In All, Ernestness: Hemingway Days in Key West
by RISA R. WEINREB
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
If you have a grizzled beard and can swashbuckle in khaki, it might also win you a 12-pack of Budweiser and a $250 bar tab at Sloppy Joe's.
Every year, hundreds of bewhiskered men--most of whom were born when FDR was president and admit they could lose 40 pounds--gather in Key West, Florida for the Hemingway Days Festival, held around the late novelist's birthday on July 21. Hemingway lived in Key West from 1929 to 1939, penning many of his greatest works including For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and To Have Not, which is set on the island.
For competitors, the event salutes not just Hemingway's writing, but also his larger-than-life passions: from wine and women to bullfighting and marlin fishing. "I love his lifestyle--his writing--his adventures," declared Mike Stack, a semi-finalist. "He even survived two plane crashes in Africa."
Hail! Hail! Doppelgängers All Here
Each year, about 120 contestants enter, traveling from as far away as Brazil and the U.K. All foot their own expenses. Some--like Tom Chadwick (you can recognize him--he always wears Viking horns)--have endeavored to mix 'n' match their icon for over ten years.
Walking down Duval Street during the festival, visitors experience an eerie sense of deja-vu-vu-vu. Ernests are everywhere--eating lumpia at a street fair, tottering through traffic on bicycles, and--above all---taking photographs with each other.
"What's it like seeing hundreds of guys who, um, look almost exactly like you?" I asked Steve Mosser of Lubbock, Texas, as tactfully as I could. "There's instant camaraderie--you start talking with people immediately," Mosser replied. There is a downside, however. "At the preliminaries last night, the emcee advised us wives, 'Ladies, make sure you go home with your Hemingway,'" recounted Steve's wife, Delores.
Winning Papa-hood brings instant celebrity. "I'm sad to be giving up the title," admitted Carlie Coley from Alma, Georgia, just before retiring as Papa 2000. "There was so much excitement over the past year--I was interviewed on radio and written up in newspapers from Canada to Hong Kong."
Victors hold their title for just one year. "You can only win once--just like Miss America," explained Bart Barton, the 1997 champion, as he ebulliently quaffed from a leather wine flask.
Some Heming and Hawing
For contenders, preparation ranges from rereading A Farewell to Arms to scouring archival photos, to doing absolutely nada. "I've had my beard for 20 years--and I didn't need to put on any weight," said Bill, an entrant from Atlanta. "I practiced drinking," added Wally Hynes from Isla Morada.
What separates winners from wannabes? The crowning of Papa seems as inscrutable as the election of the Pope. "You gotta have a hook, like a hat or a scarf--otherwise you all look alike," Bill continued. "What they're looking for changes every year," sighed Charlie Bicht, wearing a T-shirt reading "American by birth--Hemingway Look-Alike by Grace of God."
However, the judges--all former winners--take the contest increasingly seriously. "Number one--I ask contestants why they want to win," explained Frank Meitz, Papa 1993. "Number two--if you do win, how will you support the Hemingway Look-Alike Society? Number three--how will you contribute to the expansion of the contest?"
In recent years, the contest also has encouraged the next generation of literary talent by presenting scholarships to local area students studying creative writing, literature or journalism. Awards totaled $4,000 in 2001. "We want to say 'thank you' to Key West for its great hospitality," comments Bill Young, Papa 1984 and head of the scholarship committee.
The Look-Alike Contest centers around Sloppy Joe's Bar (201 Duval Street), which belonged to Hemingway's fishing buddy, Joe Russel, who is said to be the model for the owner of Freddy's Bar and captain of the Queen Conch in To Have and Have Not.
As a warm-up for the main event, there's a Key West-style "Running of the Bulls"--more parade than stampede, with ersatz Ernests riding toros made of wood and beer kegs around the block. There were even some Pamploma-like casualties. One photographer scraped his knee climbing a brick wall, and a bull got temporarily enmeshed in a sewer grate. Walking alongside the action scribbling notes, I nearly collided with a parking meter.
The roster of Hemingway Days events also includes a marlin fishing tournament (first prize, $20,000) and a Key lime pie-eating contest (first prize, bragging rights). Last year's victor, Denis Golden from Rockport, Massachusetts, ended up with custard and meringue plastering his beard, shirt, and chest hair. "I tried the gravity thing, putting my head back and just devouring. Besides, I have six brothers and sisters--I grew up in an eating competition," he joked.
Meanwhile, more literal clones can submit manuscripts to a short-story writing contest directed by Hemingway's granddaughter, Lorian, herself a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominee. The awards ceremony takes place at Casa Antigua (314 Simonton Street), Ernest Hemingway's first Key West address. "No, you don't have to write like Hemingway--each story is judged on it's own merits," explains Carol Shaughnessy, co-director of the contest.
Held at Sloppy Joe's on Saturday night, the Hemingway Look-Alike Finals pulsate with excitement--probably what presidential conventions were like in the era before spin doctors and Super Tuesday primaries. Since supporters start staking out territory at noon, the saloon is jam-packed by the time the finals begin at 7pm. I oozed my way into a group of about 40 supporters of Larry Austin, all wearing bug antennas and clutching homemade placards reading "Larry's It--No Bullshit".
Fortunately, I found myself crammed next to a guy named Jody, a non-Hemingway look-alike who became an FOL--friend of Larry--at the event four years previously, and now joins the Larry claque annually. Like Al Michaels on Monday Night Football, he provided play-by-play on the action. "That's Captain Denny--he's the favorite--and he's looking good, real good. That guy Ron--it's like the ninth year he's competed."
One at a time, the finalists swagger to center stage with the nonchalance of Ernest heading out to bag his morning rhino. In their talks, the papa-istas evoke rakish machismo. "Boxers or briefs--the answer is neither," shared one. Heroically clad in a fisherman's sweater in the 90-degree-plus heat, Captain Denny presented his platform, "I believe in cold beer, pretty women, and early retirement."
In the sea of old men, two competitors stood out. Nineteen-year-old Andy Morey made the finals dressed in a World War I uniform and on crutches--the spitting image of young Ernest in a 1918 photo. "I get a really good parking spot with this costume," he observed in his speech. He said that the older generation of Hemingways is supportive of his entry. "Give me about 30 years before I win."
"I'm the anti-Hemingway around here," confessed Kevin Sullivan, a retired New York City cop who earns boos and catcalls because of his snarly delivery ("This is the worst crowd I've seen in my 13 years competing") coupled with a lush New York accent--and the fact that he looks nothing at all like the writer. Nonetheless, he has retraced his idol's footsteps fervently, running with the bulls (twice) in Spain and meeting in Cuba with then-104-year-old Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway's fishing boat captain.
In 2001, "Sully" may finally have earned a soft spot in the hearts of regulars: during the semifinals, he got engaged on stage to Claudia Cobb, daughter of O.T. Cobb, a much-loved contender who died in 1999. Nuptials are planned for--where else?--Sloppy Joe's, at the 2002 celebration.
Victory--He Erned It
While ballots were tabulated, most judges detoured to the men's room. Frantically, I tried not to imagine a dozen Ernest-clones lined up at the pissoirs.
Finally, Papa 2001 was crowned--Captain Denny, in real life Denny Woods, a 62-year-old retired policeman from Buckeye Lake, Ohio. "It might have been the sweater, it might have been the thousand people I brought from Ohio to back me up, or it might have been the hundred-dollar bills I left on the judges' table," he quipped, referring to the home computer-generated currency emblazoned with his profile that he handed out.
How did it feel to finally win the title after five tries? "When they call your name, it's a shock--a good one, but a shock," he related.
For literary buffs, Key West offers plenty of other Hemingway-esque happenings. The 1851 house built of limestone blocks where the novelist lived with second wife Pauline is now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Walls and display cases are crammed with photos and paintings of Hemingway: skiing in Austria, on safari in Africa, and posing with the largest marlin he ever caught--a 996-pound behemoth. Most of the furniture is original; also authentic are the 60-plus descendants of Hemingway's cats, many of which have catcher's mitt-looking paws--the author favored six-toed cats, considered good luck on fishing boats.
Most of all, the author's spirit pervades the carriage house hay loft that he turned into his writing studio. (When he accidentally locked himself out one day, he shot off the latch). An old Royal typewriter awaits on the Spanish-style round table. A clumsy, two-fingered typist, Hemingway generally wrote in longhand with a pencil, but used the typewriter to compose conversations since he thought its cadences mimicked the sound of people talking.
Every summer, the Key West Museum of Art & History located in the handsome brick Custom House displays Hemingway memorabilia, including his World War I uniform and safe conduct pass issued in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. A lot of the material was donated by Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, after it was found in a storeroom behind Sloppy Joe's.
In the Upper Keys, the 46-foot sister ship to Hemingway's fishing boat, Pilar, is on view at World Wide Sportsman in Isla Morada (mile marker 81). "I like to look in the cabin and picture Ernest sitting there having a cocktail," says Mike Stack, a semi-finalist.
Back at Sloppy Joe's, all Hemingways agreed that win or lose, the importance of being Ernest rests on the friendships made during the contest. "The guys are all great--our chemistry is fantastic. I always have such a lot of fun. I'm sorry when it's over," remarked Kevin Sullivan.
The 2002 Hemingway Days Festival will be held July 17 to 21. For a schedule, event entry forms, and further details, visit www.hemingwaydays.com. For information about Key West, call 800-FLA-KEYS or visit www.fla-keys.com.
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Focus On: Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway married four times: to Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Welsh.
The Hemingway house in Key West was originally built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a wealthy wrecker (shipwreck salvager).
In 1954, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature for Old Man and the Sea.
In private letters and book dedications, Hemingway often used the saying "Il faut d'abord durer"--"First, one must endure."
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