The writer’s legacy in the town that he helped transform
Photography Mark Oliver
Illustration Gina Scanlon
(page 1 of 2)
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.”