A Visit to the Hemingway Home Museum

As a writer, I’m especially intrigued to visit to the Hemingway Home Museum, which is the #1 attraction in Key West, Florida. A guided tour of Ernest Hemingway’s house provides an in depth look into the colorful life of one of the greatest writers of all time. Although I’ve been here on several previous occasions, I always learn something new about this Nobel Prize-winning author and the home where he wrote some of his best works. His most famous book authored here is To Have and Have Not.

Hemingway's bed

Built in 1851 in the Spanish Colonial style, this two-story house became the residence for Ernest Hemingway, his second wife, Pauline and their two sons, Patrick and Gregory, who lived together on the estate from 1931-1940. When the couple divorced in 1940, Hemingway left Key West for Cuba, and Pauline stayed in the home with Patrick and Gregory. Pauline died in 1951, and the home was vacant for years. Although Hemingway never moved back into the house, he continued to visit Key West during the 40’s and 50’s. After his death in 1961, the estate was sold. Today the Hemingway Home is a National Historic Landmark, and along with the expansive gardens and pool, the estate remains the single largest residential property in Key West.

On my most recent visit this past January, the wait for a guided tour was only about ten minutes, despite the number of tourists milling about. Although I could have opted to wander around the house and grounds on my own, the thirty-minute guided tour adds much to the experience, and I recommend it, especially since it’s included in the cost of admission. Tours begin every fifteen minutes and focus on the years Hemingway lived in this house.

One of Hemingway's 6-toed cat descendants

As soon as I enter the two-story house, the first thing I see is one of the cats, curled up and asleep on a pale pink Victoria sofa, obviously making himself at home. I am a cat lover, with three of my own, so I’m immediately endeared to this silver tabby. The cats are one of the main features of this property, and all of them are descendants of Hemingway’s original polydactyl, 6-toed cat, Snow White. Visitors are encouraged to pet these friendly cats and interact with them as much as they like. Today fifty-nine cats reside here. Half of them have six toes. The story goes that Hemingway made the acquaintance of a sea captain who owned an unusual six-toed tomcat, which captured Ernest’s heart. When he left Key West, the captain presented the cat to Hemingway.

As we walk through the house, our guide points out the furniture that Hemingway and his family once used. Fancy chandeliers replaced original ceiling fans, thanks to Pauline’s fashion taste. I especially enjoy seeing Ernest Hemingway’s writing studio he built above a detached carriage house. His original typewriter sits on the table where he wrote during the ten years he lived here. A strong sense of his presence emanates from this room, where he produced some of his most well-known works. Appropriately, a cat sits on the floor near the table.

Hemingway writing studio
Garden at the Hemingway home

The grounds and gardens are just as much a part of this tour as is the house. A unique and extraordinary feature of the grounds is the in-ground swimming pool, built in 1937-38, at the exorbitant cost of $20,000. It was the first in-ground pool in Key West, and the only pool within 100 miles. I’m not sure if this is true or just a tale, but our guide relates a funny story related to the pool cost. According to him, the expensive project caused Hemingway to take a penny from his pocket, press it into the wet cement of the surrounding patio, and announce jokingly to Pauline, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got.” The penny is still embedded between flagstones at the north end of the pool and I saw it myself. Even more baffling is the imagining the enormous labor to dig through solid coral, a gigantic hole the size of the pool, twenty-four feet wide, sixty feet long. The deep end is ten feet deep and the shallow end is five feet deep. This is not your normal size backyard pool.

The swimming pool

Today the home is one of the most popular wedding and event venues. In fact, during my tour, preparations were underway for a wedding. The museum is open daily 365 days a year from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. and reservations are available, with payment by cash and credit cards. Call 305-407-0095. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is located at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West, Florida. Tickets may be purchased at the main entrance. General Admission price is $16.00 for adults, $6.00 for children ages 6-12, and children 5 and under are free.

The roaming cats are so much a part of this property that much attention and information is given about them during the tour. I learn that their own veterinarian performs routine procedures such as ear mite treatment, vaccinations, flea spraying, and worming. The Zoetis Company provides the museum with the product, Revolution, to protect the cats from heartworms, fleas and other harmful parasites.

I find it interesting that Hemingway named all his cats after famous people, and the museum continues the tradition today. A special cat cemetery in the garden is dedicated to all the cats that lived here and have passed away. Their graves are marked with their names and dates. Some of the more interesting ones are Errol Flynn, Dorian Gray, Rudolph Valentino, Alice B. Toklas, Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso, and Emily Dickinson.

Cat cemetery grave markers

A nice added touch is a little bookshop with an entrance from outside the house in the garden. I bought a book called Write Like Hemingway: Writing Lessons You Can Learn from the Master by R. Andrew Wilson. Not only have I learned much from this book, but it is a great souvenir.

A visit to the Hemingway Home and Museum is like taking a step back in time. A definite must-see for any visitor to Key West.

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Margie Miklas

Margie is an American writer with a passion for travel, and a particular love of Italy. An award-winning author of six books, she also writes the blog, Margie in Italy, and contributes to the monthly newspaper, La Gazzetta Italiana as well as several other websites. When she’s not traveling or writing, she can be found at the beach near her home in Florida, or trying out a new recipe. Follow her on IG/Twitter @margiemiklas.