THIS TIME OF YEAR, WE FEEL A LITTLE LIKE A broken record at the Florida Weekly Key West Edition. The truth is, it’s really difficult to write about summertime on the island without at least acknowledging that it is brutally, unbearably, blazing hot outside. But oppressively scorching as it may be, there is a certain unique beauty to be found in July in Key West. Palms sway gently in the breeze, frozen drinks render the stifling humidity that much more bearable, chubby grandpas with great white beards flood every inch of our beautiful little island… wait, what? Last time we checked it was still July, so why are all of these vacation-ready Santa Clauses roaming around Duval Street in Hawaiian shirts, smoking cigars and swilling rum like they’re preemptively trying to ensure their spots on the naughty list?
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you had stumbled right into a mall Santa convention or into an out-of-season SantaCon, but au contraire — these men have been growing their beards and practicing their Papa impressions for Hemingway Days, the weeklong celebration of Key West’s most famous literary legacy. The festival, now in its 39th year, runs from July 16-21 and glorifies all things Ernest.
Annual Hemingway Days events include lectures, cocktail parties, tours, races, readings and even a marlin fishing tournament (Hemingway was an avid fisherman, as devoted to the sport as he was to getting blotto beyond belief). But it’s the Papa Look-alike Contest held at the famous Sloppy Joe’s bar that receives the bulk of the annual festival’s national press, owing primarily to the overwhelming sight of a room packed with what appear to be Hemingway’s clones, all jostling for a statue shaped like — you guessed it — Papa Hemingway himself.
Picture it: Hemingway, clutching a bronze bust of Hemingway, smiling amidst a sea of drunk cheering Hemingways … it’s enough to make someone who happened to stroll in off the street think they’d been slipped a Disco Biscuit (or stumbled into a particularly weird literary-themed fetish party — after all, stranger things have happened in Key West).
Each year, over a hundred broad-chested, bearded hopefuls queue up in Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s, to compete for the title of “Papa.” They preen; they pose; they arm-wrestle. They spend hours choosing the right khaki safari-shirt and woolen fisherman’s sweater. And, much like a traditional beauty pageant, looks only get the contestants so far — there’s a talent portion, too, where each Hemingway (outfitted in a crisp outfit of white and red, complete with jaunty beret and handkerchief) runs amidst man-made bulls in a simulation of the famous, slightly more life-threatening event in Pamplona.
The competition is fierce; there’s even a scholarship portion, in which the Papas celebrate their namesake’s July 21 birthday by announcing the recipients of the Hemingway Look-Alike Society’s scholarships given to local students. It’s a fun, famously packed event, but it’s just one of many do-not-miss events scheduled for this year’s Hemingway Days lineup.
First off, attendees may want to refresh their memories of Hemingway’s oeuvre by visiting his old Key West digs, now called the Hemingway Home & Museum. Located at 907 Whitehead St., the museum — and its famously lush, six-toed cat-covered grounds — is perfect for a lazy afternoon spent meandering through rooms filled with antiques, memorabilia and knowledgeable docents leading tours throughout. Keep an eye out for the penny encased in cement beside the pristine swimming pool out back. Legend has it that the author’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, put it there after her husband took issue with her having overseen the conversion of his beloved boxing ring into a swimming pool — to the tune of $20,000. Supposedly, Pfeiffer was motivated by spite, not a love of aquatic aerobics; word had gotten back to her that her husband, away from home working as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, had had an affair and fallen in love with Martha Gellhorn, who would go one to replace Pfeiffer as wife number three. It was the only in-ground swimming pool on the island, and even in 1938, $20,000 was a boatload of cash. The author reportedly threw a penny on the ground when he discovered how much Pfeiffer had spent, saying she had spent all but his last penny, and that she might as well take that, too.
Hemingway wrote some of his most influential work in the studio adjoining the house, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” But be aware: a number of artifacts, including a life-sized bronze statue of the writer by historical sculptor Terry Jones, have been temporarily relocated to the beautiful Custom House Museum (281 Front St.), also home to an exhibit of 59 original pen and ink illustrations by renowned artist Guy Harvey, which follows the narrative of Hemingway’s novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” The Custom House Museum hosted an open house for the Hemingway exhibit on Tuesday, July 16, the first official day of the festival, but here’s an insider tip: Entry is free to anyone who mentions Hemingway Days at the admission desk.
In addition to its stationary exhibits, the July 16 kickoff party hosted by the Key West Art & Historical Society at Old City Hall (510 Greene St.) featured the Key West Art & Historical Society’s Hemingway Symposium, with lectures and book signings by Hemingway aficionado Kirk Curnutt, Ph.D., who outlined Hemingway’s little-known first attempt to fictionalize Key West; Brewster Chamberlin, Ph.D., who discussed what Key West looked like during Hemingway’s era; and Robert K. Elder, who shared 99-year-old Hemingway letters with the literary crowd.
Also vital to authentically celebrating Hemingway is to honor the author’s deep love of fishing, done best by competing in the Key West Marlin Tournament, which is held over three days from July 18-20. If a love of the chase and the smell of the wide-open sea isn’t enough to inspire you to enter, consider there’s also $50,000 in cash prizes to be handed out to winners. Tournament events include a pig roast, fish fry, cocktail party and various opportunities to brag to your co-competitors that you beat Hemingway’s record of 54 marlin caught in 115 days.
At 11:15 a.m. on July 19, the Tropic Cinema (416 Eaton St.) will host a film screening of “Hemingway: Between Key West and Cuba.” A film by Richard Abella, the intriguing documentary examines the two islands whose cultures and people shaped Hemingway’s life and writing for over three decades. The screening will also feature a Q&A session with executive producers and writers C. Michael Curry and Raul Villareal. Tickets must be purchased through the Tropic Cinema.
Those traveling by car should plan to bypass Duval Street, Key West’s main drag, on Saturday, July 20, when the street will close to vehicular traffic for an all-day open-air Caribbean street fair featuring arts, crafts, tropical clothing, jewelry and a variety of food stands. Grab a bite to eat at the market, don your Pamplona-inspired best and head over to Sloppy Joe’s at 1 p.m. to catch the aforementioned Running of the Bulls event. Just be sure to watch out for the horns on those man-driven “bulls” — and for the careening Papas, for that matter. After a couple rums each, the bulls and the Hemingways are equally unpredictable.
If you’re looking for something a little more active, the author’s famously sporty lifestyle might best be celebrated by participating in the Hemingway 5K Sunset Run and Lazy Dog Paddleboard Race. The Paddleboard Race, beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, features a three-mile ocean course that begins and finishes at the Southernmost Beach (1405 Duval St.). Or, if you’re faster on pavement than waves, skip the paddle boarding and enjoy running the longest-running road race in Key West, a 5K sunset walk/run that takes participants on a tour of historic Old Town Key West, making sure to pass by the author’s home. An after-party back at the Southernmost Beach Cafè (1405 Duval St.) will feature food, drinks, a silent auction, raffles and an awards ceremony.
All that stimulation — intellectual, libational and physical — can really exhaust even the most hardcore Hemingway fans. Take a page from the book of the man himself and wind down on Sunday, July 21, with Bloody Marys with “Papa” at Sloppy Joe’s beginning at 10 a.m. Make sure you get there early enough to snag a prime stage-side seat — the Sloppy Joe’s Arm Wrestling Contest begins at 11 a.m. and it is truly a stunning display of mustached machismo to behold.
However you choose to spend your weekend in Key West, we urge you to at least adopt a little of Papa Hemingway’s life philosophy: work hard, play harder and drink like that glass of rum (or whiskey or scotch) is the last you’ll ever have. The full, chronological list of festival events for the Hemingway Days celebration can be found at www.flakeys.com. ¦