With its perfectly preserved Fifties interior littered with mementos of a life well lived, Ernest Hemingway’s last home in Ketchum, Idaho, has been moulded into a time capsule of the fateful morning on 2 July 1961 that the celebrated author, by then a broken man, took his life in its porch.
Papa’s image stares out from all sides yet it’s the little trinkets and everyday items that hit home most, giving the sense of a house still haunted by the great man. Here a trunk sprawled with his name in red paint, there a pair of old boots or snowshoes — possibly used by the consummate outdoorsman as he stalked the bucolic surrounds, perfectly framed by the house’s picture windows, in search of something to hunt.
Hemingway moved into the house with his fourth wife Mary in Autumn 1959, having left behind his beloved Cuba and deemed the dry climate and the house’s faux-wood, fireproof construction a safe haven for his archives. His time in the house proved short on both happiness and productivity, however.
With his health failing, hunting was off the agenda and he was forced to write standing up — a practice he took to in an outbuilding at a travelling pedestal or poised at the window in the spare bedroom. Undergoing electric shock therapy for depression, he was also losing his memory, exacerbating a dip in his writing abilities, causing him to labour over late works such as A Moveable Feast, the lively memoir he worked on at the house.
Regardless, last August this remarkable living museum was placed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Poignantly the commemorative plaque hangs on the outside of the entryway where the celebrated hunter took his own life with a shotgun aged 61. For now you need special dispensation to view the house, overseen by the Nature Conservancy, due to objections from the neighbours, but there are plenty of other points on the Hemingway’s Idaho trail to keep you occupied.
Hemingway’s connection with Ketchum began in 1939 when he was invited to stay at the fledgling Sun Valley Resort by the owner. Tasked with adding glitz and glamour by attracting an A-list crowd in return for free hospitality, Hem duly encamped in suite 206 with his mistress and future wife, the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
Portraits of Hem hunting, cavorting and outdoorsing with leading lights of the day adorn the hotel’s walls and it was in suite 206 (now 226) the soon-to-be-divorced Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, sealing his fame and fortune.
Papa’s old suite was the first stop on my tour with local Hemingway buff Jim Jaquet, a guide for Sun Valley Tours. Finding it occupied, my insight was limited to a goggle at the exterior, although it did occasion Jim to reveal: “Hemingway seemed to write better when he was married and having an affair with someone else — it got the juices flowing.”
As did hunting. One memorable Sun Valley hunting session was immortalised in his short story The Shot, and during his tenure there wasn’t much that moved in the area that didn’t get caught in the crosshairs of Papa’s guns, including a couple of hapless ducks that once flew by his suite’s terrace.
Hemingway’s circle helped to establish Sun Valley as a star-studded ski resort, Idaho’s answer to Aspen – and an extensive recent refurb aims to rekindle the glory. Certainly Ketchum’s Hollywood magnetism prevails, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood just a few of the celebrities with ties to the town. Yet it was autumn Papa loved most, a sentiment echoed in the eulogy he wrote for a friend, the passage beginning “Best of all he loved the fall” reproduced on Hemingway’s own memorial on the resort grounds.
In Ketchum Cemetery Hemingway’s modest grave can be found between two spruce trees, adorned with coins and the odd refreshing libation or Sun Valley room key left by well-wishers. To the left lies his last wife Mary who, having lived there until her death in 1986, bequeathed the Hemingway House to the Nature Conservancy, which initially used it as offices.
Other Hemingway graves satellite outwards, including Jack, a keen fishermen like his father, who died in 2000. A former commissioner with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Jack helped establish Silver Creek Preserve, protecting an area beloved of this father. By contrast Gregory, Hemingway’s youngest child, ended his days in Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Centre, under the name of Gloria.
Ketchum itself is awash with sites including watering holes such as Casino Bar, Sawtooth Club and Whisky Jacques (then the Alpine Club) and Christiania Restaurant where Papa enjoyed his last dinner. Personal effects, including a typewriter, can be found at Sun Valley Museum, while the Community Library, a central player in Ketchum’s annual Ernest Hemingway Festival, houses a collection of papers and reference works. And if your budget won’t stretch to Sun Valley’s Suite 226 consider Ketchum Korral, named MacDonald’s Cabins when Hemingway stayed with Mary in 1946/7.
Even without Hemingway, sleepy Ketchum and Idaho warrant exploration. The fly fishing, skiing and white water is world class. Then there are the often breathtaking views in this sparsely populated state. If it seems little changed since Hemingway’s day that’s because it is. As Kenneth Long, owner of outdoor activity company Cascade, told me: “Idaho is what the West used to be 30 years ago.”
To best see it through Hem’s eyes head there in the autumn when the state’s never less than beautiful flora morph into a sunbaked sea of golds and bronzes. It's easy to see why “best of all he loved the fall”, but at any time of year you're sure to feel the scenery call you outdoors.
Airlines including Delta, United and Virgin Atlantic offer indirect flights to Boise, around a two and a half hour drive from Ketchum.
Sun Valley Resort special (sunvalley.com) offers doubles from $291 (£208), room only, over summer. Its Aspen Glow package, available 13-25, September, includes an 18-hole round of golf, cart, and range access, with prices from $194 (£139) per person per night.
Sun Valley Tours (001 208 720 0968; email@example.com) offers guided Hemingway tours and history walks.
Ketchum’s Ernest Hemingway Festival (comlib.org) takes place 8-10 September.
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