In 1936, Union Pacific Chairman Averell Harriman and Steve Hannigan, the publicist behind 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. Part of its success was due to a publicity stunt offering celebrities 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 and surprised the owners by turning up unannounced 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.
Hemingway returned to Sun Valley regularly until his death here in 1961. Over the years, he brought his children and various wives and eventually purchased a home here in 1959 when things in Cuba started to heat up. In his later years when his physical and mental health were in decline, he returned to Sun Valley because it was far away from the constant scrutiny of the press. The people here 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 never wrote 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 both during some of the highest and lowest points in his life. 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. It might seem strange that the most popular American author of the twentieth century was buried in this tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere. Obviously this was where he spent his final days and where he tragically took his own life. But the choice to inter him in Idaho was not merely one of convenience. I believe that the great adventurer and man of the world found his true home in Idaho. A place of rugged beauty that drew him back again and again.
Despite some commercialisation of the Hemingway sites, it is relatively easy for a visitor today to have authentic Hemingway experience. Although his home is closed to the public, aficionados can visit his grave which sits unassumingly under a small grove of trees. The day I was there, some thoughtful pilgrim had left a bottle of absinthe and a cigarette lighter as a tribute (though it appeared that they'd enjoyed a couple of drinks and a smoke first themselves).
Other points of interest include the Trail Creek Cabin, the Hemingway Memorial, and Silver Creek Preserve (Hemingway's favourite hunting ground). 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.
And then there is the legendary Sun Valley Lodge. Take a stroll through the halls of this world-famous ski lodge and you'll see autographed photographs of everyone from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood. Built by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936 as part of country's first destination ski resort, the lodge attracted a parade of Hollywood stars and it soon became known for its rich and famous clientele. Hemingway first visited in 1939, staying in Room 206, where he finished work on For Whom the Bell Tolls. He returned to the Sun Valley Lodge several times over the years and eventually purchased a house in nearby Ketchum. Today guests can even request Hemingway's Room.
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