Trespassing at Ernest Hemingway’s House

On the Road to Last Call in Ketchum, Idaho

By  Dave Seminara

But of course, he did commit suicide, just like many others in his family. His father, Clarence, a physician who suffered from depression and diabetes, shot himself in 1928. Hemingway’s brother, Leicester, a diabetic who was about to lose his legs, shot himself in 1982. His sister, Ursula, died of a drug overdose in 1966. Thirty years later, his granddaughter, Margaux, a model, died of a barbiturate overdose.

Ernest used his toes to pull the triggers on the W. & C. Scott & Son shotgun that he had traveled with all over the world. According to the book, Hemingway’s Guns, the so-called pigeon gun was given to a Ketchum welder to be destroyed, but some of the mangled remnants were buried in a field. The welding shop is apparently still in business and is being run by the grandson of the original proprietor.

I found a few clues at the library that helped me find the home on Google Earth, and a 2004 article in The Los Angeles Times provided insights into his Ketchum neighborhood and its opposition to opening the home to tourists. That year, in a bid to defray the costs of maintaining the property, the Nature Conservancy introduced a plan to allow three daily tours of up to fifteen participants, who would be picked up in downtown Ketchum and brought to the home in a minivan to reduce parking and congestion concerns. The neighbors weren’t buying it.

“We came here to retire. We don’t want busloads of tourists coming through here 24/7,” Doug Lightfoot, a retired pharmacist, told the LA Times.

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But even as Lightfoot insisted that opening the home would do nothing more than help people indulge their “morbid curiosity,” he conceded to the reporter that he too had once asked the Conservancy for a tour of the house.

Hemingway wrote portions of three books in his Ketchum home. This was the place were he chose to die. His homes in Key West, Cuba, and Oak Park are all open the public. Homes where Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Nabokov, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edith Wharton, and many other famous authors once lived have been turned into museums and serve to inspire those who might not otherwise ever pick up their books.

“The newspaper stories published in the immediate aftermath of his death mostly reflected Mary Hemingway’s attempts to dismiss his suicide as an accident.”

Does the fact that Hemingway took his life in this house make the prospect of touring it somehow unseemly or even ghoulish? Some might think so. But apparently not Anita Thompson, wife of the late Hunter S., who shot himself in the head in the kitchen of his Owl Creek farm in Woody Creek, Colorado in 2005. She still lives in the house and has preserved Hunter’s basement “War Room,” where he worked, just as he left it.

According to press accounts, she’s been working with a family friend to open their home, where she still lives, to a limited number of fans. Her initial plan, for those who passed her vetting process, was to offer a free tour plus Hunter’s favorite breakfast: grapefruit, scrambled eggs, juice, coffee, and fresh fruit suspended in Jell-O, with gin and Grand Marnier drizzled on top, served at 2 p.m. just like he liked it.

But, a year later, after visiting the Hemingway home and touring related Hemingway sites in Ketchum, she told the Aspen Times that she was also inspired to create a writer’s retreat, an offsite museum, and a line of cannabis products in her late husband’s honor. She also returned the elk horns, which were sent to Sean Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson (Gloria’s son) for “karmic reasons.”

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Hemingway’s descendants are apparently divided on the question of opening the house to tours—his granddaughter Mariel thinks it should be opened, his daughter-in-law Angela Hemingway thinks the house should be sold so someone can live in it, and his son, Patrick, thinks it should remain closed.

But when I arrived at the KEEP OUT signs near the end of East Canyon Run Boulevard on my last day in Ketchum, it seemed obvious to me. It was a sun-drenched Friday afternoon, about 4 p.m., and the neighborhood was so quiet you could have heard a cat meowing a zip code away.

I considered my family’s pleas to turn back, but I thought back to my visits to three of Pablo Neruda’s homes in Chile in 2014, and recalled that each home was located on streets with neighbors. Those places draw visitors by the busloads—if those neighbors could cope, surely the good people of this neighborhood could tolerate some limited form of tourism that would allow people to see the place where the famous writer chose to end his life.

“Let’s just drive by and take a quick look,” I said, easing past the intimidating signs.

I was immediately struck by the wooded, secluded splendor of the no-go area. There was just one home past the no trespassing signs on our left, an expansive affair that appeared to be a second home unlived in at the moment, and then the Hemingway house, further ahead on our right, perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the cluster of neighbors who had united to keep the place closed to the public.

We pulled up in front of the house, a sprawling, concrete, two-story, earth-colored faux-timber construction, and I rolled down the window to take a photo. I felt like if we didn’t set foot outside, we’d be fine. We noticed a pair of men installing a new roof and Jen said, “Let’s get out of here before they call the police.” But one of the men caught a glimpse of me and simply nodded and went back to work.

Sitting in the car, taking a final look at the house, I felt slightly cheated that we couldn’t go in and see the place, which is staged as a 1961 time capsule. If someone was living there, I’d understand the No Trespassing signs, but what’s the point of an empty house with historical value that no one can see?

And anyway, what would Hemingway want? Would he have been on the side of his neighbors, who think opening the home up would ruin their neighborhood?

He guarded his privacy zealously, and wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Everyone behaves badly—given the chance.” But he also once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

On our long drive home, I had plenty of time to ponder the broader question of what brought Hemingway back to Idaho late in his life, as we motored through the bleak and monotonously scrubby landscape of the Oregon Badlands, where travelers can barely find a toilet, let alone a decent meal in the four-plus hours between Boise and Bend. Thompson, I thought, was right in concluding that Hemingway was a sick, weary man with three failed marriages behind him who felt and looked older than his years. Maybe buying a house in Ketchum, was a last effort to recover the carefree, glory days of yore?

The long drive home gave me plenty of time to consider my own itinerant experiences just four years ago, when we drove west on this same road, after deciding to leave Chicago for Bend. I met my wife in the Windy City, in my twenties, and we’d loved our time living there. Then I joined the Foreign Service, and we’d ended up in Washington D.C., Macedonia, Trinidad, Washington. D.C. again, and then Hungary. I quit in 2007 after a couple years of trying to fight through some difficult times with Multiple Sclerosis.

We moved back to Chicago when Jen was seven months pregnant with our first son (Leo) because both of us associated it with good times. But it wasn’t the same—our friends were now mostly preoccupied with their kids and so were we. After a couple years, we moved back to D.C., then back to Chicago again, and finally, in 2014 to Bend. Somewhere in the Oregon Badlands, on the drive west, a sick feeling nestled in the pit of my stomach as I realized how isolated we were going to be, hours from an interstate—I feared we were making a huge mistake.

Four years later, as I battle a second auto-immune disease, I now know something that Hemingway may have too but wouldn’t admit. You can’t recapture your youth or your health with a patch of fresh geography. Wanderlust is as incurable as any illness. Ketchum is a lovely spot. But, just like every other place on earth, it won’t solve your problems.  Allowing people to see the place where Hemingway took his life might be a good way to remind us that wherever we go, we can’t escape ourselves.

Dave Seminara
Dave Seminara
Dave Seminara is a journalist in Oregon whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Chicago Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other publications.

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