Brandon M. Stickney
In a week, the Giuliano family and I were gone from a soon-to-be willow- and maple-tree-leafless Market Street, headed to the South’s eternal sunshine in his tricked-out hippie Krishna conversion van. I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming: “Question Reality.”
Geoffrey drove. His wife, Brenda, drove. Together we drove the van for the 1,000 miles with the CD player blasting Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s “Rough Mix.”
Every time Townshend got to “Keep Me Turning,” we’d hit repeat, especially along the oceanic skyways from the coast of Florida proper to the studded islands connecting, finally, to Key West.
It’s all still there, sunbaked, as it was when we toured Key West. And so is the Hemingway house at 907 Whitehead Street. Walking to the stone gateway with Brenda and Geoffrey Giuliano, I felt like I was in a movie, playing the part that is me, as if none of it was authentic. A writerly dream realized—can there ever be one? There was that one that day, certainly.
The voices of the Hemingway House’s multiple tour guides blended like a chaotic Greek chorus of romantic and contradictory facts of another time. The greatly admired author was not there, unfortunately, as he died in Ketchum, Idaho. We'd arrived in Key West 30 years later.
His office in the house and (the other one, a fortress of solitude) in the nearby garage by the pool were both perfectly preserved, as if Ernest himself would return from drinks up the street at Sloppy Joe's Bar, to offer a few more typed pages to the nine muses before retiring for the evening.
Built in 1851, the 3,000-square foot French Colonial mansion was home to the author and wife Pauline Pfeiffer. While there, Hemingway wrote Green Hills of Africa and To Have and Have Not, along with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1968.
For today's tourist, there are many reasons to make Key West's Hemingway House part of your bucket list:
- The claim that the author wrote 70% of his lifetime works here
- The mansion is a National Historic Landmark, a Literary Landmark, and has been recognized by Congress (as the "coolest place ever"*). Also, Brock Clarke, who penned An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Algonquin, 2008), has a lifetime ban from the property.**
- Hosts lots of weddings and corporate events, annually
- You should go there with Giuliano, as I did, but you don't have to. Ha, ha.
A writer friend, Mike Geier from my hometown of Lockport (the birthplace of writers Joyce Carol Oates and Brock Yates), sent a 1993 postcard with an aerial view of the Hemingway House when he was on his honeymoon in Key West. I kept it taped above my word processor for years, until the word processor morphed into a laptop computer, our times and locations not being fixed constructs.
I think old Mike wrote something like he felt a clairvoyance that I was “there too” when he and his wife were on Whitehead Street.
In 1990, the Giulianos and I were approaching this holy place, we could see Hemingway's legacy six- and seven-toed cats lounging on and near the stone fence beneath the shade trees and palms.
I told the Giulianos of Carlos Baker’s fictional biographical note (I made it up on the spot): the cats “bred and bred and bred and now they loaf.” Funny and true—I’ve used that line several times, but I’m not sure today’s (or any days’) general populace gets it.
Back then, I looked into Ernest’s preserved, book-filled office at the Key West house, which like Giuliano’s Beatles palace in Lockport was decorated by a career of photographic fandom and greatness. Giuliano’s twisted staircase walls held youthful photos of Paul, George and Ringo, and a framed holiday card from Lennon, with a handwritten, “Happy Christmas! Love John.”
Of course, Hemingway was just as dry and as humorous as Lennon. On display at the Key West house was a disembodied men’s room urinal from a tavern. Why the accomplished God of future journalists everywhere would want to bring home such a treasure betrays even today's drunken logic.
Hemingway’s many books, in 100th Anniversary paperback editions, were displayed near one entryway of the house.
I wished I could have bought one of each.
It didn’t matter.
I was there, thanks to him. Thanks to them. Now I recommend this place on your strange trip across the Southern United States. What I saw there is my secret—but I do know that, on the long drive home, "Get Together" by The Youngbloods guided our way.
I still write in honor of Hemingway, a man of his word who never disappointed me, though his material form had abandoned this plane before I arrived in 1967.
Life itself is art. Who said that? Eric Fromm? Or Meher Baba, the metaphysical God incarnate?
And like any art, it can be perfected during only one wizened lifetime on the wheel of eternity. To live and thrive, beyond tomorrow, which never knows.
Brandon M. Stickney is a biographer, historical writer, and documentarian who has appeared on A&E, NPR, the History Channel, and the Travel Channel's Mysteries in the Museum. He has two cats: Gordon Lightfoot and Little Bones.
Regarding * and **, these two statements are the only products of Stickney's imagination in this piece—gallows humor.
Brandon M. Stickney 10/20/2023