Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hemingway dinner helps house stay afloat

$1,000-per-plate affair to help maintain Ketchum residence

Express Staff Writer

Jan Peppler, The Nature Conservancy of Idaho?s director of philanthropy, shows off one of the gift bags handed out to dinner guests.

Pots and pans were again making a clamor in the kitchen.

Top-of-the-line appliances from the 1951 house once belonging to author Ernest Hemingway fired up, while autumn leaves on the patio were cleared to make way for cocktail-toting guests.

Twenty Hemingway aficionados paid $1,000 per plate to attend a dinner party Saturday, Sept.30, at the last home of Nobel laureate author. The house's current owner, The Nature Conservancy, says the function is vital to help keep the structure and grounds maintained well into the future.

Although Hemingway spent only about eight months of his final years at the Ketchum house, interest in the site remains high. And interest in caring for the home and preserve was the reason the Conservancy, with help from the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau, developed the idea of the intimate fund-raiser.

TNC staff expected a fine elk dinner and literate conversation during the inaugural event, which took place during the second annual Ernest Hemingway Festival.

"What we did not expect was for them to really be into the Conservancy," said Jan Peppler, TNC director of philanthropy. "As stories were told about Hemingway, we had people talking about conservation easements. It was really amazing. They had a tremendous appreciation for what The Nature Conservancy is trying to do."

Twelve acres and a mile of riverfront are protected through possession or easements.

"People in Ketchum don't realize we have a mile of (river) that's never going to be developed," said preserve caretaker Taylor Pasley. "From Warm Springs to Adams Gulch, it's going to be protected."

That stretch, in the middle of multi-million dollar homes, is the largest piece of undeveloped property in Ketchum.

The home overlooking the Big Wood River has been in the spotlight more than once in its 50-year history: first, when Hemingway committed suicide there in 1961, and more recently, when The Nature Conservancy tried to open the home to public tours.

Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, gave the estate to the Conservancy. The organization eventually determined the maintenance of the house was too costly and the possession of it too removed from their mission of establishing nature preserves. So, they formed an alliance with the nonprofit Idaho Hemingway House Foundation to transfer ownership of the building, while retaining the surrounding property as a nature preserve.

Neighbors of the house voiced fierce opposition to regular public access, and the idea was eventually scrapped.

Such tours could have allowed the Conservancy to fund repairs and general upkeep to the house.

"That is why we're doing this event," Peppler said. "It's the perfect opportunity. It helps us maintain operations of the house."

This year alone, the Conservancy has spent many thousands of dollars repairing the electrical system, installing a new water heater, constructing a patio and outside stairway and repainting the house's exterior.

Funds from the dinner will also go toward conducting an inventory and archiving the house's contents.

"This house has been through three different hands," Pasley said. "(The Hemingways) brought a lot of stuff with them from Cuba. After Ernest passed on, a lot of his stuff went away to the Kennedy Library. They were kind enough to leave the furniture. They thought the house looked so nice with it."

Bob Topping built the house in 1951. Many of his items, such as coffee tables and nightstands, were left behind and used by the Hemingways.

"There's Topping stuff, Hemingway stuff and The Nature Conservancy stuff," Pasley said. "Archival work will determine what's what and what belongs to who."

Among guests at the dinner was Valerie Hemingway, the author's secretary who married one of his sons.

TNC staff will tap her for information on what was in the house when Hemingway was there—and what might be missing.

"She was present when a lot of items were moved," Pasley said.

Caretakers over the years will also be a source of information, Pasley said.

"All those people who have some attachment to the house will be useful to find out what was here," he said.

An inventory was completed after Hemingway died, but items were moved and stored away, Pasley said.

"If we know what's what," Pasley said, "we can properly document and protect the things that belong here."

Although TNC contemplated donating the house to another entity, its possession of it has coalesced somewhat with their primary mission of creating open spaces.

"We're committed to preserving the cultural and historical heritage here and the natural preserve," said Laura Hubbard, state director of The Nature Conservancy. But, "we need help. We're not experienced in preserving houses."

Help came during the festival from all over the country.

"What's so exciting is there was one person from Twin Falls and one from Boise," Peppler said. "Everybody else is from around the country. This generated excitement about the Hemingway festival and having a chance to be inside a home that is not open to the public.

"There was a protectiveness about Hemingway here. So people felt there was more value being here than in Cuba. Nowhere else can you go into his home and sit on his bed. They're all roped off."

The view from the guest bedroom upstairs still offers a glimpse of what Hemingway might have seen.

A typical 1950s-era typewriter sits against a window where he worked in Idaho, mostly in the late summer and fall.

"He had the view of the Boulders from here," Pasley said. "It would have been really pretty, like this."

Hemingway was drawn to the remoteness of the area but would sometimes invite guests for dinner, hunting and conversation.

"He would shoot clay pigeons out there," Pasley said. "You can still find pieces of them once in a while."

In what may be an annual event, the Conservancy hopes to open up an intimate, if sad, chapter in Hemingway's life in order to foster interest in his life and work.

"We hope we'll find people who appreciate not only Hemingway's written legacy," Hubbard said, "but his legacy in Idaho."

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