I Still Don’t Know For Whom the Bell Tolls

Travel Stories: In Florida's Key West, land of tropical cocktails, Doug Mack went to Ernest Hemingway's house looking for inspiration. He found some, but not the kind he hoped.

First, to the bedroom, where a tour group lingered as their guide droned. I’ve never been one for such scripted contrivances, preferring to bypass the often-inane questions of my fellow travelers and the irreverent but irrelevant personal anecdotes of the guides. I listened from afar and waited for the camera-clutching masses to move on before I entered the room. In due time, they filed out, shutters clicking all the while.

My turn. The first sight, an intricately carved headboard on a large bed, seemed a good omen, particularly after I learned that Papa had been rather clever in creating the king-sized sleeping space, pushing together two twin-sized mattresses on the frame. It struck me as a neat contrivance, a sure sign of eccentricity, and as I paused to admire it, I felt like I was beginning to gain a modicum of insight into Hemingway’s life and personality. 

It would have been the perfect time for a ghost to pop out from under the bed to offer some thoughts on the secret of life or how to craft brilliant, award-winning prose, or at least a jovial “Booga booga!” Alas, no such luck. 

Still, the bedroom was a good start, and surely a paranormal encounter awaited just around the corner. And so, remaining hopeful, I strode onward to the next room, from which the tour group was departing in another percussive chorus of camera shutters and thwack-thwacking flip-flops. 

A glass case with postcards, articles and assorted bits and pieces from and about Hemingway’s life attempted to tell his tale. I looked over everything quickly, trying to take it all in, just in case the scribe’s spook gave a pop quiz before dispensing his wisdom. 

But, try as I might, I just couldn’t get interested in the information and artifacts offered. I was startled by how little they actually revealed—the display of Papa paraphernalia seemed hastily-assembled, more like the arrangement of items at a flea market than what you’d expect at a museum. The explanatory placards were either absent or uninspiring, which only furthered the vague impression that a crusty old salesman would appear to offer me an unbeatable price for the fishing gear and stack of letters, perhaps throwing in a few vinyl records to sweeten the deal. 

This peculiar collection didn’t even begin to tell Hemingway’s story: The artifacts were lifeless; they gave glimpses into his life but offered no insight. Just an inane assortment of mementos—photos here, letters there—but no real sense that they tied together. I wanted to learn or, more accurately, to be inspired, but I was just getting frustrated and bitter.

As I looked at the display and the rest of the room, my gaze growing more vacant and more disheartened, I managed one last effort to make contact. Listening intently, I tried to find any aural clues that the supposed specter-in-residence might be close at hand. A creepy, distant moan of unknown origin would have sufficed. But no. Nothing but the hum of a fan and the chattering of the other tourists. 

The fan seemed rather out of place; I couldn’t help but think, as I did one last inventory of the room’s disappointing contents, and there’s Papa’s late-model window fan, to cool off Papa’s cheesy glass case of knick-knacks and curios.  Moving on to the bathroom, I discovered Hemingway’s television, also a recent model. The man was way ahead of his time in his taste in electronics.

I sulked down the stairs to explore the ground floor, where I heard conversation in four languages—four different ways to say “Well, this is kinda disappointing; let’s go get some Key lime pie”—but once again found no inspiration, no wraiths. 

A lush landscape beckoned outside the windows, so I tagged along with the tour group as it headed outdoors. I followed paths meandering through the tropical flora, imagining Hemingway on an early-morning constitutional along the same route, pausing here and there to admire the setting. The lush environs started to soothe my frustrations and make me think I had perhaps not just wasted 11 bucks and an hour of my life. 

A sharp voice broke my daze—the tour guide was suddenly talking with more passion than I’d noticed inside the house, his audience now quiet and enthralled. 

The cats. There are about 60 of them, and as the guide spoke about Hemingway’s affection for them, it seemed that each one came out of hiding—the critters were everywhere, each one with a calm but vaguely sinister look on its face, creating a mildly Hitchcockian scene. The guide picked up one of the cats, disobeying a nearby sign and, clearly, the struggling animal’s own wishes, and offered a bit of show-and-tell about these famous felines’ most famous attribute: six toes. The crowd mumbled approvingly. What a man, this Hemingway fellow—he had cats with six toes! The chorus of camera shutters resumed, more vociferous than ever.

As I exited the grounds and strolled down the sidewalk, I tried to convince myself that the experience had not been a major let-down. I tried to be analytical and philosophical about it.  I tried, most of all, to give credit to those who maintain Hemingway’s residence for not turning it into a Disneyfied attraction, replete with costumed or, worse, animatronic characters. 

But I kept coming back to the cats. They were, in fact, pretty charming, in spite of their generally enigmatic personalities. It certainly wasn’t their fault that they overshadowed their ancestors’ owner and the gloomy, uninspiring, frustratingly ghost-free house in which he lived.

Realizing, with a bit of a start, the implications of this thought that had just drifted through my mind—namely, that I was thinking much like the tourists whose comments and actions I had just been mocking—I pictured a slogan that would fit well on one of those T-shirts sold on Duval Street. It’s a bit long, but I think it would sell:

I went to the Hemingway’s Home for literary inspiration. I left inspired to get a cat.

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