This week Key West is celebrating Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. It’s a raucous and happy occasion with lots of shenanigans. There’s a contest to see who can parody his writing style the worst. A fishing tournament. An arm wrestling championship. A look-alike Hemingway contest with so many great Hemingway look-alikes that you‘ll question just how many Margaritas you downed. And my favorite… the running of the bulls outside Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Hemingway often drank.
If you’ve never been to Key West for Hemingway Days, put it on your bucket list. Unless you’re an old grump. Then stay away because you’ll be miserable and only annoy the hell out of everyone else.
Two other seemingly unrelated events occurred this past week in a little town almost a thousand miles away, events that are key to appreciating Hemingway‘s past. In Washington, D.C., on July 24, a Senate Committee approved easing restrictions for commerce and travelers to Cuba; and for the first time in fifty-five years, Cuba opened its embassy on Monday, July 20; the United States did the same in Havana.
To appreciate the significance of these two events, let me take you back in time. When Hemingway moved to Key West in 1929, he was a consummate sportsman. His love for boxing and hunting are legendary. In fact, he kept a boxing ring on his property where he sparred with locals. “We kinda took it easy on Mr. Hemingway,“ one local boxer confessed. “After all he was payin’ us, and he was the Mr. Hemingway.“
But when Ernest first came to Key West, the truth is he knew little of the sea or fishing. That would soon change. One afternoon out on the Gulf Stream he was so impressed with the boat that he ordered an identical one with a few minor changes. When it was delivered, he named it the Pilar.
From 1928 to 1940, he learned the art of fishing from two people: Sloppy Joe Russell and Carlos Gutierrez. Sloppy Joe was his fishing partner and owner of the bar where Hemingway drank when done writing for the day. Carlos Gutierrez worked as his first mate for years on the Pilar. The two men turned Hemingway into a maritime stud though he might grow angry were you to suggest such a thing.
Before moving from Key West in 1940, he not only learned the art of fishing but how challenging and harsh the sea could be. After the September hurricane of ‘35, he toured the Keys in the Pilar sickened at the bodies of relief workers hanging in the trees.
With his divorce from Pauline in 1940, he lost many of his friends, and emotionally disjointed, moved ninety miles away to Havana with the new love of his life, Martha Gelhorn. The property, Finca Vigia, was home to him longer than Key West. The inspiration here led to his writing one of the greatest stories about the sea, The Old Man and the Sea. So it’s understandable that when Castro seized it in 1960, it helped break his heart even though he ceased living there years before.
Hemingway must be toasting this past week’s events with a Cuba Libre, knowing the tide is turning and that his beloved home in Havana will achieve a kind of freedom at least in spirit.
On the other hand, I can’t help but think he might be a bit embarrassed at some of the brassy events surrounding his birthday. So wherever you’re fishing tonight, Ernest, Happy Birthday. Thanks for helping us remember what a great thing it is to chase our dreams no matter what form they take.