Battle to preserve Hemingway's private Idaho

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The Independent US

He almost never wrote about it but, for the last 20 years of his life, Ernest Hemingway made his spiritual home in the rugged Idaho mountain town of Ketchum where for some years he lived in a 1950s-era house made of poured concrete and painted to make it look like wood.

It was there, in the entrance hall, that he ended his life with a blast of a shotgun and that is what the house is mostly remembered for. Despite Hemingway's iconic status in America, however, every attempt to open the house to the public has been thwarted by the neighbours. Which may be just the way "Papa" Hemingway would have wanted things to turn out.

Because, apart from one short story and a passing reference in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the only time he wrote about his Ketchum sanctuary was in private letters to friends where he exulted in the area's mountains, its solitude and abundant hunting opportunities.

The house – with its large picture windows and wrap-around deck looking out over Big Wood River and the surrounding mountains – is filled with his personal possessions. But lawsuits from neighbours living in nearby mansions have ensured that every attempt to open it up to the public failed. The same neighbours have suggested that the Nobel prize-winner's house be jacked up on blocks and carted off to another location, at their expense.

Although he is most associated in the public's imagination with Cuba and Florida, rural Idaho was Hemingway's spiritual home. "When he began going to Ketchum, it was not an easy place to get to," said Michael Reynolds, a Hemingway scholar, "After living in Paris, he was looking for small places where he could be just one of the folks instead of Ernest Hemingway, famous writer."

"It's a sign of how much it meant to him. He knew he could ruin a place by writing about it," said Susan Beegel a leading Hemingway scholar and editor of the Hemingway Review.

The Sun Valley resort where Hemingway first stayed and Ketchum where he and his wife settled, were places where he could hunt and write, away from the glare of his celebrity.

At the end of every summer, Hemingway would pack up his Buick convertible to make the long trip from Key West, Florida, for the hunting season in Idaho.

Hemingway first went to Idaho as the non-paying guest of the Sun Valley company. Typically, he would write from dawn until lunchtime and go hunting for the rest of the afternoons. Evenings were spent with other celebrities, such as Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman at Trail Creek Cabin resort.

He spent the autumn of 1939 working on For Whom the Bell Tolls, surrounded by sagebrush hills that reminded him of the Guadarrama Mountains around Madrid.

While there, he worked on several books that were published after his death including A Moveable Feast, The Dangerous Summer, Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden.

But he was especially attracted by the hunting and fly-fishing opportunities. He hunted game in season, including duck and pheasant, and the occasional antelope.

"He was a helluva good shot," Bud Purdy, 87, who hunted with Hemingway over a period of 20 years, told the Idaho Statesman. "We'd throw clay pigeons up and, for a dollar a shot, he'd always beat us."

Few of his Idaho hunting friends had read his books and, when not out hunting, Hemingway, Mr Purdy and others enjoyed watching boxing on television.

"He liked the type of people who liked to hunt, who were down-to-earth, ranchers and farmers," said Mr Purdy, "He didn't talk to anyone about writing."

Another friend Clayton Stewart, 81, of Ketchum, said Hemingway was "a wonderful boxer."

"He'd give me lessons in boxing," he recalled. "It helped me later in life."

By 1954, Hemingway has added a Pulitzer Prize to his Nobel gong and was looking for a hideaway. Few American writers of the period were so identified with the struggles of their time and Hemingway was besieged by fans. His main home was in Cuba at the compound called Finca Vigia. But, in October 1960 Fidel Castro's revolution made Cuba too dangerous even for a writer of his stature so he moved permanently to Ketchum.

Today Hemingway's Ketchum home is owned and carefully maintained by the Nature Conservancy which mainly devotes itself to preserving wild places rather than historical buildings. The organisation spends tens of millions of dollars every year buying farms and ranches and returning them to the wilderness. Inspired by Hemingway's interest in the outdoors, it bought his house and the surrounding land, intending to turn it over to The Hemingway Foundation.

The plan to open it for tourists, which would help to pay to conserve it, was stillborn in the face of lawsuits.

This summer, the conservancy came up with another plan. It invites wealthy donors to see the inside of Hemingway's home, and encourages them to pay for its preservation. But to avoid upsetting the neighbours, the public are not admitted.