in 1959.

The house itself is a gorgeous example of Floridian architecture and 19th century style, with wraparound balconies (complete with grand views), painted shutters, and stunning details. Hemingway’s writing studio is kept as it was when he was working in it nearly 85 years ago; it is also available to rent by writers for inspiration purposes, if said writer can cough up $1,500 for three hours. (Thankfully, regular admission is a far more reasonable $18.) The gardens and grounds are extravagant, replete with beautiful tropical flora (and fauna, but more on that later), a bar-urinal-turned-fountain, and a stunning swimming pool. The pool, which cost an astronomical $20,000 in 1938 dollars, was built before Key West had pumped fresh water and replaced Hemingway’s famed boxing ring where he trained with local fighters. The guided tour, although short, is deeply informative and quite humorous, capturing the essence of the man, his life, his works, and the home itself. One anecdote from the tour, possibly apocryphal, is still quite memorable: upon seeing the cost of the pool, Hemingway quipped to his wife, saying “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!” Said penny is now cemented into the walkway near the pool.

So much of Hemingway’s later life was influenced by his time in the Keys. It was there that he worked on some of his most impressive books, including A Farewell to Arms (1929), Death in the Afternoon (1932), The Green Hills of Africa (1935), To Have and Have Not (1937), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He was introduced to big game sport fishing in Key West and met his longtime ship captain Gregorio Fuentes – the basis for the Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – during this time. Even after his divorce from Pauline, Hemingway kept returning to Key West. For the great author, the Keys – and their unparalleled fishing, living, and culture – were like catnip.

And that brings me to perhaps the best part of the house and a purr-fect epitome for the uniqueness of Key West: the polydactyl cats. Six-toed cats were more common in maritime towns and on ships, as their extraneous appendage purportedly made them more effective mousers. Hemingway was given a six-toed cat by a salvage captain, Harold Stanley Dexter, which his sons named Snow White. Somehow, the cat population in the Hemingway household expanded over time, and these new kittens were named after the author’s friends. The estate now has about 60 of these polydactyl felines, all following in Hemingway’s tradition and named after famous figures. The cats are adorable, independent, and laid-back, often wandering the grounds and museum at will and taking naps wherever they so please. (On my trip to the Hemingway Home, one was even in Hemingway’s own bed!) These felines march to the beat of their own drum, much like the man himself. In that, they are both redolent of the uniquity of the Florida Keys, past and present. And I’m sure ‘Papa’ wouldn’t have it any other way.

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