Key West is chockablock full of Ernest Hemingway. His home is there, where he lived from 1931 to 1940 with his second wife, Pauline, and his two sons. Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a Hemingway watering place, holds an annual “look like Ernest Hemingway” contest to benefit charity each year on his birthday, July 22. I was there in Key West this year for the annual look like Ernest Hemingway competition. It is a giant and wild event. Lots of shouting and cheering and drinking seem to be its major elements. It appears all that is required is to be paunchy, white bearded and willing to attempt to speak something Hemingwayesque.
It was stunning to see many of the Hemingway contestants trudging the streets during the period known as Hemingway Days. But let me step back a while and tell you a bit about the famed American author. Hemingway was born in 1899 near Chicago, to a doctor and his wife. He was a rambunctious young man. He served in the First World War as an ambulance driver and was severely wounded by shrapnel. In fact he was so severely wounded that he wrote standing up because the still embedded shrapnel made it uncomfortable for him to sit for long periods of time. He married four times. He went to Paris after the First World War and was quite a fixture in the Paris of the 20s scene. In 1927 he returned to the US and arrived in Key West where there was supposed to be a Ford car waiting for him and his wife.
Pauline’s uncle had bought them a Ford which was supposed to be in Key West. Unfortunately, the car was delivered six weeks late. While waiting for the car, Hemingway and his wife moved into a hotel above the Ford dealership. In the time it took to have his car arrive, Hemingway fell in love with Key West and decided to stay there. He lived in a kind of apartment above the car dealership for 4 years and then he bought a house at 90 Whitehead Street, which is today a preserved historic site in Key West.
He and Pauline and his two sons lived there from 1931 until 1940 when he went to Cuba with his third wife to a small farm outside of Havana. His second wife stayed on in Key West in the house. When he died in 1961 the house became part of a trust and you can visit the Spanish colonial villa today as it is open to the public 7 days a week.
Hemingway’s wife built a swimming pool next to his writing studio and there is a much disputed story that when Hemingway came home from the Spanish Civil War he was so upset that he took a penny from his pocket and threw it to the ground in complaint at the cost of the pool, $20,000, saying,”you might as well take my last penny as you’ve spent everything else.” True or not Pauline embedded a copper penny in the cement surrounding the pool.
There is a second floor writing studio where Hemingway wrote some of his best known works, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and To Have and Have Not, which is set in depression era Key West. Hemingway won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes and became what many consider to be the greatest American writer of the last century. Hemingway’s family lived in the house after he left with journalist Martha Gellhorn, his third wife
Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a haunt of Ernest Hemingway, puts on a “Running of the Bulls” and the Hemingway look alike contest which is an annual event. It serves to keep Hemingway’s memory afloat in this small town at the very tip of the Florida Keys.
If you’re a fan of Hemingway you should not miss Hemingway Days in Key West. It’s a rip roaring festival devoted to the author’s life.