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Hemingway In Key West – An interview With Mike Curry

Hemingway In Key West – An interview With Mike Curry

Michael Curry is a fourth generation Conch born and raised in Key West. He currently resides in Gainesville, Florida where he serves as the Deputy Executive Director of the Santa Fe College Foundation.

Our conversation about Hemingway began on the lostgeneration
forum when I asked if anyone out there had Hemingway stories. Mike replied:

MC: Allie, I was born and raised in Key West. Both of my grandfathers knew Hemingway in different ways, one from the local newspaper and one from the docks. My grandfather on my father’s side worked at the Key West Citizen the daily newspaper for Key West. Hemingway would come in regularly and check the wire services. The paper was located on Green Street across from the current day Sloppy Joe’s. There are stories about Hemingway and his “habits” in Key West that I am not prepared to tell. I can tell you that he was an extraordinary observer of human nature and the human condition based on the stories I have heard about his time in Key West and the stories he ended up writing. His novel To Have and Have Not, while not considered one of his better works (as a novel) represents an incredible “collection of short stories” that capture Key West during that time period to perfection (my other grandfather was a charter boat captain).

From the stories I have heard, first person accounts, it is clear that he had the ability to observe, digest and record the essence of a place and its people with great skill. He did this not as the “leader” of a great and colorful “posse” as is so often written (although the group he hung around with, including my grandfather, was apparently very colorful) but as one of the boys. He fostered his public machismo persona for commercial purposes but maintained a rather low key demeanor in the reality of his daily life in order to learn and experience those things that he would write about later.

The Key West and Cuba experiences are perfect examples of this. His genius was not only in his ability to write but to observe and to internalize in ways that go beyond, in my opinion, what normal people experience. These processes occur, many times, not as a conscious endeavor but unconsciously or subconsciously until they manifest themselves in the writing. I believe Hemingway once commented that Old Man and the Sea came to him almost as a stream of consciousness, my words not his, but not surprising since he had been around many individuals who personified the main character both in Key West and Cuba. I also think this hyper awareness of surroundings and circumstances contributed to his torments in later years.

Much has been written about how autobiographical his work is. I don’t think the Key West/Cuba material is autobiographical at all. While Hemingway did enjoy immersing himself in the “lifestyle” of his surroundings, I think he understood that there was a difference between being able to experience certain realities and being born into them. I think he recognized and respected that difference and this is what made him such a great writer as he worked to capture that latter reality. A much more powerful product in the end.

AB: This is really interesting, thanks so much for the reply. Do you think Hem could empathize with the people he observed? He writing seems so detached at times. How do you think the people he observed felt about his Key West stories? How did your grandfathers feel about Hemingway? And out of curiosity, how did you grandmothers feel about Hemingway?! Was he an accessible person back then? What do you mean about his awareness of surroundings adding to his torments in later years?

MC: Allie, Key Westers, known as Conchs, are notoriously easy going when it comes to strangers as you have probably heard. All manner of artists and writers have called Key West home in large part because of the easy going atmosphere (my parents have a bounced check written and signed by Tennessee Williams..but more on that later).

None of the Conchs would have paid much attention to Hemingway “the writer” they would have accepted him or ignored him based on who he was and how he presented himself in real time as we say today. My grandfather who worked at the paper thought he was a nice enough fellow. Maybe could have paid a little more attention to personal hygiene and was for the most part a regular guy, with no pretense or airs. If Hemingway had presented any other way he would not have been tolerated. By that I don’t mean tolerated as if this was some special group but just tolerated as one of the regulars. This was not something reserved for him it was just the way life was in Key West back then and now to large extent. The major difference between then and now is that the “outsiders” outnumber the Conchs by a large margin.

Most people who visit today have no hope of understanding the atmosphere he was soaking up when he lived there. So much has changed. I think Hemingway probably did empathize with the people he came in contact with. But it was not his style to write about them in any way that would seem maudlin or overly sympathetic. This would not have captured their essence or his style, and it would have insulted them in the bargain.

Interesting question about my grandmothers. I don’t know that either one ever met him. Women were not such a fixture around the docks or the newspaper back then, and you certainly didn’t bring your wife to the weekend gatherings (that tended to last for 48 hours straight on most weekends for some period of time).

In short, I don’t think many of his Conch contemporaries read much of his work, those that could read, and so wouldn’t have much to say about it. They would have been too close to it to be objective in my opinion.

My comment about hyper awareness is just my opinion that if you can write in such concentrated style with such truth then you feel and absorb in quite concentrated ways as well. Over the years it seems this could become very wearing.

As for suggestions about where to go and who to talk to most of my memories from growing up would require the use of imagination I’m afraid. For example, the Key West Citizen was located across from Sloppy Joe’s on Green street, stand awhile at the north entrance to Sloppy Joe’s and imagine EH walking across the street to check the wire services and see what was going on in Spain or where ever. The paper moved out years ago.

One of my most vivid memories was visiting Thompson’s hardware store and looking at all of the trophy mounts on the walls. great old time hardware store and Charles Thompson would be there most of the time. It is now a parking garage at the east end of Caroline Street next to the power plant.

You can still make the run from the bank that was robbed in To Have and Have Not at the north end of Duval Street. Harry Morgan was docked right next to what is now the Pier House. The brick bank building sits on the corner (used to be a Planet Hollywood upstairs but its gone now). Of course it was all waterfront when Harry was docked there not upscale resort. My Grandfather, Ted Canova, the charter boat captain was partners in the Gulfstream, a bottom fishing boat that used to dock there for real!

Here’s a picture of Capt. Ted (seated):

AB: At this point, Peter Krynicki adds:

PK: There used to be a bookstore on Duval Street, Valladares Bookstore, which closed a few years ago. I used to stop there at least once a trip to buy a book or magazine or postcards because of the sentimental value of the place. Here it is…
“For dinners, the Mob [the name given to Hemingway and anyone else who formed part of the coterie in Key West – Conches and visitors alike] met at Charles Thompson’s Fleming Street house, where Phoebe [the cook] delighted the group with raw conch salad laced with onions and a spicy Key Lime and salt brine sauce made locally and called Old Sour, a concoction Ernest continually called “Old Oscar.” [Mrs. Thompson became friends with the Hemingways and it was she who found the house on Whitehead for them]
After one of Phoebe’s dinners the usual routine was to amble down the five blocks from Thompson’s house to Valladares Book Store at 517 Fleming Street and go through his stacks of magazines, paperbound books, and hardbacks. The bookstore, owned by a 30-year-old Cuban named Leonte Valladares, was situated in a small, gray, wooden building that had recently been a fisherman’s cafe. Valladares and Ernest had met some weeks before, and Hemingway had persuaded him to stock a good supply of hardback books in his store. For his part, Ernest had donated several copies of The Sun Also Rises and Men Without Women to Valladares, who got a dollar extra on each of the books because they were personally signed by the author.
Valladares’ young son Arthur had been the first of the family to see Ernest, and it was Ernest’s costume that first attracted the boy’s eye. Soon after Ernest arrived in Key West he found or bought a short piece of hemp rope that he knotted through the loops of his trousers (or cut-offs) and used as a belt. He also brought a pair of Indian moccasins with him from Paris (they had been sent to him by friends from Horton’s Bay), and with this odd combination of clothing he was a character in the eyes of some Key Westers, especially young Valladares. When Arthur first saw him, he ran to his father and loudly declaimed in Spanish, “Oh father, come look at the poor man.” Ernest heard him and was tremendously amused. He walked over to the boy and in fluent Spanish explained about both the rope belt and the Indian moccasins. The explanation and the fluent Spanish made a lasting impression on both Valladares.”
The empty store is still a little farther up Duval with the sign painted on the side.
MC: I hadn’t thought about that rope belt/moccasin story in quite some time. Its no wonder he fit in down there even though the competition was pretty stiff to be the oddest. Plenty of characters back then.
AB: Mike, can you describe the Key West that Hemingway found when he went there in 1928? Geographically, culturally, and economically. what did Key West look like then?
MC: Key West through the years has been well documented by historians and people who lived there during that time period so I don’t think I can add much to that having been born in 1954. I do think to get an accurate picture of the cultural and economic climate it would be useful to understand who the “Conchs” were(and are) and how that worked into the culture and climate of the times.

It has been said, and rightly so, that the Conchs are not a race or ethnic group, but a lineage. This is entirely true. Conchs typically are of Scottish or Irish descent (but not always) with typically some Cuban mixed in. Many, if not most, Conchs migrated from the Bahamas to Key West as a result of poor economic conditions on the islands.

As you know, Conchs are famous for their live and let live attitude. This is a large part of the allure for most “famous” people who frequent Key West. No hassles, relatively speaking, and the ability to blend in. This was true in Hemingway’s time and has been true until today. For whatever reason, we just don’t exhibit many traits such as fawning and worshiping when it comes to the rich and famous.

This attitude predates Key West and even the Bahamas. Many Conchs were loyalists during the revolution and relocated to the Bahamas on land granted by the Queen of England as a “reward” for being loyal to the crown. These precursors to the Conchs were happy with the status quo and their economic situation and just didn’t see any reason to upset the order of things. Taylor Caldwell wrote a book called “Wind from the Carolinas” dealing with this migration. It is a fictional account but is based largely on the facts of what happened. This is how Conchs ended up in the Bahamas along with the African American population that now predominates. They literally packed all their belongings (including slaves), abandoned their plantations and relocated to the Islands.

This is also my personal family history, with my great, great grandfather having been one of five Curry brothers involved in farming in and around Greenville, South Carolina and the import/export business in Charleston, bringing in merchandise from Glasgow, Scotland their father’s birthplace. We will get to the illegal import business later but you can see that they had a particular skill set developed over generations!

AB: What was the population when Hemingway arrived?
MC: Probably around eight to ten thousand, but I’m not the best resource for this kind of historical information. It was a fairly isolated place and you had to really want to be there to get there.
AB: How did the great depression affect Key West? How did the great depression affect Ernest Hemingway?
MC: It made a tough way of living even tougher. Working on the water is as brutal as it gets. I have only spent a few days actually working with my grandfather when he we deep sea fishing but I can tell you it is one of the toughest ways to make a living I can imagine. Since deep sea fishing is certainly a luxury, you can imagine the depression hit that business pretty hard. Commercial fishing was the predominant occupation when the charters were scarce.

I really can’t add anything to how it affected EH. I do think it gave him a wealth of experiences and material that made its way into his writing. The man was clearly an emotional/cultural sponge. His talent, of course, was his ability to take those experiences, digest them and put them on paper.

AB: Did you grow up hearing stories about prohibition? Tell me about the bootlegging activities in Key West?
MC: I didn’t hear many stories growing up about prohibition or bootlegging. As you might imagine, it wasn’t spoken of much in mixed company. Of course there were bootleggers in Key West during Hemingway’s time. I am more familiar with the bootlegging activities in the late sixties and early seventies. We called it fishing for square grouper. It ruined many of my friends lives and the lives of many law enforcement officials who were corrupted by the money. Much the same as in the 20’s and 30’s, just different merchandise.

AB: How were Key West and Cuba related in those days?
MC: Key West and Cuba were closely tied both economically and socially. My grandmother Curry was born in Cuba and moved to Key West when she was 5 years old. There was much inter marrying and this goes on today as well. I recently had the privilege of travelling to Cuba (which I wrote about on the Hemingway website) and was struck by how similar the cultures are as I remember from growing up. There is a very strong Cuban flavor to Key West and much travelling back and forth prior to Castro.

I can remember my Grandparents and Great Aunts and Uncles talking about taking the ferry to Havana for the night life and shopping. Havana has been called the Paris of the Caribbean and it deserves that title and then some. I can see why it made a great destination.

AB: Were people in Key West aware of who Hemingway was? Did that change over the years?
Yes, people were aware of him but I don’t think he made a big deal of it with the local population and the locals he hung out with. I get the impression from everything I’ve read that his demeanor was somewhat different with his out of town guests than it was with the locals.

From everything I heard growing up, his intent with the locals was to blend in and develop a “street credibility” with the locals to allow him to insinuate himself into the local culture. What earned him respect among the Conch was his ability to bait a hook or handle himself in a tough situation on the water or perhaps to hold his liquor and take a punch.

This is the dynamic of Key West to this day. You can meet people in Key West who are literally captains of industry or great writers or playwrights or artists, but no one goes around saying “guess who I am”. Invariably they wander in to a bar or a restaurant and take a seat and strike up a conversation about anything but what they do for a living. A pair of shorts, sandals and a flower shirt does a fine job of acting as the great equalizer. You’re in Key West bubba, leave the pretense on the mainland.

Of course, there are people who show up in Key West every day who don’t get this. They are simply passing through (think cruise ship day trip). EH certainly met some of these folks too. I know much has been written about the Marina passage in To Have and Have Not but in addition to the obvious take on the problems of the Haves versus the Have Nots, I think it is also an observation in the broader sense of those people who will isolate themselves from any true experience.

AB: It is interesting that almost everywhere Hemingway went eventually became associated with him, by that I mean the bullfights in Spain, the café’s in Paris, the fishing in Key West and Cuba. Part of this is that he lived a very full life and then wrote about it. How accurately did Hemingway portray Key West and how did his writing affect Key West? Did people want to follow him to Florida?
MC: I think Hemingway’s portrayal of Key West is dead on for the period and in some sense to this day. I can’t speak for Spain or Paris but his writing about Key West is as true as it gets in terms of accuracy. In a way he was reporting. I don’t think his writing affected Key West, I think Key West affected his writing.

He did lead a full life and all of his great experiences seem to have a life and death theme to them; very intense and focused. Of course he didn’t invent bull fighting or Parisian Cafes or big game hunting or deep sea fishing. He just had a deep respect for them and the people who made a living doing those things respected him for it.

AB: What year did the highway connect Key West to the rest of the United States?
The overseas highway was completed in 1938. I have read the EH hated it. I can understand that because in marked the end of a particular way of life that he had come to enjoy. It was probably the beginning of the end for him and Key West as he loved it.

AB: You mention the difference between Hemingway’s persona and his true character, can you talk about that more? How much did Hemingway advance his larger than life persona?
MC: I don’t think he advanced it much at all with the locals. This would have been counterproductive to his intentions to first, experience the local culture and then to write about it. I think of Key West as the perfect anthropological laboratory. You know how anthropologists are always lamenting the fact that a culture you are trying to study will invariably adapt and change by the simple fact that you are studying it. Well Key West in the 20’s and 30’s was not susceptible to those phenomena as long as you truly fit in. From everything I have heard Hemingway’s intentions were to fit in, not change the dynamic of what was going on.

AB: In 1934, Key West was put under state control and “ rehabilitated”, eventually creating tourism. Did your parents talk about that? This must have really changed the lifestyle in Key West.
MC: This wasn’t the last time Key West was put under state control. It was also done in the 70’s or 80’s. As with the earlier efforts, not much changes for the Conchs who generally take a “this too will pass” attitude toward the latest group to come in and straighten things out. The most recent wave of tourists was started by the Pier House Hotel and Resort and the end of Duval Street (where Harry Morgan waited for the Cubans). New Yorkers, mostly from the gay community, “discovered” Key West and began a very robust rehabilitation of Old Town. Many of the stately old houses had fallen into disrepair and were restored with great success over the next 20 years or so.

In the end, it was the free market and private enterprise that restored Key West and not until then. In the 40’s through the 60’s the navy had a huge presence and was the primary economic driver for the city having taken most of the desirable property on the island.

AB: Hemingway’s life was an interesting mix of very rich people and very poor people (Murphys, Pfeiffers and the men he fished and boxed with) at this time. How was he able to move between these two worlds and who do you think he was more comfortable with?

MC: I would have liked to have asked him that question myself. Clearly he was able to live in both worlds but from my reading and what I know from my family he was very comfortably in the boxing/fishing world.

AB: Do you know any stories about the hurricane of 1935?
MC: None that haven’t already been written. We didn’t have any close family in the upper Keys which is where the storm did most of its serious damage.

AB: Tell me about the veterans that Hemingway writes about in To Have and Have Not.

I think he was exaggerating some but probably not much when it came to behaviors. My grandfather didn’t talk much about them. I don’t think there was much intermingling with his group and the vets.

AB; Hemingway seemed to have established a strict writing schedule for himself, making time to work and play each day. What do you know of Hemingway’s routine?
MC: He did way more playing than working…but the working was pretty good.

AB: Sloppy Joe’s was part of Hemingway’s routine. Can you tell me what Sloppy Joe’s was like when Hemingway was there?
MC: I don’t think the Sloppy Joe’s on Duval has changed much since EH was there. Capt Tony’s has probably changed more but the atmosphere is about the same. These two bars and maybe Schooner Wharf capture the old ambience about as well as can be expected considering they are overwhelmed by tourists most of the time. The Green Parrot on Whitehead Street and some of the bars on Stock Island probably come closer to the ambience as far as the locals go.

I don’t suggest bar hopping on Stock Island at any time of day or night.

AB; Tell me about those Key West nicknames!
MC: Hamilton Adams was nicknamed Sack-a-Ham, there was big Rupert, Bring-Back-My-Hammer (although you wouldn’t call him that to his face), Moon Gal (who frequented the Red Door Inn on Caroline Street. Her figure was reported to measure in at 14,14,14. She is also rumored to be the woman Jimmy Buffet was thinking of when he wrote “There’s a Woman going crazy on Caroline Street but I can’t say for sure), Wineback (who fished with Bob Dominguez for turtle), Bob’s real name was Rehalia, which just goes to show the nick names could go both ways. Along with the usual, Pug, Ping, Dink. There is a book written by two old time Conchs that runs about 200 pages or so with Key West nicknames. My parents have a copy.

Nicknames were traditions in Key West long before Hemingway showed up and continue to this day.

AB; How much were the characters and events in To Have and Have Not based on things that Hemingway heard about or experienced in Key West?
MC: I think it’s as much faithful reporting as it is fiction with the exception of the Marina passage. I think he pushed too hard with that. It is the only section that doesn’t ring true for me and I think it shows. If he was unhappy about the book, I think it would be that passage that would have bothered him the most for that reason.

AB; What was it like when Hemingway left Key West. How long did Pauline stay in the house?
MC: Life had changed mostly because of the overseas highway making the island more accessible. Other than that, I think Key West is pretty timeless in terms of the types of people that are attracted to the island and stay for any length of time.

Of course, in the last 30 years many Conchs have left having been priced out of the real estate market. That combined with the inevitable dilution of the Conch lineage makes it pretty hard to find Hemingway’s Key West these days.

I don’t know how long Pauline stayed in the house. Ask Peter Krynicki, as near as I can tell he knows everything there is to know about EH. AB: Note: Peter Krynicki will help us answer this question when he returns from Paris!
AB: Who were the most important people in Hemingway’s life during his years in Key West?
MC: I don’t think I can add anything to the information that has already been reported on that subject. I do know there was a group of men, my grandfather included, who were into some serious partying on the weekends. On occasion, EH would be part of that crowd. Based on what I have heard, Hemingway’s ability to drink and party cannot be overstated. All of their wives were very patient women…or they appreciated the break.

Some things never change in Key West.

AB; When was the museum established and where would you recommend people visit in key West if they want to experience some of Hemingway’s life there?
MC: I don’t know when the museum was established. As for seeking out the Hemingway experience I would suggest the bars listed above (start with the obvious). I would also suggest the walk from the old bank building at the end of Duval Street to the Pier House. The bank looks the same. The Pier House wasn’t there but you can still get a feel for the description in the book. Cross Green Street on the north side of Sloppy Joe’s to where the Key West Citizen used to be located. Hemingway was a regular at the paper checking the wire services and catching up on the news of the day. His house, the old Navy docks at the south end by the fort still looks a lot the same. Most everything else is either gone or unrecognizable.
AB: Thank you so much Mike.