In Search of Hemingway

SUN VALLEY, IDAHO – I may have broken the law. I might be a criminal. If that’s the case, I don’t regret it. I am like that great-grandmama in Daytona Beach who at age 95 got herself hauled off to the pokey because she slapped her great-granddaughter in the face with a shoe.

To be fair, Hattie Reynolds called police dispatch and warned them she was at her wit’s end: “I got a gran in my bed and I can’t … get her out from my bed,” said Reynolds. “I ain’t got nothing to pay bill on air condition all the time for her to go into the room.”

Reynolds told the police she didn’t want no trouble but by golly, she was tired of her 46-year old gran taking advantage of her: “She won’t get out of my bed. I want her out of the bed, I don’t want to get myself in trouble … cause she don’t listen after me,” the great-grandmother said.

I don’t want nobody laying up in my beds all day long unless they are sick or dying or expecting a baby soon. As far as I’m concerned Hattie Reynolds did what any woman of valor should do, not that I’m necessarily a proponent of slapping people upside the head. I would most definitely make an exception in the case of anyone in the Trump family or Mitch McConnell. In fact, I would be happy to take more than a shoe to any of that bunch.

But sad to say that ain’t how I broke the law.

According to a sign posted underneath a log gateway, I trespassed. Mind you, this was no accidental trespass. I knew exactly where I was headed. I had spent a couple of hours researching in the week prior just to be sure I was at the right place.

When a retired nurse volunteering at the town’s Welcome Center opened up a map of the town and told me outright: “You can’t go to the home of Ernest Hemingway.” I didn’t have the moxie to tell her, “But I’ve already been there.”

Go in search of Hemingway in Idaho and you won’t find much in the way of bragging rights to him.  Nothing like you’ll find in Pamplona or Madrid even. I know. I’ve been to all those places in the past couple of months.

Sun Valley was the last stop in my Hemingway pilgrimage. I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps something along the lines of the statue tribute outside the bullfighting ring in Pamplona. Or maybe one of his thoughtful insights engraved in bronze in the streets the way they do with Cervantes in Madrid.

But, yeah. There was none of that.

I had read enough to know that some Sun Valley’s residents really loathe Hemingway pilgrims. That’s why no one in town will reveal the location of the home where Hemingway killed himself that Sunday morning of July 2, 1961.

He was 61 years old, just shy of his 62nd birthday. Perhaps it’s just me and my way of looking for the poetry in life but I can’t help but think that Hemingway killed himself at 61 in 1961 for the literary affect. Surely the 61 in ’61 did not escape his notice. Hemingway paid attention to details his whole life long.

There was a mist falling over the Sawtooth Mountains the morning I broke the law – or perhaps just the neighborhood covenant – and directed my husband to park the jeep just off the road in one of the more tony neighborhoods of Ketchum, Idaho.

“Wait here,” I instructed. I knew my law-abiding husband would not step foot beyond a “No Trespassing” sign. One cannot be an intrepid writer if one follows the rules. I knew Hemingway would yank that sign up himself if he could. He was no rule-follower.

I walked past the sign. Past a hillside home – well, a mansion really – where contractors were already at work, planning what part of the home to tear down and what parts to retain. To my left was a field of lupine in full glorious bloom.

I smiled and waved at laborers as I walked towards the house where Hemingway drew his last breath. As I stood on the cliff overlooking the Big Wood River, I pondered how many times he must have walked out to the canyon cliff himself and heard the rush of the waters below.

It was his fourth wife Mary – Miss Mary, he called her – who found him that morning. The gunshot jolting her awake. She had to have known in that instant. Hemingway had been suffering for sometime from a variety of ailments, including a depression so severe he’d spent months at the Mayo Clinic, trying to heal.  The couple had been back East most of 1960 and had only returned to Ketchum the week before he took his life.

She could not bring herself to admit that he had done this deed. So with the help of the local Sheriff, Mary Hemingway concocted a story about how Hemingway accidentally killed himself while cleaning his 12-gauge shotgun. The New York Times ran with the headline the next day, Hemingway Dead of Shotgun Wound: Wife Says He was Cleaning Weapon.

Of course, the locals who knew him in Ketchum, in Key West, in Madrid, in Pamplona, throughout the world, all of his best buddies, they weren’t buying it. My Lord! How’d he manage that? What’d he rig up to pull that trigger? Maybe he used his toes.

It was no secret to any of them that Hemingway was suffering. They’d begged him to cut back on the drinking. They’d urged him to get medical treatment. They’d watched as the passionate storyteller fell mute, unable, it seemed to put together a cohesive sentence or thought.

The writer who told us “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self” found himself unable to write during the last months of his life. Unable to write, Hemingway could no longer make sense or order of the chaotic world.

Chaos can be an impetus for writing, but it can also act as Agent Orange to one’s creativity. It can literally kill the desire to create. It isn’t all that difficult to imagine the leap one can make from “I must tell you this” to “What’s the point of telling you this?” And once a writer reaches the later, they may go on living but they never again see the world through the lens of wonder, but rather, hopelessness. Creativity requires hope first and foremost.

Hemingway bought the Ketchum house and the thirteen acres overlooking the Big Wood River for $50,000, in 1959.  After he’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He’d first been courted to the area in 1939 by the owners at Sun Valley Resort, who gave him free board in exchange for helping them market the place. Hemingway wasn’t yet the celebrity he would become, but their investment into him paid off royally..

Hemingway is barely more than a footnote among the dozens and dozens of celebrity photos that hang in the hallways of the resort today. It takes over a good half-hour to study the faces and names: Jane Fonda, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong, Robert Kennedy, Candice Bergen, all there glazed in black-and-white. Alongside the photo of Hemingway at his typewriter.

I took a stone and a daisy from the garden that bordered the foundation of Hemingway’s home. It’s something I do. My grandson has a treasure box that contains a stick I brought back from Normandy, and a rock I picked up at Omaha Beach. I have a crystal vase that holds a stone I picked up from Truman Capote’s burned down home in Monroeville, Alabama. I like to think that perhaps he and Harper Lee played with the same stone as children.

Mary bequeathed the house to the Nature Conservancy, where it remained until 2017, when they turned it over to Ketchum’s Community Library. It has been the lone Hemingway house closed to the public. Rich people don’t want literary pilgrims and Hemingway fans roaming their neighborhood, you understand. You want to pay respects to Hemingway, go to Key West, or Pamplona. Don’t be traipsing around this Idaho neighborhood.

I did my trespassing the way it should always be done – with a sense of dignity and honor. As I walked up the steps to the front door, where just beyond some 58 years ago, Hemingway stood in the foyer, put a plug in his gun and ended his life, I was prayerful.

I noted the 1960s patio furniture and the Historic Registry marker. And the view. I stood there on those steps where Hemingway had welcomed friends and hugged them goodbye, and thought of how odd it was that one of the most important storytellers of our age lost his voice before the public even knew there was a war in Vietnam.

What would Hemingway have said about all that? If his health had allowed, I am sure he would have gone to that battlefront and sent us telling dispatches back home. Perhaps he might have helped hasten the end to the brutality with his storytelling.

The Community Library has hopes of making Hemingway’s home a place for writers. An artist-in-residency program, perhaps? Oak Park, where Hemingway was born, already has one. Or perhaps using it for special artists events. The possibilities aren’t long given the resistance of the neighbors. Parking would be an issue for sure.

Tim waited for almost an hour while I paid my respects to the man who called himself “Papa.” He was reading a book when I climbed back into the jeep.

“It was the finest hour I’ve ever spent, helping your mother trespass,” he later told our daughter.

After lunch at The Kneadery, highly-recommended and deservedly so, we drove out to the graves of Mary and Ernest Hemingway. Pilgrims like me had crafted a big heart of little pebbles.

Fittingly so, for that is what writers do, isn’t it? We pocket pebbles from our experiences and shape them into a story that we hope will touch the hearts of our readers. We do this with the hope that somewhere in the darkness a reader might find a reason to go on, to keep trying, to not give up, to not despair, to figure life out.

The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.

Karen Spears Zacharias is usually a law-abiding citizen and author Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press). Her dog’s name is Hemingway.


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

1 Comment


about 5 years ago

Love the story of your great criminal adventure. I always enjoy your stories and appreciate that you share them so readily with us. I do want to offer a slight edit, however. I think you may have suffered a minor brain fart when you wrote about the stone from Truman Capote's homeplace. Check out what you really wrote. Love you, Annette "Sam" Riggs


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