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Still cashing in on Hemingway's fame

Ernest Hemingway arrived at the recently opened Sun Valley Lodge in 1939 as one of a string of celebrities invited there in hopes of attracting more tourists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ernest Hemingway arrived at the recently opened Sun Valley Lodge in 1939 as one of a string of celebrities invited there in hopes of attracting more tourists.

Nearly 70 years later - and 45 years after the Nobel Prize winner's death in this central Idaho mountain town - the resort area is still cashing in.

Hawking $15,000 signed first editions of his books, offering $1,000 a plate dinners in his home, and scheduling a Hemingway festival during the traditionally slow fall season, merchandisers to hoteliers are transforming one of the nation's most recognizable writers into Papa the pitchman.

"Sun Valley exists to make money, so it's not surprising that they would use Hemingway as part of that operation," said John Rember, who grew up in the area, met Hemingway as a child, and is now writer-at-large for Albertson College of Idaho.

But officials say they are not selling out a past member of the community so much as they are responding to a crush of Hemingway aficionados making pilgrimages to a place the writer helped make famous - by posing for publicity photos in exchange for a free room.

That leaves them trying to balance respect for Hemingway's legacy with finding the money to preserve his home, while also meeting an obligation to the thousands of tourists on the Hemingway trail.

"Commercialism has a bad name and rightly so," said Susan Beegel, editor of The Hemingway Review and a speaker at this year's festival. "But on the other hand, people need to make a living, and I think cultural tourism can be a great thing for a town. It's a clean industry and it gets people thinking about literature."

Hemingway might respond differently.

"He used to talk about people who were going on safari to hunt writers," said Beegel. "I don't know if he would enjoy us being on safari as much as we will."

Hunting Hemingway is a growing sport.

"On a daily basis, people are asking 'What can I see? What can I learn about Hemingway?'" said Carrie Westergard of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau, which gives out maps of Hemingway hangouts. "From scholars to just interested individuals, always asking."

Hemingway traveled the world to participate in world wars, 1920s Paris, the running of the bulls in Spain, big game safaris in Africa, and deep sea fishing off Cuba. He created stories that sometimes read like thinly disguised versions of his own experiences and that still captivate and inspire readers to chase the Hemingway legend.

"He spent a huge amount of energy creating that image," said Rember. And if that causes people to hit the Hemingway trail decades later, "I can't imagine him being displeased."

The end of that trail is Ketchum, where Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun on July 2, 1961, at age 61. He's buried in the Ketchum cemetery, surrounded by family and friends.

"Anyone who is looking for Hemingway of course goes to the grave site," said Laura Hall of the visitors bureau. "Sometimes people leave whisky or good Cuban cigars."

Hemingway's house is the most asked about, said Hall. Now owned by The Nature Conservancy, a plan to open the house to public tours collapsed last year after neighbors complained about possible traffic.

But it will open during the festival, Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, when up to 40 guests will pay $1,000 each to have dinner there.

Conservancy officials say the money is needed to restore and maintain the house that remains much as it did when Hemingway lived there. The only significant alteration was made by Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, who created a new main entrance away from where her husband died. She left the house to the conservancy.

"The home still has a remarkable number of interesting items," said Matt Miller of the conservancy. "African trophies from hunting trips, furniture, and artwork."

The conservancy also owns Silver Creek Preserve about 25 miles south of town. It is mostly unchanged from when Hemingway hunted and fished there. Access is free.

Hemingway wrote part of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in room 206 at Sun Valley Lodge, mentioning Sun Valley in the novel. Hemingway stayed for free, but guests today are charged $469 per night and share the room with a bust of Hemingway at a typewriter.

"That is the most requested suite we have in the Sun Valley Lodge," said Jack Sibbach, director of sales for the resort. "You can feel his presence in the room."

At Iconoclast Books on Ketchum's Main Street, a signed first edition of "The Old Man and the Sea" sold for $15,000 last fall, and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" went for $12,000 last month. A special section contains modern editions by and about Hemingway, the store's best selling author.

"Nothing is going to even come close to Ernest Hemingway," said Darren Sutherland, the bookstore's manager. "People who don't even read books will pick him up."

An out-of-the-way stop is the Hemingway Memorial - a bronze bust of Hemingway - about a mile and a half from the resort in a quiet grove of trees next to moving water.

"I think he really loved the outdoors and this place reminds me symbolically of his life rather than the commercial aspect," said memorial visitor Peter Oberlindacher, who first read Hemingway in his native Germany before coming to the U.S. in the 1950s. "You can listen to the wind and the leaves fluttering. It's just a special place."

That wild beauty, Hemingway experts say, is what drew Hemingway to central Idaho and kept him coming back.

Now, he is one of the attractions being used to pull in tourists.

"What Hemingway was going for all of his life as a writer was immortality," said Beegel. "I think he would be very pleased to know that his reputation is so much alive."

On the Net:

Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau:

Sun Valley Lodge: