Will Hemingway Retreat Become an Open House? Ernest Hemingway's last home was in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley. That's where the literary and cultural icon took his own life with a shotgun 44 years ago. Today, the house is the object of a dispute over whether it should be open to the public.
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Will Hemingway Retreat Become an Open House?

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Will Hemingway Retreat Become an Open House?

Will Hemingway Retreat Become an Open House?

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Ernest Hemingway shot himself to death on this day in 1961. The writer died in his home near Sun Valley, Idaho. His house is now the object of a bitter dispute over whether it should be open to a curious public. Correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson has the story.


It's been said this part of Idaho suited Ernest Hemingway, a rugged blend of high culture and back-country macho. His house in the town of Ketchum is a sturdy presence on a hillside overlooking the valley. Today, the final home of Ernest and his wife, Mary Hemingway, is owned by The Nature Conservancy, and for the most part it's remained closed to the public.

(Soundbite of beeping and footsteps)

JOHNSON: Stepping inside with Nature Conservancy spokesman Matt Miller is like stepping back in time, a perfectly preserved snapshot of life with the man known as Papa.

Mr. MATT MILLER (The Nature Conservancy): So you can still see a lot of Hemingway memorabilia and things that meant quite a lot to Ernest, like there are some African trophies from his safaris in east Africa on the wall. There's also a mountain lion skin that he actually took right here in Idaho on one of his many hunting trips around the mountains in this area.

JOHNSON: Aside from the remnants of Hemingway's more exotic pursuits, it's all midcentury modern, with low-slung furniture and touches of bright yellow, lipstick red and turquoise. Above the door leading to what used to be the entryway, there's still a sprig of mistletoe, long since dried and turned to gold.

Mr. MILLER: Well, this was the former entrance to the home, and the home does have a dark aspect as well. This is where Ernest killed himself. After he killed himself, Mary Hemingway closed it off as an entrance and actually changed where the driveway was so that no one would ever come through that again.

JOHNSON: Upstairs in the guest bedroom, Miller opens the curtains above the dresser where Hemingway's typewriter sits.

(Soundbite of typewriter)

JOHNSON: Toward the end of his life, back pain forced the author to write standing up. None of Hemingway's most significant works were created here, but according to Miller that doesn't really matter.

Mr. MILLER: Ernest really didn't own many homes in his life, and when he wanted to pick a last home, a final place to go, this was the place he picked. He picked Idaho, and I think that's very significant.

(Soundbite of typewriter)

JOHNSON: Recently, Nature Conservancy officials began talking about the possibility of opening the Hemingway house to tours and literary events. For many in the community, this sounds like a great idea. Gene Dellago is a local television talk show host.

Mr. GENE DELLAGO (Talk Show Host): We are caretakers of that home and he is an international icon, and doesn't that carry with it some responsibility to nurture his legacy here? And clearly it follows that that would include opening the house to the public.

JOHNSON: Not everyone shares that view, however. The Hemingway house sits on a private road with just a few neighbors, each of whom spent millions to live there. Jack Bunce is among those leading the fight to keep the house off-limits.

Mr. JACK BUNCE (Neighbor): The concerns with public tours are that we'll get tens of thousands of people a year going through the Hemingway house and trampling around the yards and coming up at unofficial times, and basically disrupting the residential quality of life that we have here.

JOHNSON: In an effort to make this problem go away, the neighbors proposed a solution. They offered to buy the Hemingway house for fair-market value, about $4 million, and move it to another location nearby. No small feat, as the house is made almost entirely of concrete, but a fair compromise, says Bunce.

Mr. BUNCE: You can't have it all. Can't always get what you want. You know, if they want to leave the house where it is, that's fine. We don't have a problem with that. But they shouldn't be using it as though it were in a public setting.

JOHNSON: The neighbors say public access would violate their property rights since the only way to get to the house is on their private road.

Mr. BUNCE: We're not gonna let them roll over us. That's not to say we're gonna win, but we're not gonna go down without a fight.

JOHNSON: Possibly a legal fight. As TV host Gene Dellago sees it, there's something more than an isolated dispute unfolding here.

Mr. DELLAGO: I really think that it's now become an issue of privilege and whether or not the mere fact that the surrounding neighbors have the financial means to prevent this, as opposed to what should be accessible to the public.

JOHNSON: In the Ketchum cemetery, the plain granite slab that marks Hemingway's grave has become a kind of wishing well. People come to toss a few coins and take a moment, and from the looks of a carefully placed bottle of Jack Daniel's, almost but not quite full, maybe even have that one last drink with Papa. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson.

SIMON: And photos of the Hemingway house are available at our Web site, npr.org.

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