Hemingway’s Last Home Receives Makeover
By KEITH RIDLER
KETCHUM, Idaho – Ernest Hemingway’s final home in this central Idaho mountain town – with its astonishing array of the author’s personal possessions – is perhaps the most enigmatic, and certainly the least visited, of the houses the Nobel Prize winner once owned.
As a result, it’s mostly remembered as the place where the writer killed himself in the main entryway with a shotgun in 1961.
Taylor Paslay is working to change that image with research that could end up being the foundation for protecting the aging 1950s house that neighbors in nearby modern mansions have suggested be picked up and carted off.
“There’s a lot of historical value in the house,” said Paslay, 36, whose combination of handyman skills and an English literature degree from the University of Michigan makes him an ideal caretaker of the house in which he’s been living since October 2005. “It definitely has a value to the community, mostly due to the fact that Hemingway loved the area and came back here and decided to buy a home.”
Paslay, the Hemingway Preserve Manager, ended up in the converted basement of Hemingway’s’ final home as part of an evolving plan by his employer, The Nature Conservancy, which owns the house.
The organization is set up to preserve wild places, not historical buildings. Before hiring Paslay, it tried to turn the house over to The Hemingway Foundation. The plan was to open the house for public tours with the idea that paying tourists would help offset the $50,000 in annual upkeep.
But the plan collapsed in 2005 amid threatened lawsuits from neighbors concerned about traffic. Neighbors even offered to buy the house for market value so it could be moved to another site.
After that setback, the conservancy changed direction and hired Paslay to do some much needed home maintenance.
And after The Hemingway Foundation disbanded this summer, the conservancy embarked on its current plan of using the house to draw in literary donors eager to see the inside of Hemingway’s home, and who might then be enticed not only to pay for preservation of the home, but also for preserving wild places in honor of Hemingway the outdoorsman.
“What we’re trying to do is make a connection with people who come in with an interest in this literary giant, and we introduce them to the man who loved the land, this great sportsman who spent 30 some years coming to Idaho,” said Jan Peppler, director of philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy.
She said the plan is still taking shape with Paslay’s work. But she said that Saturday’s $1,000-a-plate dinner in the home – part of this weekend’s annual Ernest Hemingway Festival – should sell out.
In theory, The Nature Conservancy could put the house on the market and collect the $5 million to $10 million local real estate agents say the land is worth, which would likely lead to the house being destroyed and replaced with something larger and more modern.
But that would also make the organization an instant pariah in a resort town that actively uses the Hemingway name to attract tourists. Peppler, based in the conservancy’s Idaho headquarters in nearby Hailey, said the house will never be put up for sale.
“There’s a lot of trust in the stewardship of The Nature Conservancy,” said Sharon Ahern, public relations manager for the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau. “So I guess I don’t see that as an issue.”
Hemingway’s widow, Mary Hemingway, left the two-story, 2,500-square-foot house to the conservancy after her death in 1986, placing no restrictions on its possible sale, but requiring that it not be turned into a public museum.
The Nature Conservancy considered ignoring that restriction, but thought better of it.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Paslay. “But in later conversations, it became evident that public tours would have a huge impact on the house. “
The house has never been opened to the public and has remained a time capsule out of the 1950s, with its then-futuristic but now retro kitchen, garish red carpet upstairs, and a bathroom equipped with a bidet.
“We’ve joked it might have been the first bidet in Idaho,” said Paslay.
Furniture, some from Spain, are among the items that remain from Hemingway’s time, along with trophies from African safaris, a pair of his saltwater sandals, snowshoes, steamer trunks plastered with Hemingway’s name and destinations, and two bullfighting posters.
Paslay said Hemingway family members removed many items, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum carted away five boxes of material – including manuscripts, letters, photos and books in which Hemingway had written in the margins – after Mary Hemingway died. Mary Hemingway had given full rights to the materials to the library, which Susan Wrynn, curator of the Hemingway collection for the library, said has about 90 percent of Hemingway’s papers.
Paslay spent 2006 on structural renovations, putting in a new patio and retaining wall, repairing the plumbing and other long neglected problems.
This year, he’s been archiving and researching items in the house, and The Nature Conservancy plans at some time to put pictures of all the items online so that the hoards of disappointed tourists who run into the “No Trespassing” sign out front can at least get a hint of what the house holds.
Hemingway owned the house from April 1959 until his suicide in July 1961 at age 61, when he feared, biographers say, that he had lost his ability to write to his standards. Paslay said the world traveler only stayed at the house for anywhere from three to eight months.
When he was there and working, Paslay said, Hemingway would arise early and write standing up in the upstairs spare bedroom, using a typewriter placed on a pedestal in front of a window that looked out at the Boulder Mountains. A prop typewriter never used by Hemingway now marks the spot.
Susan Beegel, editor of The Hemingway Review, said that when Hemingway was at the house he worked on the nearly completed “A Moveable Feast,” a book of lyrical sketches from his time in Paris during the 1920s. He followed with the bullfighting classic “The Dangerous Summer.”
“Much of the writing in ‘Feast’ matches the best he ever produced,” said Beegel in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I think Hemingway may have had concerns about the reactions of people who were still living, or second thoughts about the kindness of some of his sketches. So, in the winter of 1959-1960 in Ketchum, he worked instead on ‘The Dangerous Summer,’ and most of that book was written in the Hemingway House.”
Other writings for which Hemingway is remembered were done in his homes in Cuba and Key West, Fla. Both draw thousands of visitors each year as part of what’s known as stops on the Hemingway trail.
But for aficionados on that trail in Ketchum, the house will remain a mystery, like the final pages torn out of a novel.
“What you see now is what will be here in the future,” said Paslay. “It’s not going to change much.”
On the Net:
Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau: http://www.visitsunvalley.com/
The Nature Conservancy, Idaho: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/sta