Hemingway’s Ketchum

Hemingway’s Ketchum

The writer’s legacy in the town that he helped transform


On the morning of Ernest Hemingway’s death, long shadows tugged at a typewriter perched at the window where clear Idaho skies hovered over the Wood River Valley. Throughout his writing life, Hemingway had always visited Ketchum in the fall, when the impending winter carried a sharpness, and fallen aspen and cottonwood leaves perfumed the air with the bouquet of changing seasons. After much of a lifetime in Italy, Paris, Cuba, Spain and Africa, Ketchum had become home. Hemingway and his wife, Mary, left behind Caribbean fecundity for the arid West, a place where he had friends–actors, socialites and cowboys–from many years and many visits. This was his first summer.

Hemingway boasted never missing a sunrise, and the morning of July 2, 1961, was a glorious one. Sunlight spilled into the bedroom where he slept alone. Down the hall, in her separate room, Mary slept.

Ketchum still had the feel of an outpost on the edge of the wild. It reminded the Midwesterner with no college degree of rugged places he’d known in his six decades of rough living. The meadows near Silver Creek recalled the green hills of Africa. The dry, rugged hills teemed with Basque shepherds and, with their flocks, he was reminded of Spain.

Born in the waning days of the nineteenth century, an age of exploration succumbing to machine modernity, Hemingway was ill fit for a world turned Technicolor. His expatriate days were behind him, and he settled in this remote corner of America, still drawn to wild places even as the world’s wildness waned.

What would he tell us, I wonder, about the world he never lived to see?

The view from Hemingway’s bedroom window is different today. Giant houses have sprung up. So have giant cottonwood trees. These used to be shorter, kept in check by a wild river that shifted with the seasons. Now, development keeps the Big Wood River in its banks. Tall trees obscure a view that once stretched to town, nearly a mile away.

“I have to ask about ghosts,” I said to caretaker Taylor Paslay.

“No ghosts. There’s not a lot of presence in this house,” Paslay said.

A deep rumbling shook the house.

“Are you sure there are no ghosts?”

“That’s my girlfriend. She’s probably opening the garage door to get her bike.” Paslay left behind a job teaching English at a Yakima Indian Reservation middle school to don a pair of Carhartts, tie on a tool belt and be a Sun Valley ski bum. The Hemingway house, which the family left to The Nature Conservancy after Mary died in 1986, needed a caretaker; Paslay leapt at the chance.

This house doesn’t really feel like Hemingway. More Mad Men than Out of Africa, it was built and furnished in the 1950s by previous owner Bob Topping. After Hemingway’s death, most of his few belongings here were hauled to his collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Hemingway had barely spent any time in Ketchum–just eight months, off and on, Paslay said–and those were mostly unpleasant. “I think I’ve been here [in this house] longer than anyone,” Paslay said.

In pajamas and bathrobe, Hemingway descended a red-carpeted staircase to the living room, where antelope heads from an African safari stared from the mantle. He went to the kitchen for the storeroom keys and then emerged from the basement with a box of ammunition and an English-made Boss 12-gauge he bought at Abercrombie & Fitch to shoot pheasants.

He breached the shotgun, loaded two shells in the chambers, and in the entryway vestibule, placed the barrels in his mouth. He pulled two triggers and fired two cartridges. It was just weeks shy of his 62nd birthday.

Nearly a half-century after Hemingway’s death, Ketchum still feels like an upscale frontier outpost. Sheepherders still drive their flocks through town each spring and fall, but they are more likely to be Peruvian than Basque. Hayfields still spread into the hills, but, more and more, open spaces are studded with mansions. Driven out by rising housing prices, Ketchumites have scattered to cheaper ZIP codes. Most of the old-timers Hemingway would remember have died. Their children, the ones who stayed, are the new old-timers.

Were Hemingway here today, Cheryl Hymas would be one of the few familiar faces. “Hemingway stayed at our cabin when he came from Cuba, so we got to know him,” she said.

Hymas hails from Ketchum’s Brass family, the ranching clan that sold the land that became the Sun Valley Resort. She and her husband, Forrest Hymas, married as college sweethearts. On weekends, they brought their literature-major friends back to the house to quaff wine with her family’s famous tenant.

“We found out there was more to wine than Mogen David and Thunderbird,” Forrest said. “He upped our taste quite a bit.”

Forrest’s uncle, Denny Pace, is a former World War II fighter pilot better known as Hemingway’s sometimes waiter and drinking buddy.
“What I liked about him was he was a regular guy,” said Pace, who at 90 is lean and spry with a shock of gray hair and a trove of memories. “Hell, Gary Cooper, he was an asshole. A lot of the actors and actresses were. Hemingway hated to dress up. He always had an old wool shirt on. I’ll bet it itched a lot. And the ugliest tie. And a coat and pants and moccasins. He hated to show off. He looked like one of us peasants. I was better dressed than he was.”

If Hemingway strolled from his old home into downtown Ketchum today, he’d pass neo-Beowulfian enclaves and a gourmet Italian restaurant, its windows lined with wine bottles. If he strolled by in early morning, he’d hear Mexican baladas play from the kitchen staff’s sound system. Some of the old homes he’d still recognize, their wooden slats tugged so hard by gravity they run diagonal to the ground. He’d walk past real estate offices, where posters advertise ranchettes with Sawtooth views. He’d find his darling Sawtooth Club had gone upscale, that the Tram had burned to the ground and that the Casino wasn’t a casino anymore.

Still, the Casino is probably the only bar in town Hemingway would recognize. It shed its log cabin exterior for William-Tell-contemporary, but inside it’s still a hazy working man’s bar with a cloud of cigarette smoke hovering beneath a low ceiling.

“We’re dying here,” Chase Dawson said. He moved to Ketchum in 1989 to work and ski. He doesn’t ski much anymore. For a while, he wasn’t working much either. After a wild ride in the 1990s and early 2000s, Ketchum’s real estate boom settled out. The millionaires stopped buying. The builders stopped building.

“We’re one of the richest counties in America,” Dawson said. “But the Valley’s mainstay is workers, anyone from building houses to mowing lawns.”

Dawson lost his job as an electrician in the recession. He went on unemployment briefly, then enlisted as a construction worker to remodel a home for one of Ketchum’s wealthiest residents, Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn. Dawson found himself working long hours ripping out perfectly good granite countertops, but compared to unemployment, he was happy with the absurdity of the job. He doesn’t join the chorus of locals who bemoan the changes brought on little Ketchum by the real estate boom. It’s the bust he’s worried about. At the Casino, one of the town’s rare socio-economic equalizers, he feels at home.

When Hemingway first arrived, gambling was legal here. Later, it was less than legal, but tolerated. Hemingway rued the day Boise cracked down on his pastime. At the Casino, slot machines were replaced by pinball and pool.

“What would Hemingway say if he came back?” I asked.

“Where is my sleepy little town?” Dawson replied.

“But would he like it?”

The bartender comes over and nods. “It’s a great little town,” said Neil Jessen, a Sun Valley booster, and one of the few men who can carry off a Betty Boop Hawaiian shirt. “Things change. Places change. It’s still a great little place.”

When Hemingway first came to Idaho—on September 19, 1939, to be exact —home was Suite 206 at the Sun Valley Lodge. “Glamour House,” he nicknamed it. The corner suite’s beds were covered with Hudson Bay blankets and chenille bedspreads. The furniture was upholstered in apricot, cinnamon and sunshine yellow. Today, photos of Hemingway The Hunter hang from salmon-colored wallpaper. Duck decoys sit on the white fireplace. A bronze statue of a younger, mustachioed Hemingway types away on the dresser.

When Hemingway aimed his shotgun off the balcony here at unsuspecting geese, he would have looked out on the spreading meadows of the Brass family’s ranch. Since then, landscaped aspens and condominiums have encroached on the resort grounds.

“The idea of the lodge when they built it was ‘roughing it chic,’” said Sandy Hofferber, regional history librarian at The Community Library in Ketchum, as she led a group of Hemingway fans on a tour of his former haunts. “Now they’ve gone a lot more on the chic side.”

One of the men on the tour is Charlie Knapp, from Carson City, Nevada. “I’m a retired prison guard interested in Ernest Hemingway,”

Knapp introduced himself with a succinctness worthy of Papa. Tall and fit, with a weathered face and clear blue eyes, Knapp has spent a good part of his retirement chasing Hemingway around the world: running with the bulls in Pamplona, tracking down little-known Hemingway bars in Spain. Paris is still on his list. He hasn’t made it to Cuba, either: “I’m waiting for Castro to die.”

Wearing a felt hunting hat, red-and-black plaid shirt and blue jeans, Knapp looked like a character from a hunting tale. Having grown up in Michigan, Knapp said he feels a connection with the author who spent boyhood days rollicking in the Upper Peninsula. It’s an affinity he doesn’t share with Hemingway’s peers.

“James Joyce was worthless,” he said. “William Faulkner was worthless. I’m absolutely convinced this stuff only survives because of college professors.”

Knapp and his wife, Joyce, know this tour well enough to lead it themselves—the cabins he lived in, the homes he played in. When we come to the cemetery above town where Hemingway is buried, Knapp scoffed at the pens, pencils, booze and bottle caps fans had left on the flat stone that marks his grave. “Someone should just come by and sweep all this stuff away.”

“For some people it’s a shrine,” Hofferber said. “For some people it’s a place to give respect to a person who had a profound influence on their lives. For some people it’s a hole in the ground. It just depends what Hemingway meant to you.”

A more touching memorial was built just east of Sun Valley alongside Trail Creek. The site was chosen for its natural state, “as when the Indians roamed this part of Idaho.” That’s how it was described in 1966 when the memorial was created. If the Indians roamed today, they’d be roaming the seventh hole of the Trail Creek Golf Course, where a golf cart wheels down to the creek’s edge. A man steps out with a pole and a net. He’s fishing–for his little white golf ball lost in the creek.

The statue bears an inscription Hemingway wrote for Gene Van Guilder, a Sun Valley publicity man killed in a hunting accident. “Best of all he loved the fall,” it said.

Hemingway’s skeptics, less impressed by his ability to take down a duck than to put down a bottle, put it another way. “Best of all, he loved to fall,” Hofferber told me conspiratorially.

For her, knowing Hemingway lore is as much a part of the job description as knowing old mining wagons. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of them both; she’s not a fanatic of either.

“There’s a funny thing about Ketchum and Sun Valley,” Hofferber said. “Almost any place I’ve ever been, celebrities are still treated like celebrities. Except here. Somehow or other, we’re just not impressed.”

Hofferber runs down the list of Sun Valley celebs: Jamie Lee Curtis, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hemingway led the way for these celestial bodies. His estate was worth a hefty $1.4 million when he died. In his time here, Hemingway hung out with his local hunting buddies, but he also partied with Gary Cooper and the Spiegels, heirs to the family catalog fortune.

Hofferber and I shared beers at Papa Hemi’s Hideaway, a bar that came as close as possible to using the author’s name without having to pay a fee to Fashion Licensing, the New York firm that owns the rights to the Hemingway name and strictly manages them on behalf of the family. “The Hemingways,” a condo complex down the road, has to pay. Even the library pays when it holds its annual Hemingway Symposium.

The bar at Papa Hemi’s Hideaway sits amid a klatch of log cabins that until recent years was a low-budget motel. Hemingway, no longer getting a free place to stay at Sun Valley Resort, first came here to Room 38 with Mary in 1946 as she recuperated from a near-fatal tubal pregnancy. It was called the MacDonald Cabins then.

The Ketchum Korral, as they’re called today, are cheap month-to-month rentals shared by the Anglos, Mexicans and Peruvians who make up Sun Valley’s workforce.

I walked amid the cabins and tall dark pines until I found No. 38. No signs mention Hemingway. Nothing distinguishes it from the other cabins.

I knocked, and the door swung aside to reveal a short Hispanic man. Hugo Pedro Vargas Vargas had never heard of this Ernest Hemingway fellow, but when I explained my interest in his cabin’s former inhabitant, he graciously invited me in.

“Where I’m from there’s no snow, no ice,” Vargas said. He arrived from the lowlands of Peru eleven years ago in January, and the winter chill was a shock to his bones.

“Now I live like this,” he cackled, showing off sockless feet.

If this cabin’s most famous occupant was a symbol of the glorious Sun Valley of old, its most recent occupant is a symbol of the new Sun Valley, dependent on foreign labor. Vargas left behind his job as a taxi driver to come here to work in a posh Ketchum restaurant. More than that, he left behind his wife, children and grandchildren in Peru.

He drew an imaginary line down the middle of his face. “I’m divided between the two,” he said.

Vargas is quick to laugh, and to philosophize. For the past two years, he’s been a permanent resident, and he’s hoping to become a citizen. Before that, he was here illegally, he said, “hidden, frightened of living.” For ten years, he wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car out of fear that he’d be pulled over and deported.

I wonder if Hemingway would recognize his old cabin, cluttered with tired furniture and computer equipment that Vargas’s son fixes in his spare time. The window offers pretty much the same view to the mountains Hemingway saw, and Vargas seems to appreciate Ketchum. “It has a spiritual peace,” he said. “A tranquility. It calms your soul.”

I can’t help but think that he and Hemingway would have hit it off. Otro pisco sour, por favor.

At 91, Bud Purdy is among the last living members of Hemingway’s circle of Idaho friends. “Living” is an understatement. Purdy pilots his own plane south to Mexico twice a year to go dove hunting. He skied at Sun Valley from the day it opened until about a decade ago. He has turned over most of his ranching operation to his son, the fourth generation of Purdys to run cattle on the plains south of Ketchum, but he’s fit, sharp-minded and quick-witted.

Purdy was nineteen years Hemingway’s junior, just out of college, when Sun Valley first brought Hemingway to the Purdy ranch to hunt. “I was impressed, let’s put it that way,” Purdy confessed. Hemingway was already required reading when Purdy was in school. Over time, Purdy came to know him less as Hemingway the author than as Ernie the hunter.

“He wasn’t a macho guy,” Purdy said. “He was shy, kind of. He wouldn’t do anything that he felt offended anyone.”

As we talk, Purdy looks out his picture window to the meadows of his ranch where Hemingway used to hunt. Silver Creek rolls past the rushes, bubbling with trout nosing for the surface. It’s the same creek Hemingway used to hunt by canoe. Off in a distant meadow, a coyote caught Purdy’s eye.

Silver Creek is a reminder of how little some parts of Hemingway’s Idaho have changed. Much of the southern part of Blaine County is still farmland. A mile and a half down the road, Hemingway’s family preserved his old hunting grounds under the protection of The Nature Conservancy and people still hunt and fish at the Silver Creek Preserve.

At a secluded memorial to Hemingway amid the preserve’s 2,882 acres, a rock bears a quote from The Sun Also Rises: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it arose.”

Purdy disagrees with the Casino bartender. “Hemingway wouldn’t like it if he came back now and saw these big houses and big stores and big buildings,” he said with a trace of Western drawl. “He’d just shake his head and say, ‘It was better way back when.’”

To understand Hemingway’s life in Idaho, I sought out the house where he ended it. Except for annual dinner parties, it’s closed to the public. But Paslay, the caretaker who lives in an apartment beneath Hemingway’s living space, agrees to open it to occasional journalists and scholars.

When he pushed open the front door, a musty whiff blew out, as from a sealed-away time capsule. I feel like we’re opening a tomb. We walk through the morbid vestibule into the long living room, all cold angles and low, modern furniture.

“The first time I came up here,” Paslay said, “I expected a big log cabin, game mounts everywhere, something very Hemingway. Idaho. Big West. But it’s not.”

Mostly, it’s like a yellowing snapshot from the 1960s, a decade Hemingway barely saw. Like his Sun Valley Lodge suite, the house has become an ersatz shrine. The typewriter by the bedroom window is a donated prop. The old magazines weren’t his either.

Over the gray stone hearth, beside the mounted antelope heads, hangs Hemingway’s most famous portrait, captured by renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh in Cuba in 1957. Hemingway looks the way most Hemingway impersonators remember him: silver hair and full beard, in a rollneck cable-knit sweater that looks awfully hot for Havana.

That portrait gazes out the wall-sized window, down to the Big Wood River and across to the massive homes that have taken root among the cottonwoods. Hemingway looks like a sea captain from another age staring over the ship’s wheel, wandering into what strange port he has arrived and wondering if there’s any place for him there.

If he stepped out of that portrait today and walked through the vestibule into the streets of Ketchum, what would he think? The roughness has been sanded and polished. The wilderness tamed, packaged and sold.

Tamed, but not lost. A glance north to the Boulders, or to the shining stars, or to the tumbling Big Wood River, would still point the way home.