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The Key West Shuffle

The Key West Shuffle


It is hard to imagine a more radical change of lifestyle, culture, and geography, than Hemingway’s move from Europe to Key West, Florida in 1928. It is a testament to his sense of adventure, and certainly Pauline’s, (who was six months pregnant when they left Paris), that they put down stakes on an island about four miles long and two miles wide, with a population of immigrants known as “Conchs”. But Hemingway seemed to grow best by leaps; catapulting himself out of his old life and into the new.

At that time, Key West was a small fishing village with only a train to connect it to the mainland.  Key West, the very last of a chain of islands extending from the southeastern tip of Florida, was tropical and remote. And as if the location and the inhabitants of Key West weren’t wild enough to start with, soon, the great depression would hit the country, and prohibition would make Key West an opportune place for smuggling rum from Cuba and whiskey from the Bahamas.

Leaving Hadley and Bumby behind, and all of the friends and enemies he’d made in Paris, Ernest and Pauline headed for the states for the birth of their first son, Patrick, and the beginning of a new era of their lives. Setting aside her life as a fashion writer for Vogue magazine in Paris, and packing away her fur coats and elegant jewelry for a very long time, Pauline made stops to Arkansas, Kansas City, and Wyoming before finally settling into Key West.

But getting away from those early, powerful influences might have been exactly what Hemingway was trying to do. It is almost as if Hemingway had to grow into himself, as I think most of us do in our thirties. By choosing Key West, he chose a location that might have been farther away, culturally, than anyplace he lived in Europe. He was shaking off the old world; Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and Gerald Murphy, the conversation and café’s on the left bank; all of the people and places that nourished him as a young writer. Ernest would make fishing buddies and drinking friends in Key West, but he seemed to have a supreme privacy there too. News of his family and old friends came by letter. For quite a while, he was anonymous.

In Key West, Ernest would write about love and war in Farewell to Arms.  He would write about courage, mortality and Spanish ritual in Death in the Afternoon. He was coming to terms with some of his powerful experiences in Europe. Then, it seems, he turned his attention to his present life, to his physical place in the world in work such as his Key West Letters written for Esquire magazine. The complexities and compromises of adulthood came later, in stories like “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber”.  In these stories, Hemingway worked with different layers of his experience than his equally beautiful Nick Adams stories.

Hemingway had the unique ability to discover and experience the traditions and mystery of places like Pamplona, Havana, and Key West before anyone else thought of them. It was Hemingway’s deep sense of adventure that drew him to totally new places like Key West, but more than that, he had the ability to create his own experiences there, to fully explore each culture he encountered. He was curious about the world, at ease with the unfamiliar, and had the ability, curiosity, and personality to befriend both rich and poor people, as well as intellectuals and local work-a-day people. Hemingway deeply participated in the world around him, turning his observations and encounters into long lasting works of literature.

Droves of Americans went to Paris for the first time in the twenties and there were lots of compelling reasons to do so – the artistic tradition and compelling scene of young artists and writers, the accessibility of entertainment and alcohol unavailable in the united states, and an exchange rate that greatly favored Americans, to name a few. But the swampy, untamed, isolated island of Key West? In 1928, that was original.

I have never been to any place that could be considered “the tropics”, so it was wonderful to get the chance to go to Key West. Not only was the tropical vegetation and languid humidity a unique experience, but we also planned our trip around the annual Hemingway Days Festival and the Hemingway look-alike contest that takes place there every July.

We decided to drive from Tampa to Key West to see more of Florida. We took I-75 South, traversed an east-west trans state byway known as “Alligator Alley, and skirted along the metropolitan area of Miami before we reached the Keys. For some reason, this stretch of the road make me think of all the movies I’d seen with escaped convicts in them. Once we got to the keys, the interstate turned into an old two lane highway surrounded by marshes. The lowlands of the Keys emitted a strange smell and there were “Crocodile Crossing” signs on the road. A sense of adventure seemed to creep into the atmosphere. The marshes gradually revealed themselves to be ocean water on either side of the highway, and we drove over impossible bridges that stretched over aqua blue water. Looking up, it seemed as if we were climbing into the sky, up towards wispy clouds, and then suddenly down again.  We had a beautiful view of the water, the horizon, the edge of the earth. The immense bridges on the Keys seemed to be evidence of our imagination as human beings, proof of our daring.

We passed through small towns like Key Largo, with washed out signs and dingy restaurants.  We saw shell shops and giant plastic alligators, crab shacks and marinas.  Everything was a little funkier, a little friendlier.

The last bridge set us down in Key West where we checked into our hotel. No matter what time we left our room, the Jamaican maids greeted us with their singsong accents and broad smiles. “Good morning Momma” they said to me. “More coffee Momma?”  “Have a nice day Momma.”  “You feel good Momma?”  This must be a Caribbean endearment, and I liked it.

And then we found Duvall Street. Duvall Street, where anything and everything is for sale. There were cross-dressers and bikers, nude bars and trinket shops, loud music and scooters, Sloppy Joes Bar and most of all, booze. On the first day, we noticed that the people walking along Duvall Street didn’t really walk as much as they shuffled. Everyone looked as if they just woke up and needed a cup of coffee, preferably brought to them; as if the effort of lifting their feet was just too much trouble. This shuffle – maybe it was a hangover, maybe it was the heat, I don’t know – but after we noticed it the first time, it became the standard walk of Key West – even the chickens took their time crossing the street!

The Hemingway look-alike contest was in progress for three days at Sloppy Joes and I did my best to understand it. This year, there were 139 contestants, most with their own cheering section composed of family and friends. Each day, hot human beings and corpulent Papas filled the barroom and spilled out into Duvall Street during the festivities. Most of the Papas sported a white beard and Khakis, the mature-Hemingway, African-Safari look I suppose. The contest went in rounds, with introductions and speeches from the Papas along with noise and heckling from the crowd, as they narrowed down the finalists.

Each time I entered the room I had to stand on tiptoes to see the stage, and hearing was impossible. Even if I could have nabbed a table, I’m not sure I would have wanted to stay inside for very long. Like many others attending, it was too hot and too loud for me to stay inside, so I stood on the sidewalk, going in and out of the bar once in a while to see what was going on.  I felt like a sea diver each time I went in; but maybe it was more like a swamp than the sea. Each person emerging from the crowd sort of popped out into the street, coming out for fresh air and space.

In this sweaty, barely moving, human jigsaw puzzle, I got called “Honey”, “Babe”, and “Doll” as I squeezed past boozy men – Key West hospitality (with a touch of Vegas), I think. To move among the crowd, I tapped on the shoulders of strangers, gently nudging the other person over an inch or two to get through. I finally found a small tunnel where I could burrow my way towards the stage – each time, one particular Papa let me pass by so that I could stand on tiptoes for a moment and see what was happening. He was a good-humored older man, with a bright red face, his khaki shirt soaked in sweat. His width made him a gatekeeper of sorts. We became foxhole friends and comrades as the night wore on. Each time I gestured that I wanted to move forward, he said, “Sure Doll”, which made me laugh. As I squeezed past him for a better view, we brushed against each other, my own arm slippery with his sweat.

When I stood outside the bar, I talked with Bob Orlin and his wife Debbie, and watched people go by on Duvall Street. There were all kinds of people to watch, and lots and lots of Papas. An attractive girl in her twenties walked by in a banana suit, and a Hemingway-ish looking man in a Santa outfit with boxing gloves and then another Hemingway with spiky, rainbow colored mohawked hair.  Standing next to me, the banana girl suddenly changed her mind – she must have been boiling in her costume. With no hesitation, she began to slink out of her banana suit, peeling it off slowly, which was actually quite interesting to watch.

In the middle of all this was the film crew of Papa, working on a feature length documentary of the contest. Headed by Shane Eason, a professor and filmmaker from Miami, the Papa crew was in their second year of filming the Look a-like contest and it’s participants.  I admired Shane and his crew of eight, who had the difficult job of following the Papas around with cameras and a microphone, as the men wove in and out of the increasingly boisterous crowds. This was not unlike going deep into a jungle!  But they were young and agile, and determined to capture their story. Shane’s film will chronicle the origins and quirks of the contest, Key West culture, and give us an in-depth look at a handful of the men who come to compete each year dressed as Ernest Hemingway.

I had lunch with Shane and his crew and we talked more about the film and the people he was featuring in his interviews. I asked Shane about the history of the contest and the dubious criteria for selecting the winner. Both of us were astonished at the amount of money spent and collected during the festival – most of it at Sloppy Joes and very little of it on Hemingway books.

Shane told me about his interviews, which were focusing on a handful of men who come to Key West every year to compete for the title of Papa. One of them, Bob Orlin, was one of my first interviews here on the Hemingway Project. Bob was the unofficial People’s choice because he knew so much about Hemingway and had actually read all of Hemingway’s work, and also because this was Bob’s twentieth year of competition without a victory. Bob knew Hemingway’s work inside and out; he had run with the bulls in Pamplona, tromped around the woods in Northern Michigan, eaten an onion sandwich on Hemingway’s grave in Ketchum, Idaho, and more.

Bob looks so much like Hemingway that he has been in commercials for a line of Hemingway furniture.  Bob is also a painter who has focused much of his work on Hemingway and his life.  Two of his paintings, in fact, hang inside the Hemingway house in Key West. One is a portrait of Hemingway, which can be seen in the writing room above the carriage house. The other painting is a replica of the colorful Picasso cat sculpture that Picasso gave to Hemingway in the 1920’s. The original sculpture was stolen from the Hemingway museum and broken beyond repair.

This was not to be Bob’s year either; Greg Fawcett of North Carolina won the look a-like contest. The festivities closed with a “whimsical” Running of the plastic Bulls, and a cake to celebrate Hemingway’s birthday on July 21st.

On our first evening in Key West, we saw Brain Gordon Sinclair perform his original one-man play, “In Deadly Ernest”, part six of his series about the Life of Ernest Hemingway. The play was a poignant, first person account of Hemingway’s last years.  Written from careful research, Hemingway’s life unfolds in a first person narrative. Told with pathos and humor, Brian (as Hemingway) was thoughtful, funny, and charming as he reflected on growing old and the grand adventures of a magnificent life. Brian has performed in Cuba, Canada, Spain and Key West as Ernest Hemingway.  Although he has the beard and a certain barrel chest like Hemingway, it is Brian’s presence which is most convincing. I really enjoyed talking with Brian offstage and wondered what it was like to go in and out of such a grand persona. On the last night of the look a-like contest, Brian was chosen as an “Honorary Papa,” a fitting title for a man who gives audiences around the world the experience of spending an evening with Ernest Hemingway.

The next day, I visited the Hemingway house, which is privately owned and can’t quite be called a museum. Most of the furnishings are not original, so it is the house itself, and one’s imagination, that make the past come to life. There is a guided tour, and visitors are allowed to wander from room to room. The house is a timelessly elegant, Spanish colonial, built in 1851, with tall shuttered windows, French doors, and balconies on three sides of the second floor.

As I walked through the house I thought of Pauline mostly, and her life there. This was her first home, and her only marriage. I thought of all the days she spent within those lovely pale blue walls – and her collections of colorful tile and stylish glass from all over the world.  Looking at the graceful glass chandeliers in many of the rooms, I wondered if she got the life she wanted there. And I thought of the Hemingway children growing up in that magical house in a time we can only imagine – Key West light pouring through the windows and shutters into the blue and yellow rooms. From the upstairs balconies they could see the lighthouse and arched fronds of the palm trees outside. It seemed like a wonderful setting for a childhood.

But Hemingway? I didn’t find him there, or in any of the places that bore his name or charged admission to do so. In this house, it seemed to me as if Hemingway were like my teenaged sons, always bouncing out the door with energy and joy – turning for just a moment to say, see ya. Except for his writing room, which is upstairs above the carriage house, separate from the main home.

The writing room is set up a lot like the photos I’ve seen of Hemingway’s writing room in Cuba. It was here, in the quiet and the unbelievable heat, that I could imagine Ernest most clearly. This was the only room on the premises where visitors were not allowed to wander and perhaps that is what made it real for me; the room had a tranquil feeling, a privacy, a separateness that gave it some sanctity as the sanctuary that it was intended to be.

The next evening, I attended the reading of the winning short story selected in this year’s Lorian Hemingway Short story contest. Lorian wasn’t there this year but it was clear that she was missed and very well respected. The reading was held in Casa Antigua, the garage where Hemingway was to pick up his new car when he and Pauline first arrived in Key West in 1928. Casa Antigua is now a three story private residence beautifully decorated and restored. The room where the reading was held was on the top floor. The room was lit by soft candlelight and filled to capacity.

The reading of the winning short story was delayed because the man who was slated to read it that evening was also working as a master of ceremonies at Sloppy Joes.  While we waited for his arrival, the audience discussed how we might entertain ourselves. A young journalist from Ireland interposed that in his country, this would be a good time for a song. Without hesitation, he stood up and sang to us, soft and clear, a ballad of love and longing as only the Irish can do. It was a memorable moment, and nice for literature to take center stage of the Hemingway Days festivities. The reading was well attended and clearly a beloved part of this week dedicated to Hemingway.

Afterwards, I was invited to a poetry reading the next night in the garden of the Hemingway house and I was sorry that I wasn’t able to go. It was the second poetry reading I’ve been invited to in a month, which to me is clearly a sign that the world will not end in 2012!

On our last day, we met with Peter Krynicki and Mike Curry and his parents Betty and Percy, for lunch. All four of them knew a lot about Hemingway’s Key West years and I especially enjoyed talking about fishing and the friends Hemingway made on the docks.  Mike’s father was a little boy when Hemingway lived on Key West and his father worked for the newspaper in the 30’s. He remembers Hemingway coming to the office to pick up his telegrams, and he grew up hearing anecdotes about Hemingway’s life in Key West. His stories gave me a picture of a time and a culture that does not exist anymore in Key West, including the way men fished and navigated the sea back then.

As I listened to Mike and his father Percy talk about the tides and the natural environment of Key West, about the Pilar, and the relationships Hemingway made with locals, I began to imagine his life here, his real life, the kind of days he had, how his imagination might be stirred by the stories he heard from locals. I sensed him in the natural world, in the blue vista of water and sky, in the palm fronds rattling in the heat. And as Mike and his parents told me some of the playful, inventive, and uproarious nicknames the men called each other, Hemingway finally came to life for me on this wonderful island.

On our last night in Key West, there was an epic thunderstorm that started just as I was drifting off to sleep, followed by lightening and torrential rain. It lasted most of the night and at times seemed to shake the walls. The storm was so strong that I wondered if the island might just sink into the sea.  I had had such a nice time in Key West, that it seemed like a perfectly fine way to go.

We were happy but tired. Somehow, we had merged with the heat, and no longer noticed how hot it was. We said goodbye to our friends and then to Key West. Now we were going back, back over each of those dream bridges, back over this incredible geography like a connect-the-dots puzzle, back past seashell stores and coffee huts, flip flop vendors and tiki bars, back to the airport and to a completely different kind of life. After one last look, we checked out of our hotel and walked across the street to our car – well, actually, we shuffled.