Great Key West Writers
Ernest Hemingway arrived in Key West in April, 1928, with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Ernest was a struggling writer, just divorced from his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Pauline was pregnant with her first child, Patrick, and wanted him to be born on American soil. A second son, Gregory Hancock, was born three years later. (Hadley bore Hemingway one son, John "Jack" Hadley Nicanor Hemingway.) Pauline was the daughter of a wealthy Arkansas family and niece of perfume king Gus Pfeiffer. As a wedding gift, Uncle Gus bought the Hemingways a new car and, later, the beautiful old Civil War era home at 907 Whitehead Street, the first Ernest had ever owned.
While in Key West, Ernest wrote parts of A Farewell to Arms, and Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, and a short story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, in their entirety. He wrote his only novel set in the United States, To Have and Have Not, after he left Key West. Many of its characters were Key West locals who might have been angry at his portrayal of them.
Ernest's lifestyle in Key West is legendary. He wrote well, drank hard, was a game fishing enthusiast, and had a great love of boxing. He spent a lot of time in Sloppy Joe's bar, located at the current site of Captain Tony's on Greene Street. Sloppy Joe's was a rough place where drinks were cheap and fights were common.
In 1935, a tourist guidebook published a map, which listed Key West tourist attractions. Hemingway's home was on that list, and he soon became angry that he couldn't walk around his hometown without being accosted by tourists. So he hired a local bricklayer to build the red brick wall that surrounds his home to this day.
Wedded bliss did not last for the Hemingways. Ernest met his third wife at Sloppy Joe's; she arrived in attire she felt sure would attract him. Her name was Martha Gelhorn, a writer who traveled the world, covering wars and major disasters for several magazines and newspapers. Shortly after this meeting, Hemingway traveled with her to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. Pauline knew about the affair and hoped it would run its course. In a desperate attempt to lure her husband back, she built Key West's first swimming pool in their garden for $20,000, which today would be equivalent to $250,000. But Ernest could not be persuaded to stay with Pauline and, at Christmas in 1939, he packed up his clothes and officially moved in with Martha. Pauline remained with her sons in Key West until her death in 1961.
The newly married Hemingways moved to their new home in Cuba, the Finca Vigia, located 15 miles outside of Havana. Ernest was married to "Marty" for only five years. In 1946 he married Mary Welsh, who was with him until the day he died, by his own hands, in 1961 at their home in Ketchum, Idaho.
The Hemingway House is today Key West's number one tourist attraction. Guided tours are interesting, but not always factual. But this is not as important as the surroundings are. The house, gardens, and studio are wonderful and remain pretty much as they were when "Papa" lived there.
Tennessee Williams arrived in Key West in 1941, when he was 30 years old. He came here to write plays and swim - the former exhausted him and the latter relaxed him. Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Mississippi, his father was a traveling salesman and his mother a "Southern Belle" transplanted from her birthplace: Ohio.
After his first major success, The Glass Menagerie, and his second, A Streetcar Named Desire, he had enough money to buy a home in Key West, a one-and-a-half story Bahamian at 1431 Duncan Street. Although he loved it here, he spent most of his life in a series of hotels and rented apartments at other locations in the United States and Europe.
For some reason, Tennessee's brother, Dakin, persuaded him to be baptized at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Truman Avenue. A local photographer who was there for the event said Williams was very intoxicated.
Toward the end of his life, Tennessee gave up writing for painting, a less harsh way to express himself. Critics didn't think as much of his painting as his plays, but many people clambered to own the framed treasures.
Williams met Key West's other famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, only once. They were introduced at La Floridita, Hemingway's favorite bar in Cuba. Williams was concerned about the meeting because he heard that "Papa" was homophobic. He needn't have worried, however, because they found common ground in their health concerns; Williams talking about liver problems, and Hemingway about plane crash injuries.
Tennessee Williams lived into his 70s. He died in February, 1983, when he actually inhaled and choked on an eyedropper bottle cap. When word of his death reached Key West, The Rose Tattoo, a locally filmed movie based on a Williams play, ran all afternoon and evening at an alternative cinema on Duval Street.
Tennessee's house on Duncan Street remained vacant for many years. A group of Key West writers made plans to purchase it and make it into a shrine to their friend, but it never happened. The property was sold in 1992 and has been totally renovated.