|Posted: 28 February 2006 at 9:35am | IP Logged
This topic has intrigued me ever since I first read the posts here. I could not remember any reference to Ernest having written in any “house on stilts” during his time in Key West . . . at least not in any real house. Then it came to me that perhaps the structure in this topic wasn’t a regular house at all, perhaps it was something else that just happened to look like a “house on stilts” to someone who was unfamiliar with the area. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a possibility for consideration and discussion . . . could this old photo be the “house on stilts”?
The photo shows the Northwest Passage Light(house). It was located near shore, in about 4 feet of water on the west side of the north end of the Northwest Channel into Key West Harbor. It was originally established in 1838 as a lightship station and then converted to a permanent structure in 1855. Subsequently, it burned to the waterline and was replaced (in 1879) by the structure in the photograph. It remained operational thereafter with a resident lighthouse keeper through at least 1911, at which time it was converted to automated status. Afterwards, the lighthouse keeper’s residence was used intermittently to house harbor pilots and that is how it came to be known as The Pilot House, a name that continued in use through the rest of its life.
The photo shows the structure as it appeared in 1892. This photo was included with a report filed in the archives of the 7th Coast Guard District that year. In H. Lea Lawrence’s book, A Hemingway Odyssey: Special Places in His Life (published in 1999), he includes an undated later photo of this same structure on Page 125. Lea’s photo shows the Pilot House structure without the light, it having been removed sometime earlier when the lighthouse was deactivated by the Coast Guard. I have been unable to find a source to tell me when that deactivation took place but I’d guess that it was sometime after World War II. Lea’s photo is from his personal collection and is undated. In 1971, the upper structure was destroyed by fire, leaving only a few metal pilings sticking out of the water.
Here is the caption that appears under the photo on Page 125 of Lea Lawrence’s book: “Hemingway sometimes went to the Pilot House in Key West Channel to write. The structure was torched by vandals in the 1970s.”
But is it true? Lea gives no other textual references or corroboration of Ernest writing there, nor have I been able to find any confirmation in the dozen or so biographical books in my collection dealing with Hemingway’s time in Key West that I have consulted so far. I still have a few more to check and will post any new information that I find.
When Ernest and Pauline arrived in Key West during early April 1928, they took an apartment in the Trev-Mor Hotel, located directly above the island’s Ford dealership. They remained there for six or seven weeks until driving north to Pauline’s home in Piggott, Arkansas. When they returned with their new son, Patrick, in November 1928, Lorine Thompson found them a house to rent at 1100 South Street and that is where they lived until leaving for France in April 1929. They returned again in February 1930 and moved into a large house on Pearl Street that Lorine had found for them to rent. In June, they left for Wyoming and returned to Key West in early 1931, renting the Fanny Curry house at the corner of United and Whitehead streets that time. Ernest had decided to settle down in Key West and asked Lorine Thompson to find a house for them to buy. Pauline decided on the house at 907 Whitehead street, which they purchased at the end of April. The rest, as they say, is history.
Before Ernest brought the Pilar to Key West in 1934, he did not own a boat. Although he made frequent fishing trips on small boats owned by some of his Key West friends (Bra Sanders, Sully Sullivan, etc) and also chartered larger boats for extended fishing trips with his “Mob” of writers and friends who came to Key West to visit, I haven’t found any reference in print that mentions him using the old lighthouse as a writing studio. From what we know of Ernest’s work habits, he kept his writing time and his fishing time separated. It seems highly unlikely (to me) that he would pack up his notebooks, leave his residence, rent a boat and go offshore to write in seclusion at such a place.
But could he have gone out there to write? Sure, anything’s possible. Or perhaps, as others have suggested, this is just another bit of Key West hype that Lea Lawrence heard and repeated in his book?