Behind every great man there is an equally great and probably more stylish woman, and for author Ernest Hemingway this was certainly true. If they had named it Pfeiffer House no one would come. It would have long ago been sold and converted into a guest house like many others in Key West. The Spanish Colonial style residence completed in 1851 is now known as Ernest Hemingway’s Home and Museum. The writer penned all but his first two and last two novels here. Yet it cannot be overlooked that it was Ernest’s second wife Pauline Pfeiffer who made some of the most charming contributions to the home’s interior and important edits to his writing.
The second Mrs Hemingway
Pauline was born in Iowa to a wealthy family who later bought up large tracks of land in Arkansas. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and in 1925, was working as a fashion editor for Vogue in Paris when she met writer, Ernest Hemingway. He too was living in Paris with his first wife and baby boy, while spending time in the company of other creatives such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ezra Pound. The pair soon engaged in an affair, and finally, Hemingway divorced his first wife and married Pauline.
Mr & Mrs Hemingway relocated from Paris to Key West and took up residence in a home on Whitehead Street which had been constructed by a marine architect and salvage wrecker. Pauline decorated their new home with her exquisite chandelier collection that encompassed a variety of styles and origins, from a jade-hued Tiffany shade purchased in New York, to the glassy fringe of a Moorish piece out of Spain.
Travellers and collectors
Hemingway contributed African souvenirs such as tribal masks and hunting trophies collected throughout his safaris. An assortment of the couple’s antiques include an ornate bedhead, said to be the repurposed gate of a Spanish monastery, and a cabinet set with decorative tiles driven from Mexico in the back of Ernest’s Ford Roadster.
Amongst Ernest’s many outdoor pursuits, he was an avid amateur boxer. He saw fit to place a boxing ring in the sub-tropical garden surrounding his home. Pauline didn’t appreciate her ringside seat or the kind of visitors the arena attracted. Her ultimate revenge was to replace the ring with one of the first in-ground pools in the Keys at the cost of $20k, an extraordinarily lavish figure for 1938.
Another tasteless addition Ernest made to his garden was permanently borrowed from his favourite Key West bar–Sloppy Joe’s. Ernest’s work routine was to rise early and write through the quieter, cooler morning hours followed by fishing or a few alcoholic beverages. A urinal belonging to Sloppy Joe’s was transferred to the Whitehead Street mansion for use as a drinking fountain by Ernest’s many cats. Pauline disguised the less than desirable water feature as best she could with decorative tiles.
Pauline the editor
In support of Ernest’s writing, Pauline busied herself with minimising distractions and typing out his pencil-written manuscripts. Since very early in their relationship, she had taken a keen interest in his work, providing constructive critiques. Even after their divorce Ernest publically credited Pauline as his best editor. Hemingway’s time in Key West with Pauline was one of his most prolific and resulted in some of his most acclaimed novels—hardly a coincidence.
Divorce and death
The couple divorced in 1940 after Hemingway met his third wife. Pauline remained resident of the Key West home and opened the Carolina Shop, selling high end fabrics and upholstery like the chenille bedspread in the master bedroom of the museum. While visiting her sister in Hollywood, Pauline passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm aged 55.
Though Ernest gave kudos to second wife Pauline for her editorial contributions to his work, she has the potential to go unrecognised as her unmarked Hollywood grave. Very little has been written about Pfeiffer, though you only need see a picture of the socialite, or visit her former home to gain a sense of her impeccable taste. “Pfeiffer” may not be a drawcard (unless your first name is Michelle), but there is no doubt Pauline left an indelible mark on the Whitehead Street abode and the literary legacy that endures under the Hemingway name.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
You don’t need to have read a single Ernest Hemingway book or poem to enjoy a visit to the Key West house he shared with Pauline Pfeiffer. Certainly take the thirty-minute guided tour to get the most out of the experience. There are so many stories written into the details of the beautiful home and gardens which have been registered as both a National Historic Landmark and a Literary Landmark.
Address: 907 Whitehead Street, Key West
Opening Hours: 9am-5pm, 365 days a year
Admission: Adults $14, Children (6-12yrs) $6.00, Under 5’s free. The Museum accepts cash only.
If you are heading to the Keys, take Ernest’s advice—“Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” Going on a Florida road trip? See my itinerary of Sunshine State highlights here .
Peace, love & inspiring travel,