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Hemingway's Key West home a mix of writer's life, legend

Hemingway lived in Key West from 1928 to 1940

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Those who study the life of Ernest Hemingway know that it's often difficult to discern where Hemingway's real life ends and where the legend begins. Even established institutions like the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida, do little to separate fact from fiction.

A few years ago, Patrick Hemingway, the author's son, and Hemingway scholar James Nagel visited the museum incognito. They heard tour guides tell stories about the cats that were brought to the island by Hemingway; tales about Hemingway's dramatic reaction to finding out the cost of a saltwater pool placed in his backyard; snippets about Hemingway's life spent on the island.

"We just walked through the house together," Nagel recalls of his tour with Patrick, "and listened to all these stories, none of which had much validity."

One of the many cats in the house

For example, the grounds of the museum, and Key West, is populated with six-toed cats. Guides tell tourists that Hemingway brought the first six-toed cat over from Cuba, and the descendants roam the island today.

"The truth is Hemingway didn't have cats when he lived in that house," says Nagel. "Hemingway liked cats but Pauline, to whom he was married, wanted peacocks. So they got peacocks for the yard ... The time when he had so many cats was when he lived in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba."

CNN Interactive, in a recent tour of the house, found some fictions might be more discrete than others. For instance, when site manager Linda Larson was asked if the typewriter sitting in the writer's office actually belong to Hemingway, as the presence of it seems to suggest, she said, "I think it did -- as far as I know it belonged to him."

A suitcase with the initials EH stamped on the front sits in the writing room

There's no pressing need to find out for sure -- Hemingway's legend sells well in the Conch Republic, and beyond. The home, bought by Bernice Dickson in 1961, was turned into a museum in 1964. Today, the site charges $7.50 for adults and $4.50 for children to walk where Hemingway walked. It's one of the top attractions in Key West.

The island, meantime, hosts the Hemingway Days Festival each July, joining places like Oak Park, Illinois, Paris, Pamplona, Spain -- all former Hemingway stomping grounds -- in capitalizing on the writer's name and image. And they're not alone. Hemingway's face has been used to sell numerous products, like Apple Computers.

"Every place tries to cash in on the writers associated with it," says Nagel. "It's just that Hemingway has such a world presence."

For their part, officials at the museum don't claim to be the end-all of Hemingway information. They merely want visitors to get a feel for the Hemingway legend, and they do their part in passing it along.

"We probably wouldn't remember Hemingway the way we do if we didn't have a museum for these past 30 years," Larson says.

One thing that cannot be mistaken: Hemingway lived in the house in the late '20s and '30s, penning some of his best work during this time, including the final draft to "A Farewell to Arms," and the short story classics "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Mancomber."

And the writing, more than anything else, is the stuff of which legends are made.

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