The Big Wood River rollicks through tall cottonwood trees, their yellow leaves cascading to the dense litter below. A hint of snow from the distant mountains peeks through. Giant homes are scattered along the other side of the bank.
This isn’t the view Ernest Hemingway would have known. Those giant houses weren’t there. Neither were the giant cottonwoods. They were shorter, kept in check by a river that moved with the seasons. Now, development has kept the Big Wood in its banks, and big trees and big homes have come to dominate Ketchum, Idaho’s landscape.
The caretaker opens up the door, a big door with the doorknob in the middle, and a musty whiff blows out. It’s the first feeling you get of there being something special about this house, a place locked, sealed up, closed off.
This is the house Hemingway died in, but barely lived in. It’s closed to the public, partly at the request of his last wife, Mary, who gave the house to the Nature Conservancy, and partly at the insistence of neighbors, who refused to allow public access past the “no trespassing” sign on their private road.
The entrance to the house is through the vestibule. For those who know, it’s a macabre way to come into the home. The vestibule is the place where Hemingway killed himself. This was where his gun rack was. He took his shotgun, loaded a pair of shells, placed it in his mouth and pulled the triggers. Always larger than life, Hemingway had to pull two triggers and fire two shells into his brains to kill himself.
No blood stains the oak-paneled walls anymore. No pellet marks mar the walls. Not much of Hemingway is left in the house at all, really. He didn’t build this home. He didn’t even furnish much of it. Most of its interior is from the former owner, who built what some say was the first monster home in Ketchum.
Hemingway came here from Cuba. It was the first time in a long time he would call the United States home. Ketchum had just enough of the wild to be comfortable for a man who sought out places a little rough around the edges. He had friends here, too, from decades of visits.
The house doesn’t feel like what we think of as Hemingway. No clubby dark wood or leather. It’s a modern home for a man born in a previous century, with a sensibility that hailed back to earlier centuries. Hemingway never managed to live in the modern world. He was physically frail and mentally failing when he moved into this house. His brain had been scrambled by a series of shock therapy treatments. His memory was shot. He couldn’t write.
I wonder about his last moments. I wonder if he took a last look through the living room’s giant picture windows out across the valley before he stepped into the vestibule. Or did he know what he was going to do and did it?
The view would have been much the same view from his bedroom window, where he slept alone, Mary in another room. His typewriter sat on a traveling platform, where he wrote, or tried to write, standing up, looking across the valley. Did he look out that window that morning? Consider the view? Consider the green coming to the valley? He had almost never seen Idaho green. He knew this place cold and chill.
Had he tried to write that morning and the words didn’t come?
What we know is that he walked out of his bedroom, down the red-carpeted steps and strode across the long living room. The shotgun. The shells. The vestibule. A blast.
Mary would tell the press it was a gun-cleaning accident, but she surely knew the truth.
This is less the place where Hemingway lived than the place where a different Hemingway might have lived, if he hadn’t ended his life. A modern home with a TV and a hi-fi and a screen for home movies, the films still stacked today in the vestibule in their tin discs.
This is the place Hemingway could have lived to old age, seen his children and grandchildren, watched them fly fish on the Big Wood. This is the place where he could have come back after a picnic on Galena Pass with friends. It was a beautiful day, that day he killed himself, but he would never know.