It has all the signs of a wild night and a morning tinged with regret: Empty liquor bottles and beer cans are strewn about with reckless abandon, along with a half-smoked cigar and a smattering of loose change.
But this is no college freshman’s dorm room. It’s the gravesite of famed author Ernest Hemingway at the Ketchum Cemetery, an iconic local landmark that draws tourists and aficionados by the car-full every year.
The empty bottles and other trinkets—a golf tee from the Sun Valley Resort, an empty coin purse, flowers—are mementos left by fans. They’re a tribute of sorts to the writer’s hard-drinking lifestyle, but also to celebrate his connections to the Wood River Valley.
Hemingway was buried here in 1961 after he shot himself at his home in Ketchum.
The Sun Valley Resort first brought Hemingway to Blaine County near the end of the Great Depression when the area first began transforming from a sleepy agricultural and ranching community into a tourist destination.
By then, Hemingway was becoming known the world over for his novels: “The Sun Also Rises” had been published in 1926 and “A Farewell to Arms” in 1929. From his experience as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway penned “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which was published in 1940. Hemingway wrote portions of the book in the Wood River Valley.
Hemingway first headed to the Western U.S. in 1929 while struggling to write “A Farewell to Arms.” He started writing the book in Key West, and then moved on to Piggott, Ark., with his then-wife Pauline, said Marty Peterson, a Hemingway scholar who lives in Boise.
After a stop in Kansas City, he was bound for Wyoming to connect with author Owen Wister, who wrote “The Virginian,” a novel based in the West that Hemingway admired.
Hemingway wrote a letter to an acquaintance, expressing interest in the possibility of going to Idaho to write stories. He didn’t make it to the Gem State for another 10 years, but Peterson said it demonstrated the author’s interest in Idaho during that period of his life.
Hemingway had lived in Paris in the 1920s, spending time with writers Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But he was also looking for more remote areas, Peterson said.
Quiet solitude was tougher to come by in the America of the 1930s and ’40s, with the nation experiencing increasingly rapid industrialization, mass social migration during the Depression and the war, and then the population and development booms of the post-war period.
But solitude is what Hemingway found in Ketchum and the Wood River Valley, Peterson said.
“Hemingway was looking for the last best place, and he found it in Ketchum,” he said.
He visited the area periodically in the 1930s and ’40s before leaving for 10 years. His days were spent writing, reading or in the outdoors hunting and fishing, with nights at bars in town or spending time with friends he’d made.
People respected his privacy despite his celebrity, Peterson said.
The friends he made in Ketchum were among the few lasting friendships he kept, he said.
“Looking at his entire life, he had disposable friends and disposable families,” Peterson said. “The countryside was littered with people who were his friends who were no longer his friends. The people in Ketchum he became friends with in the late ’30s, he stayed close with 10 years later.”
He returned with his fourth wife, Mary, and bought a home in Ketchum in 1959 north of downtown.
Even at that point, the home was sequestered from other development; photos of the home around the time that Hemingway owned it show no others nearby, Peterson said.
But Hemingway was suffering from mental and physical ailments. With a history of depression and family members who’d committed suicide, Hemingway underwent shock therapy at the Mayo Clinic.
“That was the rapid turning point to the end,” Peterson said. “It became a real struggle for him to write.”
Hemingway killed himself on July 2, 1961. Mary wanted him buried without a lot of fanfare, and today he rests under a heavy granite slab that simply states his name and the dates of his life.
Hemingway’s grave is in a shroud of spruce trees in the center of the cemetery, with Mary on one side, and his son, Jack, who had been an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner, on the other. His granddaughter Margaux is also buried there. The graves of friends from Ketchum dot the outskirts of the site.
If it weren’t for the liquor bottles and loose change, the grave wouldn’t stand out from any others in the cemetery.
Some of the mementos seem fitting: An empty bottle of absinthe, an empty bottle of whiskey. The pennies, nickels and dimes are for luck.
Others seem out of place: Hemingway was never a smoker, and didn’t indulge in cigars, Peterson said. It’s hard to imagine Hemingway drinking the mini bottles of Bacardi or ruby-red-grapefruit-flavored vodka, or the can of Bud Light beer, but they adorn the gravesite nonetheless.
It was drizzling rain one morning this month as Seattle resident James Campbell and his wife pulled up to the gravesite in a truck hauling a camper.
Campbell, a Hemingway buff, had been touring hot springs in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, hitting spots in Glacier, Yellowstone and in Grand Teton National Park. They made sure to include the stop at Hemingway’s grave in their travel plans.
They camped up Deer Creek the night before, enduring thunder, lightning, stiff wind and rain throughout the night.
But the rain had let up, for the most part. Campbell stooped down to pose for a picture before they got on their way again.
“He died because they didn’t have depression medication back then,” Campbell said. “He thought he was losing his memory and that was his storehouse of how to write.”
The morning was fitting of Hemingway’s last days in Ketchum: respite, albeit brief, from the intense storms that followed.
It’s certainly possible Hemingway had mornings tinged with regret. John Steinbeck wrote that hangovers should be taken as a consequence, not a punishment, but Steinbeck’s words and his novels set on the sun-dappled California coast seem a world away from here.
The Boulder Mountains loom north of the cemetery, and wilderness rings all side of Ketchum. That’s territory Hemingway loved exploring, Peterson said.
He would go birding between Hailey and Twin Falls, or in the Snake River Canyon north of that city. He spent time exploring the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, among other wilderness areas in central Idaho.
“Hemingway loved the out-of-doors,” Peterson said. “He loved what Idaho brought to him.”