Key West festival: The importance of selling Ernest


KEY WEST, Fla. -- His face haunts the island, the genial bearded countenance looming over bars and from T-shirts and in the imaginations of visitors who somehow see themselves as part of the legend.

The presence of Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, fisherman, hunter, one-time, sometime resident of Key West, defines this tourist boom town like no other individual.

His former home -- a stately Spanish-style mansion -- is one of the top attractions in town. Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street, aggressively marketed as "Hemingway's Favorite Bar," packs them in day and night (despite the fact that Sloppy Joe's was in a different building most of the time Hemingway lived here). There's a new deli down the street called Papa's. Postcards, posters and paintings show his house, his cats, his face.

Sometimes, walking around downtown, it seems like everyone is consumed with the importance of selling Ernest.

Every July the island is flooded with Hemingway worshipers for the annual Hemingway Days; this year's 12th annual fete was no different. The festival, started with the intent of boosting tourism in summer, has evolved into a weeklong conference with writers like James Dickey, literary scholars, Hemingway family members and the all-important cash-paying Hemingway fanatics hanging around for days. It's definitely given tourism a boost during the once-slow summer season, says Gerry Tinlin, president of the Key West Hotel-Motel Association.

But you have to wonder what Hemingway would have thought of this kind of exposure, of his legend driving the engine of Key West's growth industry.

How crucial is Hemingway to Key West? "Most resort destinations need to have a carrot, an appeal," says Tinlin.

"The appeal to Orlando is the mouse."

And as Mickey is to Orlando, well . . . you figure it out, Mr. Tinlin says. Hemingway "is certainly one of the main centerpieces of the success of Key West."

Even while Hemingway lived here, in the 1930s, he already was starting to draw a crowd. After the local economy bottomed out during the Depression, the New Deal envisioned tourism putting Key West back on the map. And on that map, circulated in hopes of bringing in visitors, Hemingway's house was listed as one of the island's 48 attractions.

The writer complained sarcastically about sight-seers in a 1935 "Key West Letter" in Esquire, claiming he hired an old man to stand at the gate and pretend to be Hemingway:

"The other afternoon sitting on the verandah enjoying a cheroot your correspondent heard the old fellow regaling a group of rather horror stricken tourists with a tale of how he wrote a book which he insisted on calling 'De Call to Arms,'" Hemingway wrote. "One of his rather reluctant audience asked him why he always wrote in the first person and the old man seemed stumped for a moment but finally answered, 'No sir. You're wrong, sir. I don't write in the first person. I don't fool with no person at all. I write direct on the typewriter.' "

Back then, he was a best-selling author, someone whose name was constantly in print -- in everything from literary reviews to tabloid gossip columns. But now he's been dead more than 30 years. How come he still pulls multitudes down to an island 110 miles from the mainland -- a place he lived for just nine years?

Part of it is the books -- fiction that defines the landscape of contemporary American literature. But more of it is the myth.

"Most people seem to be more interested in him as Hemingway the man than Hemingway the writer," says John Boisonault, owner of Key West Island Books. Mr. Boisonault became a Hemingway fanatic early, when a junior high teacher introduced him to the writer's works. He started collecting Hemingway books and letters. Then he made his first trip to Key West, in 1986.

"I knew I'd have to come down here, sooner or later," Mr. Boisonault recalls. He went to the Hemingway House. Then he stopped by the local bookstore . . . and bought it, transferring his Hemingway collection to the rare book room in the back.

"I've met a lot of people who have spent quite a bit of their time pursuing Hemingway, one way or another," Mr. Boisonault says.

He's gone, yes, but Hemingway remains high in literary and popular consciousness. There's always a new biography, a new letter surfacing. And Hemingway the macho man remains an archetype.

"People are constantly trying to emulate his style, whether as a writer or as a fisherman or as a big game hunter," says Michael Whalton, director of the Hemingway Days festival.

American schoolchildren for generations now have read Hemingway, his simple, eloquent prose elevated to near-gospel status in high school literature courses.

If the works have endured as great literature, the myths have become legend. Hemingway stampeded through the first half of the 20th century, infuriating and enrapturing a generation.

He wrote, drank, fished, hunted, slept across Europe and America and Africa. He defined his time in his novels, from World War I ("A Farewell to Arms"), to expatriate Paris in the 1920s ("The Sun Also Rises"), and the Spanish Civil War ("For Whom the Bell Tolls").

Hemingway also immortalized Key West in a 1937 novel, "To Have and Have Not." It's an amalgam of tales, mostly about rumrunner Harry Morgan.

Hemingway himself first saw the island in 1928, when he left Paris with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

In 1931, he bought the Whitehead Street house that now draws an average of 600 people a day to see his old bedroom and furniture and backyard. But he didn't exactly settle down in Key West -- from Florida, he left on frequent trips to Cuba, Wyoming, New York, Europe and Africa.

By 1940, he was gone, married now to journalist Martha Gellhorn and living in Cuba.

It didn't take a marketing genius to realize the potential in the legacy he left behind -- fishing and drinking and fighting tales, some of which may actually be true. The Hemingway family sold the writer's house after his 1961 suicide in Idaho. By 1964, Key West tourism officials opened it to the public. Sloppy Joe's hung Hemingway photos and started selling T-shirts with a grinning "Papa" face.

"I don't know of any other figure we could build this kind of a festival around, or be this successful at promoting this destination with his name," Mr. Tinlin says. "The only regret I have is we're not doing the same thing with Tennessee Williams."

Williams lived here, too. You know, one of the greatest American playwrights, the man who wrote "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Glass Menagerie," a man who made Key West one of his primary homes for four decades, until his death in 1983.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad