Thursday, November 8, 2012

Channeling Hemingway in Key West

I tagged along with Steve on a business trip to Key West, Florida, and had some fun channeling Ernest Hemingway for a day. 

After an excellent group trolley tour of Key West, we went to Ernest Hemingway’s house.  I had been there several times before, so knew to expect roaming, six-toed cats, and the story of the $20,000 pool his wife built (about $200K in today’s money…for a WRITER!) and how he threw a penny at her, saying, “Go ahead, take my last penny!”  She pressed the coin into the wet cement poolside.  The guide acted as if this was all very funny, but I’m not sure it was at the moment.  On the other hand, this was Pauline, the wife who came from money, and it was her uncle who had given them the $8000 to buy the house.  Nice gift.  Anyway, apparently, this was a time of productivity for Hemingway, and he had a nice schedule of writing his 500 words in the morning in his fabulous second-floor studio, going fishing, and then meeting up with his buddies for dinner and drinking.  Among the books and stories he wrote during this time were To Have and Have Not (set in Key West), For Whom the Bell Tolls, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

The guide also implied that late-in-life head injuries led to Hemingway’s depression and ultimate suicide, though it seems to me that he suffered from depression for quite a while and that there was a fair amount of mental illness running in his family (his father killed himself).

After our tour—during which one of the Hemingway cats licked my finger!—I headed out on my own to explore literary Key West, using as my guidebook a nice little publication I picked up at the gift shop, Ernest Hemingway in Key West, that outlined some key haunts of his.

After lunch at an off-the-beaten-track Cuban restaurant, El Siboney (ropa vieja and great fried plantains!).  From there, I walked through non-tourist neighborhoods to look at Tennessee Williams’ house, which is a private residence.  Knowing that Williams had a rather sad life towards the end, I was pleased to see that the house was absolutely adorable, white with red shutters, tucked into the vegetation.  So at least he had that!

I will admit upfront that Key West is one of the most aggressively relaxing places I’ve been, and I felt a bit guilty at having an agenda.  But it’s not easy to drop these East Coast ways…at one point as I was walking, a scruffy man pushing a bike hollered, “Ma’am, ma’am!  This isn’t New York City!  Slow down!”  It probably didn’t help that I was wearing black.

After admiring Williams’ house enough time to get a good feel for it but not long enough that the owners might start thinking to call the cops on me for loitering, I went to the Key West public library, to see what the Florida history room might have.  The historian was helpful and eager and found a great book for me to look through: Key West Writers and Their Houses by Lynn Mitsuko Kaufelt.  The book was published in 1986, so it wasn’t up-to-date, but there were more than enough juicy stories in the text about luminaries like Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Thomas McGuane, and more (including, sadly, several “famous” writers I’d never heard of). 

Here are a few snippets:
--Patrick Hemingway said that his father didn’t even like cats; while they lived at the house, they had peacocks and other pets, but not cats.

--Wallace Stevens and Hemingway were in a fistfight at Sloppy Joe’s, and Stevens ended up with a black eye.  (Stevens stayed at Casa Marina, the fancy hotel.)

--Tennessee Williams said of Pauline Hemingway, “She was a lovely, gracious woman, just a little given to crystal chandeliers.”  (She collected them—the Hemingway tour guide pointed out that each room in the house contained a crystal chandelier.)

--Tennessee Williams met up with writer friend Jamie Herlihy (author of Midnight Cowboy) every afternoon and the two of them walked to the White Street Beach, reciting to one another Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

From the library, I went down the street to Key West Island Books, a new and used bookstore on the site of the newsstand Hemingway used to frequent.  It was a nicely organized bookstore despite some remodeling going on, and I found a number of books that I’d been looking for—and, as usual, books that I didn’t even know I needed!

After our dinner meeting, I continued Hemingway Day by going out to Captain Tony’s bar, the place where Hemingway’s beloved Sloppy Joe’s was first located before moving due to a rent increase.  Apparently, this is the oldest active bar in Florida—and it feels ancient, dark with bras (all large) and business cards stapled to the walls and ceiling.  I enjoyed the time there, but honestly, I don’t think Hemingway would spend much time there today, though he sure did back then:  this is the bar described in To Have and Have Not, and this is where he met Wife #3, writer Martha Gelhorn, in 1936.  Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote also spent a lot of time here.

Then, of course, it was off to the modern Sloppy Joe’s (okay, 1937 is when it opened, which isn’t exactly “modern”)—a place I’m guessing Hemingway REALLY wouldn’t have spent much time in today.  He was attracted to Sloppy Joe’s because of the “characters” and story-tellers.  Today’s characters are mostly tourists.  I suppose they all have a story or two, if one took the time to sort through their dull chatter.  I was fascinated to learn that Hemingway stored a number of things at Sloppy Joe’s after he left Key West, and after he died, they found a cache of royalty checks and manuscripts here.  Even so, I enjoyed stopping by, having my own little adventure when after returning from the bathroom I saw a young “lady” dancing suggestively against Steve.  (To his credit, he was trying to shoo her away.)  When I said, “Excuse me, that’s my husband,” she first said, “I don’t care”—and the Hemingway-Stevens fistfight flashed through my mind!—but then she moved off.  Later her male friend apologized, and she apologized, and best of all, several middle aged women high-fived me on their way out.  So, I guess I’d call that the macho Hemingway moment of my life…and wow, it sure felt good!  Maybe bull-fighting is next?

The final stop on the Hemingway tour was a late breakfast at Blue Heaven.  Now a laid-back, island-style outdoor restaurant, in the past there were cockfights and boxing matches here, gambling and drinking.  Hemingway buried his roosters in the Rooster Cemetery.  Today, roosters and chickens wander around, probably happy not to have to earn their keep by fighting.  The pancakes and banana bread were FANTASTIC!  And, again, I’m not sure Hemingway would go to Blue Heaven today…the hour-long wait might scare him off.

Just to prove that it wasn’t all-Hemingway-all-the-time, I’ll note that we had great Bloody Marys at Two Friends Patio Restaurant and that the garden behind the Oldest House in Key West is a gorgeous respite from the hoi-polloi and that when you’re sick of the drunks on Duval Street, there’s a quiet and friendly patio bar a block away at Grunts and that I learned a lot perusing the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden and that Louie’s Backyard is a nice place for a fancy dinner (get the lobster appetizer) and that the sunsets ARE beautiful, and that in spite of cleaning itself up, that scruffy, end of the world, everyone running from something, early economy built on the shipwreck business, totally unique aura of Key West is still alive.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.