Hemingway’s Urinal

Not only the home of the polydactyl cat, Hemingway’s Key West house holds another Papa legend in its backyard, one that would make DuChamp proud.

Hemingway bought the house in 1932 just as Prohibition was winding to an end. As it happened, his friend, Joe Russell, was opening up a Key West branch of his Havana bar, Sloppy Joe’s.

February 24, 1932.
 The house in 1968, when it was submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.

It wasn’t until Hemingway had been dead nearly three decades that the story of Hemingway’s urinal came to light, at least in the national press. It seemed to happen after Mary Hemingway, his last wife, traveled to Key West in February 1962 and tended to the affairs, including discovering a cache of unpublished work in a storeroom at Sloppy Joe’s.

At the time Hemingway began been living in the home from 1931-1939, he had been married to another woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, who had found the house at a tax auction (and may have suggested it to her uncle, who bought it for the couple as a wedding present).

Money was a source of friction between Pfeiffer and Hemingway, as evidenced by the famous anecdote involving Key West’s first pool, which sites in the house’s backyard. Built for Hemingway as a surprise by his wife, it cost $20,000, more than double the house and with no relative to pay for it this time.

When Hemingway came home from covering the Spanish Civil War (where he had begun his affair with Martha Gellhorn), his wife discovered that his reaction was different than expected (or so the story goes). The legend concludes that Hemingway was so made, he threw a penny to the ground, admonishing his wife for spending his last sentence; his wife had it mounted on the pool deck.

Atlas Obscura even has its own entry page for the penny.

When rent for Sloppy Joe’s was raised in 1937, Joe Russell moved the bar to the Duval Street location, where a bar of the same name operates today. The original location, now Captain Tony’s Saloon, still contends with the other over being the rightful heir to Hemingway’s drinking legacy.

In any case, in 1937/1938 as Russell was moving to the new location (which may have been underwritten by Hemingway), the urinal ended up at Hemingway’s house, where again we rely mostly on apocrypha to guide us. Hemingway may have said that he already paid for the urinal by using it so often, or he might have taken it back to the house to spite his wife, saying it was essentially the same as her $20k pool boondoggle.

In any case, the urinal ended up with tile decoration and a central spot in the courtyard, finding a role as watering hole for the on-campus cat population. Find more information about the house on its official website.

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