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Hemingway’s house a forgotten white elephant

Jack Wilson reports from Ketchum, Idaho, where money has trumped literary history.


Ernest Hemingway never missed a sunrise. Even the day he untangled himself from this mortal coil with two shells of buckshot, the sun also rose. You can understand when you look from his house’s implied aspect: the mountains framed the ascent of the sun through the tall pines and over the river where he hunted geese and his son fly-fished.

He’s buried in the municipal cemetery under a grey slab between four pines. There is no epitaph.

In Key West there is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. In Oak Park, there is the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and Museum. And fifteen kilometres outside of Havana there’s Finca La Vigía, where Hemingway lived in Cuba, now, also a museum. There is no such place in Ketchum, the town where Hemingway shot himself in 1961.

Displaced, Hemingway’s ghost haunts Ketchum. A rifle of his is mounted on a wall at the bar ‘Pioneers.’ An elementary school is named for him. There is a Hemingway-themed Room 208 at the Sun Valley Lodge. It is here where he wrote ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls.’ There are two memorials. One is off the highway in what was wilderness, now a golf course, and another on a rock in the aforementioned river. But the house is empty.

It was bequeathed by Mary Hemingway to The Nature Conservancy in 1986. For a time, the house was the office for the Conservancy’s operations in Idaho, until they moved for want of space. After spending $50,000 a year to maintain an empty house, the Conservancy and the Hemingway House Foundation attempt to restore the house and its various ephemera held by the John Kennedy Library in 2004. There would be tours and maybe a writer in residence. But there were none.

The years since have seen this increasingly reluctant caretaker grapple with the arbitrary whims of locals. The residents of Canyon Run Boulevard, the gated street where the house resides, would rather pay to move the house, as they attempted to do in 2005, than let tourists in.

“This isn’t a Hemingway issue, it’s a land rights issue,” said Jonathan Neeley, a neighbour of the house, to Ketchum’s local paper The Idaho Mountain Express.

Nine years later, the gate to Canyon Run Boulevard is still closed to non-residents. To see the house where Hemingway spent his last year, one needs cross the river and travel down the parallel to it until you reach an architecturally incongruous adobe mansion. There, across the river through the trees, there it is. Move ten metres in any direction and it’s gone.

Gone too is Hemingway’s Sun Valley. Then the view from his home was across a stream and into the pines. Now mansions line the stream, said to be owned by Hollywood A-listers and giants of finance and commerce. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a ski run to his name. Bruce Willis is said to be among the owners of property along the river.

Ketchum has always been the play place of the rich. But now they are no longer in the casino with Ketchum’s workingmen or concentrated in the suites and dining rooms of the Sun Valley Lodge. They have spread their wealth along the streets and boulevards in holiday homes of immodest scale.

For most, the attraction is less the hunting and fishing that drew Hemingway, but rather snow. The limitless snow of the Sun Valley Ski Resort. Owning one of the largest networks of snowmaking equipment in North America, the resort reliably delivers a solid snow base and powder no matter the weather conditions. It is the main game in town.

Hemingway, his memorialisation and any active engagement with his body of work, including the physical legacy of his last home, are absent from the tableau. Ketchum simply shrugged, looked up to the mountain and there, instead, saw its rivers of gold.