KETCHUM, Idaho – The two-story concrete-and-wood house located a half-mile north of Ketchum’s Warm Springs bridge may be known as the “Ernest Hemingway house.”
But the author didn’t build it.
Henry J. “Bob” Topping Jr., an heir to a family that had made its fortune in tin and one-time owner of the New York Yankees, constructed the place after his bar tab was cut off in 1953 at the Sun Valley Lodge.
Out of spite, Topping is said to have copied the unique exterior of the lodge with its poured and stained concrete made to look like wood, says Guy Bonnivier, the former head of the Idaho chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Bonnivier lived in the house for several years after the environmental group inherited the property from Hemingway’s widow, Mary, in 1986.
“Things were left pretty much the way Mary left them when she became ill and never came back,” said Bonnivier, speaking Thursday evening at the Sun Valley Lodge about four miles from the home.
The Nature Conservancy wants to turn the property over to an independent foundation that would erect a scholarly library and writers retreat at the home. But it’s run into opposition from neighbors who say that’s inappropriate and could lead to disruptive traffic in the neighborhood.
Topping, who was married five times including to actress Lana Turner, sold the house to Ernest and Mary Hemingway in 1959 for $50,000, including all the furnishings. Hemingway lived about six months in the house because he spent the summer traveling in Spain, Cuba and the United States.
He saw the place as a spot where he could hunt during the fall, according to his biographer, Carlos Baker, and thought the dry climate in Idaho would be a good place to rest his aging body and store manuscripts that were deteriorating rapidly at his home in Cuba and in a storage area behind a bar in Key West, Fla.
“My health and Mary’s needs a change of climate from the sub tropics for a part of each year,” he wrote in a letter to Charles “Buck” Lanham, a U.S. Army general he’d met while reporting about the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium.
After Hemingway’s suicide in 1961 – he killed himself in the front room, where a little window looks out over the Big Wood River – Mary lived in the house for several years, though the house had been occupied by a full-time caretaker when she died in New York in 1986.
Hemingway’s first son, Jack, became a commissioner of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He helped the Nature Conservancy acquire more than 400 acres of land near Ketchum that eventually became a large preserve south of the resort community.
He helped persuade Mary to deed the house to the Nature Conservancy shortly before her death with the provision it be used to house the group’s Idaho offices. The group has since moved its state headquarters to Hailey, 11 miles to the south.
The house overlooks the Ketchum cemetery where Hemingway is buried.
There’s another monument near Ketchum, the Hemingway Memorial, on the Sun Valley Road about two miles northeast of Ketchum.
It includes the inscription: “Best of all he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. Now he will be part of them forever.”