Thursday, January 13, 2022

Key West legends: Hemingway, Truman shared love of a unique place

President Harry Truman spent happy, relaxing times during his tenure, establishing a southern
White House in Key West, and hosting cabinet members and many dignitaries for poker and fishing.

Guides tell colorful Hemingway stories at the Key
West home where he lived 11 years, from 1931.




President Harry Truman's "Little White House" offered him
a warm, relaxing break from the tensions of public office


THE PRESIDENT who ended World War II and the writer who ran with the bulls in Pamplona loved Key West, Florida. Neither could claim to be a "conch" (native son) -- but each fished the waters and relaxed in the town. 
Both men established homes in this laid-back berg, spending treasured days there.  Harry Truman escaped Washington D.C.'s cruel winters, spending 11 extended stays during his Presidency,1946-1952. Beginning in 1931, Ernest Hemingway spent a half-dozen years in Key West. Both men are remembered in museums centered in the homes they lovingly furnished.

The Hemingway House in Key West is a lovely
Spanish Colonial home, beautifully maintained

TRUMAN HELD card games, planned fishing trips and hosted foreign dignitaries. His Presidential limo is parked outside.  Hemingway staged lavish soirees and designed a special cemetery for his famous six-toed cats, offspring of a captain's gift.
Both men's homes and gardens are  meticulously maintained as museums and visitor attractions with well informed, story-telling guides.

On Hemingway's upstairs bed, one of 50 cats
naps. Each one is carefully chosen from
 offspring of the author's famous six-toed cats.

LAID BACK Key West has a bohemian feel, much as it did in the days Truman and Hemingway fell in love with the place. It continues to attract an assortment of eccentrics, sun seekers and tourists -- with a loyal "local" clientele who proudly call themselves conchs -- that is, proud people born in Key West. The range of admirers includes dozens of writers, politicians, actors and five presidents besides Truman. According to our volunteer guide, a retired history professor, Truman found Key West

Two of the mostly
spayed and neutered 
felines in the garden
    to be a sanctuary -- a welcome respite from the pressures and tensions of life in the U.S. Capitol.  He lovingly created his fascinating Florida White House.

Hemingway tributes, friends, ex-wives,
hunting expeditions, cats are celebrated.

ACCLAIMED WRITER Ernest Hemingway was equally captivated, purchasing a lavish home -- mostly with his wife's money -- entertaining fellow writers and artists.  It, too, is now a fine museum. The Hemingway House, across from the Key West Lighthouse is on the far southern coast of the island.

THE HEMINGWAY house has an open, airy feeling, with plenty of natural light and a compact study up the stairs in a separate building, where the author spent long hours writing.  Among the memorabilia are sculptures, trophies of his hunting expeditions, drawings and photos of wildlife and family portraits. One wall brings chuckles.  On it hangs a four-part collage of the author's quartet of wives:  Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Hemingway, his last wife, with him until his suicide in 1961.  Hemingway is in the center.

President Harry Truman loved Key West and kept a selection
of short-sleeved tropical weather shirts in his closet.
It was during the "Pauline years" -- 1927 to 1940 -- that Hemingway lived in Key West, and it was through her uncle Gus that the house came to the couple. According to our lively guide, the couple spent happy years raising their boys and socializing before he left her for his third wife, Martha, originally a friend of Pauline's.

The lovely pink and coral hues
of the protected conch. Florida
restaurants serve conch harvested
in other parts of the Caribbean. 

TRUMAN'S TENURE came when his doctor recommended a warm place to rest during his 19th month as President.  He returned each November and December, February and March for the next seven years, relaxing on the wrap-around enclosed porch, playing cards, strolling the town and escaping secret service guards to have coffee and shoot the breeze at a beloved restaurant, Pepe's Cafe.

Conch fritters -- enjoyed by both
Truman and Hemingway --  are
 a popular item but the seafood
is from outside Florida waters.
(In Florida, conch is protected.)
 Reportedly, he loved seafood in particular conch fritters. Hemingway's fondness for seafood  is well documented, too. He particularly liked to eat fish he'd caught. Truman  hosted many fishing trips for Cabinet members and other politicians, who stayed in guestrooms of the 1890 building, once officers' quarters on the town's submarine base naval station.

SO MUCH about Key West captivates the imagination.  Thousands of people have felt the allure and magic of this southern most point on the continental United States.


 Footnote about "conch" as applied to people: Mayor Dennis Wardlow, in a statement of protest and secession, declared the independence of Key West on April 23, 1982. The Mayor was designated the Prime Minister and the territory was given the name Conch Republic, with local citizens called Conchs.

The Conch Republic was declared in 1982 during a 
tongue-in-cheek secession from the United States.
"The Conch Republic" tongue-in-cheek moniker has been maintained as a tourism booster.  One is not a conch (pronounced "conk," like "conk your head") simply by living in Key West.  You must be born there. If you've lived seven years, you're considered a "freshwater conch" a la Hemingway.  The conch is a large sea snail living in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.  The beautiful, coral-colored critters were almost extinct and are now protected, with heavy fines for taking a shell with the living creature within.

  So while the former President was a visitor only-- albeit for long stays -- he didn't actually live there full time.  The famed author, on the other hand, did, and thus his ranking as a "freshwater conch."

Mahi mahi is part of a Cuban inspired food tour in
Key West, featuring five small-plate delicacies and
a walking tour of the town's historic district.

UP NEXT: No, not conch, but tasty mahi mahi in photo at right, served with a Carribean-style rice side dish and mango salsa during our foodie walking tour in Key West, Florida.  We sampled conch fritters (photo above) along with other popular bites on this Cuban inspired tasting tour.  We sampled five small plates, including a shredded, roast pork deliciously spicy and served with freshly baked, slightly sweet Cuban bread and barbecue sauce. We cap our walking tour and feast with key lime pie, made famous in the Florida Keys. Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each week for fresh spins on the arts, travel, nature, family and more. food:  




  1. Pacific Palisades PlannersJanuary 14, 2022 at 7:23 AM

    What fun. We understand why people fall in love with this magical place. No wonder the roosters stay!

  2. Love the way you blend personal observation with history of the places.

  3. Wouldn't it be fun to imagine those two meeting.....time traveling.... Interesting piece.

  4. We admire your travels and bravery. Stay well and keep traveling.