Why Idaho for Hemingway?

June 24, 2016

by Anna Lee, class of 2004

Ernest Hemingway lived in exotic places around the world and moved in circles of artists, writers and actors. Yet in 1939, he came to a town that for all intents and purposes was still the frontier of the Wild West. He came seeking the privacy he wanted to conduct a love affair with a woman who was not yet his wife, and he came seeking the free ride offered by the Union Pacific Railroad executives. But when the promotion passed and two marriages had come and gone, Hemingway kept coming back to Sun Valley, Idaho.

Sun Valley is still a hideaway for the rich and famous today, and it is still remote and wild, yet refined and glamorous. The scenery driving from the airport in Idaho’s capital, Boise, is almost identical to what Hemingway would have seen. In 1936, Union Pacific Chairman Averell Harriman and Steve Hannigan, the publicist credited with the success of Miami Beach, opened the resort to wide acclaim. Ketchum had been merely a small mining town until these two worked their magic to make it home to a world-class, European-style ski resort.

Hemingway loved Idaho because it was still wild—and for him it represented the real America.
Part of its success was due to a publicity stunt—celebrities were offered all-expense paid luxury stays at the resort if they would agree to be photographed enjoying themselves. Hemingway took advantage of his invitation in 1939 when he suddenly arrived with Martha Gellhorn in tow. As the resort was in the off-season, the staff was hurriedly called back and suite 206 was set up for the couple’s stay. Hemingway spent that first visit of about three months finishing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in the mornings and hunting in the afternoons. The room became his regular suite and visitors can still request to stay there today.

Unlike some of the other celebrity guests—Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, amongst others—Hemingway returned to Sun Valley regularly until his death there in 1961. He brought his children and wives and purchased a home in 1959 when things in Cuba started to heat up. Hemingway became a local and, despite having lived all over the world, was buried in Ketchum Cemetery along with his wife Mary and others he was close to in this tiny town.

Making a visit to Sun Valley brings Hemingway into focus in a new way. One can understand his priorities and get a glimpse beneath his larger-than-life persona. From the Lodge, you can see the same view that Hemingway would have seen. In downtown Ketchum, you can visit the casino where he gambled or his favorite restaurant, Michel’s Christiana, where you can eat at his favorite table. But the natural surroundings are the one thing that remains totally unchanged and unexploited. Visiting Silver Creek Preserve, where Hemingway hunted birds and game, offers a true picture into Hemingway’s passion for this part of the world. Hemingway loved Idaho because it was still wild—and for him it represented the real America.

In his later years when his physical and mental health were in decline, Hemingway returned to Sun Valley because it was far away from the constant scrutiny of the press. The locals adopted him as one of their own while still affording him the lifestyle he required. Sun Valley is still a refuge for celebrities today. As I write this, I’m sitting two tables away from Arnold Schwarzenegger in a local breakfast joint. No one pestered him for a photo, or even raised an eyebrow when he entered. Like Hemingway, he is not a spectacle here; he is just one of them. Other than one short story, “The Shot,” Hemingway did not write about Idaho as he did about most of the places that he lived or visited around the world. Perhaps this was his way of protecting a place that served as a sanctuary for him—a place where he could retreat during some of the highest and lowest points in his life.

Despite some commercialization of the Hemingway sites, it is relatively easy for a visitor today to have an authentic Hemingway experience. Although his home is closed to the public, aficionados can visit his grave which sits unassuming under a small grove of trees. The day I was there, a pilgrim had left a tribute of a bottle of absinthe and a cigarette lighter. Other points of interest include the Sun Valley Lodge, Trail Creek Cabin, the Hemingway Memorial, and Silver Creek Preserve. Those looking for a more in-depth experience should visit the Ketchum Public Library and the Ski and Heritage Museum. Both provide interesting collections of Hemingway photos and memorabilia, but more importantly a context for understanding Hemingway’s impact on Sun Valley, and its impact on him.

Why is the most popular American author of the twentieth century, a man who lived and traveled all over the world, buried in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere? I believe it became home to him and his family after him. And the lifestyle of laid-back, rugged luxury that drew him back again and again over the course of twenty years can still be re-lived by visitors today—even if only for a weekend.

Images of Sun Valley and Hemingway from the New York Public Library's digital collections.

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