Hemingway’s Last Retreat
June 20, 2004
By Alex Tizon
KETCHUM, Idaho – The house is pretty much the way Ernest Hemingway left it, as if he had stepped outside just a moment ago. Even the antelope heads in the living room, with their marbled eyes, appear to be waiting for him. They stare out at a room frozen in time, suspended even in its slight messiness. The Life magazines look recently perused. Papers lie strewn on a table. Next to the fireplace is a black-and-white RCA television. He used to watch prizefights from the long, green couch across the room. The fabric is worn where he sat.
Hemingway, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, wrote portions of three books in this house. He spent much of his last two years, and, most significantly, took his final breath here. The last thing he saw before killing himself on July 2, 1961, may have been the beige carpet in the living room or the pink ceiling in the foyer, where his wife, Mary, found him.
The house has never been open to the public, and may never be. It’s the only one of Hemingway’s homes not turned into a shrine. His houses in Key West, Fla., and San Francisco de Paulo, Cuba, and his birthplace in Oak Park, Ill., are open to admirers, and some believe his Ketchum home should be too.
Since late last year, the Nature Conservancy of Idaho, which owns the property, has tried to schedule limited public tours but has been stopped by residents nearby. A wealthy neighborhood has sprung up next to the property in the years since Hemingway’s death, and the road that leads to his once-remote house runs through the middle of the development. The neighbors don’t want the traffic and exposure they believe would come with living next door to a shrine.
“We came here to retire. We don’t want busloads of tourists coming through here 24/7,” said Doug Lightfoot, a retired pharmacist and one of about two dozen homeowners in the neighborhood known as Canyon Run.
The Nature Conservancy makes the case for the home’s historical significance, but the most passionate arguments have come from Hemingway fans and scholars.
Susan Beegel, editor of the Hemingway Review, based in Maine, said keeping the Ketchum house closed was like keeping a Van Gogh “locked in a vault.”
Matthew Bruccoli, a Hemingway scholar at the University of South Carolina, said simply, “Hemingway is bigger than the neighbors’ concerns.”
The conflict — most of it waged in the halls of bureaucracy, involving zoning laws and property rights — could be tied up in arbitration, or litigation, for months, even years. Lawsuits have been threatened, and the neighbors, all of them in multimillion-dollar homes, have deep pockets for a long fight. There’s disagreement even within the Hemingway family. Mariel Hemingway, the writer’s granddaughter, wants the house opened, while the writer’s son, Patrick, questions whether the place where his father committed suicide should be made into a tourist attraction.
Angela Hemingway, the writer’s daughter-in-law and a longtime resident of Ketchum, said if she had her way, the house would be sold “so someone could live in it and make use of it.” Recently, the conservancy granted a rare private tour of the house, offering an intimate glimpse into Hemingway’s life in its last tortured days.
Mary Hemingway kept ownership of the house but moved to New York after her husband’s death. She spent summers here until her health prevented her from traveling. Shortly before her death in 1986, she willed the property to the conservancy.
Both Mary and the conservancy took care to keep the house the way it was when Hemingway lived in it. Except for manuscripts, letters and other objects of literary value, which were removed and given to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, the house and its contents have largely been preserved.
So much so that some people, like Guy Bonnivier, find it “really eerie” entering the home. Bonnivier, the conservancy director at the time when the organization took over the property, said it was “like walking into a time warp.”
Highway 75 winds north through the Wood River Valley in central Idaho, slicing between two ridges of the Sawtooth mountain range. The two-lane highway becomes Main Street in Ketchum, a mining town turned playground for the rich. Upscale boutiques and restaurants line the street on both sides, the architecture a kind of pastel log-cabin chic.
The median price for a home in town is just under $1 million. About 3,000 people live here full time, and another 7,000 spend part of the year here, golfing in the summer and skiing in the winter.
The Hemingway house, just north of downtown, is so hidden away in a pocket of woods that many residents don’t know where it is. The road to it winds through Canyon Run, then veers off, turning to gravel and marked by “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs. Less than a quarter-mile up the gravel road, the house appears on the right, perched on a small hill above the river. The instant impression is that of a grand old cabin.
Built in 1948, the house is actually constructed of concrete made to look like wood. It stands two stories, with a shingled roof, picture windows on all sides, and rows of flower boxes facing the river.
In 1959, Ernest and Mary, his fourth wife, left Cuba, where the Castro revolution was wreaking havoc, and moved to Idaho. Hemingway had hunted and fished in the state for two decades. He was enamored of the landscape. By the time the couple moved here, Hemingway was one of the elder statesmen of American literature. He had written about violence and wars, love, lust and struggle, most of it futile. His spare style would influence generations of writers.
A few years earlier, he had won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for “The Old Man and the Sea.” His most critically acclaimed books, “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms,” had been made into movies. The couple bought the cabin and surrounding 22 acres — including a mile of riverfront — for less than $50,000. According to some estimates, the Hemingway property could fetch upward of $20 million today.
“It’s a pretty nice spot,” says Wendy Hosman, who works as a lands manager for the conservancy. She parks her car at the rear of the house and goes through the back door.
The kitchen, living room and dining room make up the first floor; the master bedroom and writing room make up the second. The main rooms are spacious and full of light, with 9-foot-high ceilings.
In the kitchen, the linoleum is beige, the Formica yellow, and the Hotpoint appliances a faded porcelain white. A frayed fishing net hangs on a wall next to a string of bells. At the foot of a narrow staircase just off the living room is a photo board with black-and-white snapshots. Most are of the author in various poses, covering the decades of his life. One photo shows him standing naked on a boat deck holding a bucket, undaunted by the camera.
On a wall above the staircase, there is an oil painting of two men slaughtering a bull, blood covering their clothes and dripping into a gory pool on the ground. An inscription reads, “Happy Birthday to you, Ernest. Bon Appetit!”
The stairs lead to the master bedroom, a large, carpeted space with a king bed, and trunks with the Hemingway name hand-scrawled on them. A pair of Abercrombie & Fitch hunting boots sit at the foot of the bed. On the fireplace mantle a few feet away sits a solitary shotgun shell. Three boxes of shells sit on a nearby dresser. Across the hall is Hemingway’s writing room. It’s much smaller and darker, with a twin bed, a bookshelf and a chest of drawers under a north-facing window.
A small manual typewriter, a Royal, sits on top of the chest. This is where Hemingway wrote, standing up. Here, in this spot, he composed portions of “The Dangerous Summer,” “A Movable Feast” and “The Garden of Eden.”
It’s also likely the spot where Hemingway concluded he could no longer write. At 61, he was given to extended bouts of depression. He had chronic high blood pressure, liver disease and diabetes. He suffered bad eyes, bad kidneys and a bad back. A lifetime of drinking and brawling, and wounds from two plane crashes, had taken a toll.
One biographer, Keith Farrell, noted how, at one point during his time in the Ketchum house, the author was asked to write a passage praising President Kennedy. Hemingway worked at it for several hours but was unable to construct a simple declarative sentence. He broke down weeping.
Said Patrick Hemingway: “My Dad was very much on the rocks by that time.”
Patrick, who lives seven hours away by car, in Bozeman, Mont., has mixed feelings about opening up his father’s home. He’s critical of the neighbors, whom he calls selfish and “obsessed with their real estate,” as well as the Nature Conservancy, which he feels has not taken good care of the property. A part of him wants to never hear about the house again. “Do you think you could like the place where your dad killed himself?”
He fears that if the house is opened up, the conservancy, under pressure from the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, will “make it into a happy place that would be commercially valuable to the local merchants.”
Patrick speculates that the conservancy will emphasize that Hemingway came to Idaho to fish and hunt.
“The reality is he came here as a last retreat,” said Patrick, 76. “He came here to die.”
If the conservancy wanted to be brutally honest, which is the way his father would have wanted it, “the house would have to be — have to be — oriented toward his death,” Patrick said.
Marty Peterson, who heads a citizens group working with the conservancy, said the home would be used in a way consistent with the spirit of Hemingway, the writer and outdoorsman.
The conservancy plan calls for turning the remaining 16 acres (Mary sold a portion of the property in the 1980s) into a nature preserve, and keeping the house mostly as Hemingway left it. One room might be turned into a library, which could also be used for writing workshops. The plan also calls for tours of up to 15 people at a time. Those interested would make reservations, and be picked up by a van in downtown Ketchum. The schedule would be restricted to one van per tour, with no more than three tours per day.
“The street is busy enough the way it is,” said Bob Droge, a neighbor who opposes the plan. Like many residents of Canyon Run, Droge is retired. He worked most of his life as a civil engineer, and moved here with his wife 21 years ago.
His property, not including the Austrian-style home built on it, is worth about $2 million, which is the going price for half-acre lots in the area. The zoning doesn’t allow for smaller lots, nor does it allow for businesses.
Both Droge and Lightfoot, his neighbor, contend that the conservancy’s plan for the Hemingway home is a commercial enterprise that has no place in a residential neighborhood
“It’s just a house, it’s not a monument,” Lightfoot said. “It’s the place where he killed himself. Is that of historical significance? I don’t think it is. It’ll just be a place where people can satisfy their morbid curiosity.”
Even Lightfoot couldn’t resist. A few years ago, he asked the conservancy if he and his son could go inside the house “just to see it.” He recalled the exact spot where the author killed himself. It was in the foyer between the front door and the living room. The space looks to be 6 feet by 8 feet, dominated by a large green door with its knob in the center.
On the morning of July 2, 1961, less than three weeks before his 62nd birthday, Hemingway sneaked from the bedroom in his pajamas. It was about 7:30, and Mary was still asleep. Hemingway searched for the keys to the gun cabinet, which Mary had moved to the basement to keep out of her husband’s sight. He had tried to commit suicide before but was dissuaded by Mary and a friend.
Hemingway found his favorite, a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, inlaid with silver, made custom for him. He went to the foyer, and there put both barrels in his mouth and pulled the triggers with his big toe. He had described a similar scene in a short story decades earlier. Hemingway’s father, Clarence, a physician, had ended his life 32 years earlier. Two of Hemingway’s siblings, a brother and sister, had also committed suicide, and one granddaughter, actress Margaux Hemingway, killed herself in 1996 with an overdose of sedatives. Margaux’s ashes are buried in the same small, roadside cemetery as her famous grandfather, less than a mile from the Ketchum house.
“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death,” Hemingway once wrote. “And he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.”
At Ketchum City Hall, the debate over the house continues. The house remains vacant, disturbed only by the seasons and the occasional visitor. Pine cones accumulate in small piles on the front porch. The sharp, verdant color of the green trim around the house fades year by year. Inside, the antelopes’ glazed eyes stare out into the living room and entryway, unblinking, as if at any moment, the man himself might walk in, flop on the couch and kick off his boots.