Diary: Joy Williams, (1) Hemingway and His Houses
Between 1931 and 1961, the year he died, Hemingway had three wives and three houses. Pauline (Pfeiffer), Martha (Gellhorn), and Mary (Welsh). Key West, Cuba, Ketchum. There was a wife before, a first one, Hadley (Richardson), “a likeable but not alluring girl,” now enshrined in sweet legend. They were married from 1921 to 1927 but didn’t have a house. They lived in apartments and hotels in Austria, France, and Spain. They skied a lot and enjoyed bullfights together. Hemingway wrote much of his finest work during these years, the stylistically innovative short stories and the novel The Sun Also Rises, and made many influential literary connections. Gertrude Stein was their baby Jack’s godmother. Hemingway said of her: “I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it and it was a good healthy feeling.” Gertrude Stein!
But I digress. The houses … the wives …
KEY WEST. PAULINE
A major tourist attraction, Hemingway’s house is more popular than sunset, though sunset is free while admission to the coral rock house with lime green shutters is eighteen dollars. If you’re one of the many many passengers on one of the ever-arriving cruise ships you will probably get a discount. All visitors will be told that the cats lounging about are descendants of Hemingway’s personal cats, six-toed cats, very unusual. This is not true—Hemingway had flocks of cats in Cuba, not Key West—though contesting it won’t get you a refund.
Pauline was a chic, even worldly young woman, a writer for Vogue who had initially befriended Hadley and travelled and summered with the couple in all of Europe’s best places. Hemingway’s friends, having determined that Hadley was somewhat second-rate, approved of Pauline, considering her to be a much more suitable mate—she was rich as well—and feeling that he should “move on.” Hemingway married Pauline less than a month after divorcing Hadley. He wanted a base in America and was drawn to Key West and its clear waters teeming with great fish—sailfish, tarpon, marlin. He certainly did not want to live in Piggott, Arkansas, which the prominent Pfeiffer family practically owned.
In 1931, Pauline’s Uncle Gus gave the couple eight thousand dollars to buy the run-down mansion on Whitehead Street. It had been built in 1851 and now required considerable attention—half of Key West became involved in its refurbishment and repair. Trees and palms were planted, someone presented them with peacocks and flamingos. When the place was finally livable there was the need to hire various factotums, gardeners, cooks, and nannies for their two young sons. In 1934, at the height of the Depression, Hemingway had a forty-foot fishing boat build to his specifications in a Brooklyn shipyard. It was black with mahogany trim and he made a point of purchasing it with his own money and not that of the generous Uncle Gus who had sprung for a lengthy African trip a few years before. This pretty boat, christened Pilar, was, under the guidance of Hemingway, a ruthless fish-killing machine. Hemingway carried guns to shoot sharks and, when the fishing was poor, seabirds and turtles. He even had a machine gun. A friend described one outing when sharks moved in on a hooked fish, “They come like express trains and hit the fish like a planing mill—shearing off twenty-five and thirty pounds at a bite. Ernest shoots them with a machine gun, rrr … but it won’t stop them—it’s terrific to see the bullets ripping into them—the shark thrashing in blood and foam—the white bellies and fearful jaws—the pale cold eyes. I was really aghast but it’s very exciting.”
This was John Dos Passos’s wife Katy who also made a nutty note of Hemingway off the Gulf and on the land. He’s “just a big cage of canaries” trailed by a crowd of Cubans treating him like a “conquistador.”
Increasingly in Key West Hemingway was attracting fans and fawners. At the house there were always guests and visitors. He fished, drank, held forth, and occasionally wrote but was becoming increasingly restless. His one Key West novel, To Have and Have Not, is considered a bit of a dud. He and Pauline had been married for ten years: where had the time gone … Drinking in “Sloppy Joe’s” (the original bar on Greene Street, long since now “Capt’ Tony’s”), he was introduced to the beautiful Martha Gellhorn (by some accounts the introducer was herself). Martha was sleek and smart, a cool-headed journalist who at twenty-eight was already covering the Spanish Civil War. “Where I want to be is where it is all blowing up,” she said. Hemingway quickly became enamored of Martha and very interested in the war, producing and narrating the documentary, The Spanish Earth. During one of his long absences from Key West, Pauline had a sixty-foot in-ground pool constructed and a brick privacy wall built around the acre-and-a-half property. Lovely gestures but the marriage was over. Hemingway moved his possessions—letters, clothes, animal heads and skins—to a storage room at Sloppy Joe’s where they commenced to rot.
He travelled extensively with Martha. To Idaho, where he would live out his days with Mary, and Wyoming, where he had spent family holidays with Pauline. They married in the fall of 1940, shortly after the divorce.
Pauline stayed on in the Key West house with the agreement that joint ownership would be shared by Ernest and their two sons, Patrick and Gregory, 60–30–30. Pauline died suddenly in Los Angeles in 1951. She had flown there when Gregory had been arrested after entering the ladies’ room of a movie theater wearing women’s clothes. She died of a burst adrenal gland at the hospital after what must have been a stressful day. Gregory, sometimes known as Gigi and, later, Gloria, was a fetishist, alcoholic, and cross-dresser. Gregory/Gloria died in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine of a heart attack in a Miami jail cell after being arrested for walking nude and raving down a Miami street. Gregory/Gloria lived only intermittently as a woman and was frequently unhappy. Still, he did what he could to cheer himself up. Once on safari he shot eighteen elephants which he felt was quite “therapeutic.”
But I digress …
Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) is the most beautiful of Hemingway’s houses—simple, stately, airy, grand. Built on a small rise accessible by wide steps and surrounded by enormous trees and tropical foliage, it overlooks Havana, a dozen miles away. It is now managed, quite well it must be said, by the Cuban government, which, it might be said also, simply appropriated it after the Revolution. Visitors can’t go inside but can view the rooms through the tall windows from the terrace. Unlike Key West, the furnishings, personal effects, and books (three thousand of them) are from the forties and fifties, the period when Hemingway lived here. The huge writing desk, the boots, the cocktail glasses. On the bathroom wall are the numbers with which he noted his weight and blood pressure. Of course his ghastly trophies are here as well—pelts, horns, a water buffalo head as big as a Jeep. For a while the Pilar, hauled up from her berth in the nearby village of Cojimar, was disintegrating on the lawn, but she has been restored and lies in state in a cradle protected by a tin roof. She has a touching affect as many old boats do. She has regained an innocence, a fidelity to herself.
To be continued!
Editor’s note: I travelled the Florida Keys recently with Joy’s lovingly meticulous, eccentric guide, The Florida Keys, which she stopped updating in 2003 in despair at the Keys’ overdevelopment and environmental degredation. She quoted Edward Abbey, “This is not a travel guide but an elegy.” The book holds up, though. The Hemingway presence is considered on p. 206. Read more on Joy Williams’s Florida in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals.
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