If you’re planning a visit to Key West, Florida, a stop at the Ernest Hemingway House should be at the top of your list. Whether or not you’re a fan of his writing, the lovely home and gardens are now a museum full of charming 1930’s details, memorabilia from Hemingway’s time on the island, and of course lots and lots of cats!
Mr. SBC and I visited the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum on a cruise stop in Key West, and it was only a 20-minute walk from the pier. If you’re planning to also visit the famous Southernmost Point Buoy, it’s right down the road.
If you’d rather not walk that far, the Key West Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour has a stop near the cruise port as well as near the Hemingway House.
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Visiting the Hemingway House in Key West
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is located at 907 Whitehead Street, close to the Key West Lighthouse and Museum. Tickets are only available at the gate, so get there early. The line can be long, especially on days when cruise ships are in port. Check Key West’s cruise ship schedule before your visit to get an idea of how busy the museum might be.
Admission is $15 for adults, and $6 for children ages 6-12. Kids 5 and under are free. The museum offers a discounted rate of $12 per person for groups of 12 or more. Make sure you bring cash because the museum doesn’t accept credit cards.
The Hemingway Home and Museum is open every day, including all holidays, from 9 AM until 5 PM.
Tickets include an optional 30-minute guided tour of the house and grounds, but you’re welcome to explore the property on your own.
We chose to take the tour, which I highly recommend. Our guide, JL, was quite a character! She used the perfect mix of humor and history to keep our group entertained and engaged while we learned about the house and Hemingway’s time in Key West.
History of the Ernest Hemingway Home
The Ernest Hemingway house in Key West is nearly 170 years old, but has been preserved to look much as it did when Hemingway lived there for nine years in the 1930s.
Electricity was added to the house around 1899, and plumbing was installed about 1944, when Key West began receiving piped-in water from Florida City. Prior to that date, the islanders collected rainwater in cisterns, two of which are still on the property today.
The house was the first in Key West to have an upstairs bath with running water (fed by the cistern on the roof), and one of the first with modern plumbing. It was also the first with a swimming pool, installed by Hemingway’s second wife Pauline in 1938.
The Tift family: 1851-1931
Hemingway’s home was originally built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a former naval architect and sea captain from Groton, Connecticut. Tift owned several stores in Key West, along with ships and a large salvaging operation, making him one of the wealthiest men in the area at the time.
To this day, the Hemingway House remains the largest residential property on Key West.
The home’s location is on the second-highest point on Key West, about 16 feet (4.88 m) above sea level. Tift chose an elevated spot in order to excavate limestone from the property to construct the house. The excavation also allowed for a basement under the home, a rarity on Key West.
Asa Tift was a slave owner, and enslaved people likely were the primary labor source for the excavation, stone cutting, and construction of the home.
Tift owned the home until his death in 1889, living in it alone for much of his life after the death of his wife and two sons from yellow fever in the 1850s, and his daughter’s passing in 1869.
The Hemingways: 1931-1961
After Asa Tift’s death, the home was abandoned and boarded up. But its charm caught the eye of Ernest and Pauline Hemingway when they visited Key West in 1928, the year after their marriage. When Pauline saw that the property would be auctioned in 1931, her uncle Gus purchased the home for $8000 and gave it to the couple as a belated wedding gift.
Hemingway lived in the home with his wife and their two sons from 1931 until 1939. When Hemingway left for Cuba in 1939 to pursue another relationship, Pauline stayed in the home and lived there until her death in 1951. The home remained in Ernest Hemingway’s possession until he died in 1961.
The Dixon family: 1961-present
Bernice Dixon, a local jewelry store owner, bought the house at auction after Hemingway’s death for $80,000. She lived in the home until 1964 when she moved into the guest house and opened the main building as a museum.
Dixon left the property to her family, who continue to operate the Hemingway Home and Museum today.
Exploring the Hemingway House in Key West
Although the tour focused on the writer’s Key West years, our tour guide JL mixed in a bit of Hemingway’s life before and after this period for context. His multiple marriages and affairs, accident-prone nature, and family history of mental health issues certainly shaped his life.
You won’t get a full history of Hemingway’s life and body of work on this 30-minute tour. But even those completely unaware of his story or his impact on American literature will leave with a basic understanding of the legend of this complex man.
The ground floor of the Hemingway House
Our tour of the two-story, 3000-square-foot Spanish Colonial began downstairs in the parlor. This sun-filled room is full of Hemingway memorabilia from various periods along with furniture Pauline collected when she lived in Paris.
We continued past the kitchen with its vintage fixtures and appliances, including a period-appropriate icebox. Although a cordon blocks access to the kitchen and bathrooms, you can certainly peek in and get a glimpse of these spaces.
JL stopped us for a bit at what she called the “Wall of Wives” to talk about Hemingway’s four marriages. He certainly followed a rogueish pattern of meeting women, falling desperately in love, and marrying them soon after the last wife served him with divorce papers.
Each new relationship seemed to lead to a change of location, explaining why Hemingway left Key West after less than a decade despite having several productive years there.
Upstairs at the Hemingway House
We made our way upstairs to Hemingway’s bedroom, which features his original bed with a vintage chenille spread. Compared to today’s King and Queen sizes, vintage beds are really small. His double bed looks so short, I wondered how the six-foot man managed to sleep there without his feet hanging off the edge!
Be sure to check out the adjacent bathroom, with its fantastic yellow-and-black Art Deco tile.
Note: Although the upstairs of the house is only accessible by staircase, museum staff do offer the tour on videotape for those who aren’t able to climb stairs. The property is ADA-compliant, and the first floor and grounds are accessible to those using mobility devices.
Next it was out onto the wide porch that wraps around the second story of the building. With a clear view of the lighthouse from the porch, we learned that this was where a scene in The James Bond film Licence to Kill was filmed. A particularly unskilled sniper managed to miss his shot at Bond from the lighthouse to the gallery!
Hemingway would sometimes joke that he chose the location of the house because of its proximity to the lighthouse. On drunken evenings returning from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, he’d never get lost making his way home.
Around the property
Our short tour outside focused on just the highlights of the grounds, but our guide encouraged us to explore the property as much as we liked after the guided portion of our visit.
The swimming pool and Hemingway’s last red cent
A notable spot on the grounds is the swimming pool, which Pauline built when Hemingway was away covering the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent. Although it was his idea to build a pool, he left the oversight of the project to Pauline while he was away.
Excavating the limestone for the pool was a massive undertaking, and the project cost $20,000 when construction finished in 1938 (that’s about $365,916 in today’s dollars). When Hemingway returned, he famously shouted, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!”, throwing a penny down on the flagstone patio.
After their divorce, Pauline enjoyed hosting pool parties, pointing out to her guests Hemingway’s “last red cent” that she had embedded in the concrete near the pool.
The Hemingway property has two notable fountains with interesting histories. You’ll notice the first fountain just past the entrance gate. Asa Tift constructed the fountain, and it’s in the form of an ironclad ship.
Tift, despite his Yankee origins, was a staunch Confederate. During the Civil War, he designed and financed an ironclad for the Confederate cause. After the Union victory at Vicksburg, Confederates blew up the ship so it couldn’t be captured by the North.
The second fountain is a Hemingway-era one, and comes with a humorous story. When Joe Russell, Hemingway’s buddy and the owner of Sloppy Joe’s moved his establishment, he enlisted the help of his patrons to transport the contents of the bar to its new location.
Likely fueled by alcohol, Hemingway ripped out the bar’s urinal and brought it home to use as a watering trough for his cats.
Pauline, outraged by the unsightly bathroom fixture prominently displayed in the garden, glued tiles around its edge and added an antique urn to create a fountain. The cats still like to drink from it.
Hemingway’s writing studio
During his time in Key West, Hemingway wrote many notable books and short stories, including Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
His writing studio at the home was on the second floor of the converted carriage house. The spacious studio looks much as it would have in the 1930’s. The only typewriter on the property that Hemingway actually used sits on the desk.
You can access the studio only via a set of steep stairs, and a gate blocks the doorway, but it’s worth climbing up to view this peaceful sanctuary if you can.
The famous Hemingway House cats
In the 1930s, sea captain Stanley Dexter gave Ernest Hemingway a white six-toed cat named Snow White. Currently, the Hemingway House and property is home to between 40 and 50 polydactyl cats, some of which are descendant from the original white cat.
About half of the cats at the museum have six or even seven toes on each front paw, but all the cats carry the polydactyl gene and can pass on the trait to their offspring.
Hemingway loved polydactyl cats, especially because sailors believed they bring good luck. And he needed good luck! Hemingway suffered multiple serious injuries and survived numerous accidents during his life.
As a young man, he almost died from a mortar blast on an Italian battlefield during WWI. During his time on Key West, he accidentally shot himself in both legs while wrangling a shark. While on safari in Africa, Hemingway survived two plane crashes in two days.
Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people, and the tradition continues today. You might find Betty Grable up in a tree, or Joe DiMaggio asleep in the gutter. How often can you say that?
Are the Hemingway cats really lucky?
Did the cats actually bring him the wrong kind of luck, or did they share some of their nine lives with him? The jury’s still out on that one.
Whether or not you believe the Hemingway cats will give you good luck, the cats themselves are certainly lucky. They have the run of the property, and you’ll often find them napping in unexpected places in and around the house. The cats don’t seem to mind their human visitors and enjoy pets and scratches from their adoring fans.
Have you visited the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West? What was your favorite part of the tour? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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