Visiting the Florida Keys and touring 907 Whitehead Street for probably the fifth time in my adult life, I finally realized that the Hemingway wife I’ve always crushed on—Hadley, the first of four—wasn’t the one who had actually lived in Key West. I knew about Paris, Cuba, Idaho, but somehow had not appreciated that the wife I wanted Ernest Hemingway to have wasn’t the one he’d actually had there.
The Hadley I wanted her to be wasn’t the one I’d conjured, either. My image of Hadley as a flapper, a golden girl of the 1920s, living in Paris and pearls, was only partially correct. Ernest’s senior by some eight years, she was a sheltered Midwestern woman whose family money got the Hemingways to France. Somehow I thought she must have spent her days drinking champagne and her nights dancing at cafes, but I’ve learned since that she wasn’t quite as free as that. Hadley was the wife who would support Ernest as a young writer, the one willing to live in a shabby apartment and be thrifty to support his craft, the one who had the baby before he quite wanted to, the one who surrendered her husband to her friend Pauline, who became the wife who would live in Key West.
Cruising through Ernest’s Key West haunt, I noticed a faded newspaper clip reporting on Hadley’s visit, long after Ernest’s death and the house had been sold and converted into a museum. The Hadley in this photo could have been my great-grandmother, a short-haired old lady wearing cat-eye glasses and a housedress. Life had changed her, Paris had changed her; did Key West change her, too?
It always changes me, whenever I get to go there. This is a place you can get to, and stay, whether in a beaten-up trailer on a crowded, dusty lot, or in a restored conch house clad in marshmallow cream. You can give up the law, or the number crunching, or the cubicle, or your Paris spouse, and you can face the sunshine, or the ginger ale, or the drag queens. You can become a writer or a skipper or a server or an adult entertainer. You can be all of these things. You can sell art you’ve made from glue and lace and bottle caps to tourists seeking the truth. You can go and try to be Hemingway or any one of his wives and you can forget about law and finance and heartbreak and cubicles. You can marvel at the coral, at life in shorts, at a place where people always change.
No matter how many tourists there are, no matter what phase of your life you’re in, no matter who you’re with—whether your grandparents when you are a kid, your college boyfriend, just yourself, your first husband, your eldest child, your second husband—Key West will change you. You’ll know that if you ever have to, you can escape to this place, and write, and bartend, and drink spiced rum and ginger ale at 10 in the morning if you need to.
I don’t know enough about Pauline, the Hemingway wife of Key West, to know how she changed, but I imagine she wasn’t the same as when she hooked up with him in Paris as she was when he left her for Martha Gellhorn. I enjoyed reading Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife, and learning more about Hadley while sitting on a bench next to Pauline’s pool. It is sort of karmic payback, though, that historical fiction about the starter wife is what’s sold in the Hemingway home bookstore.