Travels with Ernest in Key West
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
“I drink to make other people interesting.” So said Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer and fabulous quip machine. Hemingway would produce seven novels and countless short stories and poems during his lifetime, and most of this work happened here, in Key West, Florida.
Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise pulled alongside at the Mallory Square Pier this morning, docking just as the sun came up. Located at the southernmost tip of Florida, Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. That proximity has influenced its traditions and culture to this day.
Key West is a cruise visitor’s paradise thanks to its size. The island itself is only four miles long by a mile wide (6 kilometres by 2 kilometres), and Duvall Street – the main bastion of shops, bars and entertainment in the city – is just 1.1 miles, or 1.8 kilometres, in length. It’s ridiculously walkable – and that’s a good thing, because there’s plenty to see and do here.
Today, we’re exploring much of that history, with visits to Ernest Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street; the Historic Key West Cemetery; the San Carlos Institute that celebrates Key West’s Cuban heritage; and El Meson de Pepe, which has been serving Cuban cuisine from its Mallory Square location for over 30 years.
The Importance of Being Ernest
Normally, it’d be a shame to be taking a trolley from the Mallory Square Pier to Hemingway’s house. When the temperature is pushing past 90°F with 80 percent humidity at 8:45 in the morning, however, the trolley – with its open windows and fresh sea breeze – is ideal. No wonder Hemingway drank; my body started bleeding water within five minutes of the tour beginning.
Hemingway lived at his 907 Whitehead Street residence from 1931 to 1939, though the house was in his possession up until his death in 1961. It was here that he wrote To Have and Have Not, as well as his nonfiction book, Green Hills of Africa, detailing the month-long African safari he and his wife embarked on in 1933.
It was here at this pretty, two-story colonial-style house that Hemingway produced over 70 percent of his body of work. He’d settle into his typewriter at six in the morning, preferring to continue until Noon. He produced 500 to 750 words per day in that time, which presumably left him time for more interesting pursuits.
Here’s the thing I like about Ernest – Mr. Hemingway: his writing is well-known and well-regarded throughout the world. But his exploits away from the typewriter gave him just as much fame and notoriety.
We know, for example, as much about where the man drank (and how often) as we do about the origins of his most important works of fiction and nonfiction.
We know he was so royally pissed-off when his wife installed a swimming pool in the backyard of his Key West house (at nearly the cost of the entire property) that he said, “Well, you might as well have my last cent, then.” He tossed her a single penny, and she had it cemented into the patio near the pool. It’s still there to this day. Apparently, she delighted in showing the penny to her friends, explaining to them that out of all of Hemingway’s wives, she was the only one to have taken his last cent.
Indeed, the man – or the myth surrounding the man – is equally as famous as his literary works. And after his time here in Key West, he decamped for Havana, where we’ll be tomorrow.
The Conch Republic
It’s easy to see why Hemingway liked Key West. Quirky, boozy and colourful, Key West is the anti-city in a lot of ways. I liken it a bit to Alaska: people come to the ends of the Keys for the same reasons that people go all the way North. They’re either embracing a way of life that no longer exists, or running from one that wasn’t working. Or both.
For a brief time in the 1980’s, Key West separated from the United States and became the self-proclaimed Conch Republic. Pronounced “conk”, the Conch Republic didn’t last, but Key West’s everlasting quirkiness did. The place has more bars per capita than any other city in the country, and while most are aimed at tourists, their hardcore, shit-kicking past isn’t far behind.
“I Told You I Was Sick”
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