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Wednesday, July 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Tales of tragedy stay locked in Hemingway's Idaho home

By Tomas Alex Tizon
Los Angeles Times

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KETCHUM, Idaho — The house is pretty much the way Ernest Hemingway left it, as if he stepped outside just a moment ago.

Even the antelope heads in the living room, with their marbled eyes, appear to be waiting for him. They stare out at a room frozen in time, suspended even in its slight messiness. The Life magazines look recently perused. Papers lie strewn on a table. Next to the fireplace is a black-and-white RCA television. He used to watch prizefights from the long, green couch across the room. The fabric is worn where he sat.

Hemingway, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, wrote portions of three books in this house. He spent much of his last two years, and, most significantly, took his own life here, on July 2, 1961.

The house has never been open to the public, and may never be. It's the only one of Hemingway's homes not turned into a shrine. His homes in Key West, Fla., and San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, and his birthplace in Oak Park, Ill., are open to admirers, and some believe his Ketchum home should be, too.

Since late last year, The Nature Conservancy of Idaho, which owns the property, has tried to schedule limited public tours but has been stopped by nearby residents.

About 3,000 people live full-time in Ketchum, a mining town turned playground for the rich, and 7,000 more spend part of the year here, golfing in the summer and skiing in the winter. The median price for a home in town runs just under $1 million.

A wealthy neighborhood has grown up next to Hemingway's property in the years since his death, and the road that leads to his once-remote house runs through the middle of the development. The neighbors don't want the traffic and exposure they believe would come with living next door to a shrine.

"We came here to retire. We don't want busloads of tourists coming through here 24/7," said Doug Lightfoot, a retired pharmacist and one of about two dozen homeowners in the neighborhood known as Canyon Run.

The conservancy makes the case for the home's historical significance, but the most passionate arguments have come from Hemingway fans and scholars.

Susan Beegel, editor of The Hemingway Review, based in Maine, said keeping the Ketchum house closed is like keeping a Van Gogh "locked in a vault."

Matthew Bruccoli, a Hemingway scholar at the University of South Carolina, said simply, "Hemingway is bigger than the neighbors' concerns."
 
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The conflict — most of it waged in the halls of bureaucracy, involving zoning laws and property rights — could be tied up in arbitration, or litigation, for years. Lawsuits have been threatened, and the neighbors, all of them in multimillion-dollar homes, have deep pockets for a long fight.

There's disagreement even within the Hemingway family. Mariel Hemingway, the writer's granddaughter, wants the house opened, while the writer's son, Patrick, questions whether the place where his father committed suicide should be made into a tourist attraction.

Angela Hemingway, the writer's daughter-in-law and longtime resident of Ketchum, said the house should be sold "so someone could live in it and make use of it."

Patrick Hemingway, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., has mixed feelings about opening up his father's home. He's critical of both the neighbors, whom he calls selfish and "obsessed with their real estate," and The Nature Conservancy, which he thinks has not taken good care of the property.

A part of him wants to never hear about the house again. "Do you think you could like the place where your dad killed himself?"

He fears that if the house were opened up, the conservancy, under pressure from the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, would likely "make it into a happy place that would be commercially valuable to the local merchants."

Patrick, 76, speculates that the conservancy would emphasize that Hemingway came to Idaho to fish and hunt. "The reality is he came here as a last retreat," Patrick said. "He came here to die."

Marty Peterson, who heads a citizens group working with the conservancy, said the home would be used in a way consistent with the spirit of Hemingway as a writer and outdoorsman.

The conservancy plan calls for turning the 16 acres into a nature preserve and keeping the house mostly as Hemingway left it. One room could be turned into a library, which could also be used to hold writing workshops.

The plan also includes tours of up to 15 people at a time. Those interested would make reservations and be picked up by a van in downtown Ketchum. The schedule would be restricted to one van per tour, with no more than three tours per day.

"The street is busy enough the way it is," said Bob Droge, a neighbor who opposes the plan.

Both Droge and his neighbor, Lightfoot, contend that the conservancy's plan for the Hemingway home is a commercial enterprise that has no place in a residential neighborhood.

"It's just a house, it's not a monument," Lightfoot said. "It's the place where he killed himself. Is that of historical significance? I don't think it is. It'll just be a place where people can satisfy their morbid curiosity."

But even Lightfoot couldn't resist. A few years ago, he asked the conservancy if he could go inside the house "just to see it."

Hemingway ended his life by gunshot, the way his father, Clarence, a physician, had ended his life 32 years earlier. Two of Hemingway's siblings, a brother and sister, had also committed suicide, and one granddaughter, actress Margaux Hemingway, killed herself in 1996 with an overdose of sedatives. Margaux's ashes are buried in the same small, roadside cemetery as her famous grandfather, less than a mile from the Ketchum house.

"All stories, if continued far enough, end in death," Hemingway once wrote. "And he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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