Hanging with Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is Key West, Florida’s, most famous literary son and when they celebrate his legacy they do it in style
The Running of the Bulls, a highlight of the Hemingway Days Festival in Key West
Key West harbour
There’s a touch of voodoo about Key West, this subtropical island basking at the foot of Florida. It’s famously closer to Havana than Miami, but stepping off my bus I know I’m deep in the heart of America. Facing me is Sloppy Joe’s bar, the anchor to my four days in this town so associated with Hemingway. Chickens wander freely in the streets and at this early hour my only companions are slow-moving families.
Key West is a party town and is the location of America’s best-known literary festival – or at least the most fun. The Irish throw literary parties more frequently than most but I don’t believe any of our get-togethers quicken the pulse quite like Key West’s festival, Hemingway Days.
Ernest Hemingway stumbled on Key West by accident, arriving there from Havana to pick up a new car in 1928. The car was late and so the writer was put up in an apartment above the car dealership to wait for it.
Its arrival took just long enough for the town to weave its spell and, like many who testify to have washed up there, a decade quickly passed and Hemingway and Key West were like brother and sister.
He finished Death in the Afternoon there, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. He also put the town firmly in the mind’s eye when a Depression-era Key West took centre stage in his novel To Have and Have Not – although the film of the same name was changed considerably from Hemingway’s original, writing Key West literally out of the picture. Thankfully, Key West didn’t repay the favour and Hemingway’s place in the town is as prominent today as ever.
The streets come alive from early afternoon. Most bars bring on live music a little after 4pm and the party runs until the early hours. Sloppy Joe’s is the busiest of them all and by late afternoon things there are heating up. The main bar is stuffed with families and supporters of an army of Hemingway lookalikes. It’s 30 degrees outside and the cool air and fast-flowing beer inside has chilled everyone out – but temperatures are rising. In a place where everyone is trying to look the same, the trick, it seems, is to stand out. Families and friends are handing out T-shirts, flyers and badges celebrating their favourite contestant and as every wannabe Papa wanders past, friendly banter and rivalry charges the room. It’s the early stages of the contest and everyone is trying to make the final.
With a lookalike contest at its heart, Hemingway Days can never be accused of taking itself too seriously. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this contest has become the loudest part of the festival – America has always appreciated a trier in a way that other countries simply can’t grasp. Everyone knows that looking like a writer can hardly be the same as being that writer, but watching the contestants line up to take the stage in Sloppy Joe’s is fascinating. White hair and beards, fishermen sweaters, flat caps – it’s a beauty pageant like none other.