Hemingway’s Head

A small two-bedroom in Edgartown features a half-bath inspired by all things Ernest Hemingway – especially the famed author’s fishing boat.

On a muggy summer night, reminiscent perhaps of Havana or Key West, Tom O’Hanlon stands in what one could easily assume is the Island’s only Hemingway-themed bathroom. He’s pointing out some of the memorabilia that line the shelves of the small space in the modest house on Jernegan Avenue in Edgartown that he shares with his wife, Jen. It’s actually only a half-bath, but the term “powder room” hardly seems applicable to a space that is nearly filled with the accoutrements of sport fishing.

Why a Hemingway bathroom? The admiration for the legendary author stems from a youthful encounter with The Old Man and the Sea. Tom guesses he was maybe eleven when he read the Pulitzer Prize–winning novella, and was shocked that he could read it all the way through. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can read this.’” It helped that the book is ostensibly about fishing, a passion of Tom’s since he was a small boy. After that, Tom read many of Hemingway’s works, in addition to discovering the man behind the books. “I found out about the big persona, and he seemed a kindred spirit.”

After his high school years, Tom put Hemingway aside as he was occupied with starting a family and pursuing a career. But twenty years later, he began to reread Hemingway, this time “with mature eyes,” he says. “When you’re sixteen, you can read about women but you’re not sure.” He found the books “profoundly better” as an adult, and remains impressed that Hemingway wrote about things he did. “He didn’t have to do research,” Tom says. “He put fiction around the framework of what he’d been through.”

At that point, Tom’s admiration for Hemingway merged with another passion of his: collecting. Tom’s work in construction and as a caretaker means that he is often witness to old Vineyard homes with interesting period details destined for the dumpster. All that good stuff ending up in the trash, as he puts it, “does not sit right. A window that’s looked out over the harbor for 150 years,” he says with a shake of the head. So Tom rescues what he can and carts it home to give away to friends or use himself, as evidenced by a large storage area on his property filled to overflowing. Jen notes that while they’ve had “several good conversations” about things that have “looked like dump stuff” to her, she’s come to accept and even admire his habit, “as long as he keeps it organized.” As for the storage area, she finds comfort that it sits on the edge of their property and “looks like some horrible neighbor’s mess.”

New materials left over from various sites and properties end up in his clutches too, and it was scraps of mahogany beadboard that caught his eye when he thought of his dull half-bath during the summer of 2008. For about four years he had been collecting end cuts of the beadboard, too short to be used for much, but he figured he could trim them to fit between the open studs of the bathroom. With the studs painted green, he thought, “This will look like the inside of a boat – and I flashed to photos of the Pilar [Hemingway’s fishing boat] – so I’ll make it look like a locker that might have been on the inside of the Pilar, with that great small-space feel you get below in a boat. Then I decided to run with it and do the Hemingway theme.” From there, Tom says, “It started to define itself and suggest what it wanted to be, and it drifted down that path pretty quick.”

Tom began the project spur-of-the- moment, on a weekend when Jen was away in March of 2009. Upon her return, she says her initial reaction was, “‘What the? You’re supposed to be renovating the kitchen!’ But once I got past that, I thought, ‘It’s so him.’ And that’s cool.”

Tom is not only into amateur architectural salvage, he is an incurable collector of arrowheads and old fishing reels and other things, and he had already been dabbling in Hemingway ephemera since the mid-eighties, but on a budget basis: photos and envelopes. While a Hemingway signature can fetch thousands, an envelope addressed to him is a tiny fraction of that. Tom has several mounted on the walls of his water closet, including one – addressed to Papa in Paris – which had been forwarded to New York and then finally found him in Key West, and another that caught up to the author on his safari to Tanganyika in 1933, chronicled in his book The Green Hills of Africa.

In addition to the mahogany beadboard and the green-painted studs, the floor is resawn oak left over from about five different jobs, the fixtures were salvaged, a reclaimed porthole looks through to a lit nautical scene embedded in a wall, and there are fishing and nautical knick-knacks covering a handful of shelves. Several old books rest on one shelf, with a vintage 1935 Royal typewriter. On another shelf is an antique shortwave radio – exactly like one in an archival photo Tom has of Hemingway enjoying the broadcast of a baseball game in Cuba with his driver and Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of the Pilar. A fisherman who’s graced many a Derby leaderboard, Tom also displays many old reels, some belonging to his father and grandfather, in addition to fishing poles, vintage fishing post cards, old lures, and other paraphernalia too numerous to catalogue.

In conversation, Tom O’Hanlon covers a lot of ground: He’s a former college professor, avid outdoorsman, part-time estate manager, and an inveterate doer of things – few topics seem to have escaped Tom’s analytical mind. The discussion strays organically from bathrooms to literature to nature to just about anywhere. But one question remained unanswered: Why a bathroom for such a personal project? He says, simply, “I don’t get a ‘man room’ in a nine-hundred-square-foot house.”