If you’d gone for a walk around Key West in the 1930s, chances are you might have bumped into Ernest Hemingway. Whether making the short stroll from his house on Whitehead Street to the bars on Duval, one block over and several up, or perhaps on his way to the nearby marina where he moored his deep sea fishing boat, the Pilar, Hemingway was a near constant feature of island life between 1931 and 1940.
Fast forward nearly a century later and you might suspect you’ve enjoyed one daiquiri too many when you see someone who looks just like the famed writer walking the same streets. Quickly followed by another, and another. In fact, everywhere you look in the atmospheric Old Town, there seems to be someone propping up a bar corner who looks just like Hemingway. Welcome to the annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Competition!
The contest has been held every year since 1981, and is hosted by one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, Sloppy Joe’s bar. For three days in July, over a hundred and fifty burly, white bearded and jolly gentlemen descend on Key West for a celebration of the larger than life writer, competing in arm wrestling, fishing, and a general attempt to look as much like Hemingway as possible. There’s even a mocked up version of the running of the bulls, all done in the quest of being voted that most esteemed of honours: this year’s Papa!
“This journey began for me seven or eight years ago,” explains 2006 winner Chris Storm. “A friend in Amarillo bought a copy of life magazine with Hemingway’s face on the cover and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ inside. He said I was a dead ringer for the author. I’d never thought of it before, but I’ve hunted and fished my entire life and I’d read all of Hemingway’s works – some several times – so maybe there was something to it.”
We are in Key West, America’s beautiful island outpost. Tiny in size, the island measures just four miles long by one mile wide, but large in character and old world charm, Key West is closer in both distance and spirit to Havana, Cuba, than Miami, Florida. It’s no wonder Ernest Hemingway fell in love with the remote, deep sea fishing community, and still today, the presence of the famed writer can be seen all over the island.
Ernest Hemingway moved to Key West in 1931, living in a picturesque Spanish Colonial home on Whitehead Street that was an extravagant wedding present from the uncle of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Immaculately preserved today and decorated with his old hunting trophies, an old traveling trunk stamped EH, and the portable typewriter on which he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa and For Whom the Bell Tolls, when touring the beautiful home, it feels as though Hemingway had just stepped out the door.
The still-lived-in feel of the home is heightened by all the cats. Over forty polydactyl cats, many of them descended from Hemingway’s own beloved six-toed ‘Snowball’ still walk around the house as if they owned the place. Resting on his writing desk, asleep on the bed, running down the stairs through the hallway decorated with photographs of Hemingway and all his wives, or sunning themselves in the garden.
Whilst living in Key West, Hemingway would keep up the discipline he started in Paris; writing in the morning before stepping out to explore the bars and characters of the Old Town. More often than not, that usually entailed stopping by Sloppy Joe’s.
Located at the corner of Duval and Greene Streets, the white brick bar with a lush interior, has provided welcome shade and cocktails from the sun shining over America’s southernmost town since the 1930s. “The official beginning of what would become Sloppy Joe’s was December 5th, 1933, the day Prohibition was repealed” explains the bar’s marketing manager Donna Edwards. “In Key West, being a bastion of free thinkers even in the Thirties, Prohibition was looked on as an amusing exercise dreamt up by the government.”
Owner Joe Russell had been operating an illegal speakeasy on nearby Front Street when “Ernest Hemingway slipped over to Russell’s on occasion to buy illicit bottles of Scotch and the two struck up an enduring friendship,” explains Edwards. “The rowdy, come-as-you-are saloon […] remained a place of shabby discomfort, good friends, gambling, fifteen cent whiskey and ten cent shots of gin.” The bar would soon move around the corner to Duval Street, changing its name at the bequest of Hemingway himself. “The new name was adopted from Jose Garcia Rios Club in Havana that sold liquor and iced seafood,” explains Edwards, “Because the floor was always wet with melted ice, his patrons taunted Jose (Joe) with running a sloppy place… Sloppy Joe’s … and the name stuck.”
Hemingway soon became a permanent fixture at Sloppy Joe’s, meeting friends Charles Thompson, Joe Russell and Captain Eddie ‘Bra’ Saunders, before heading out to fish the Dry Tortugas and the shipping routes to Cuba for giant tuna and marlin. As such, it’s the perfect location for a Hemingway Look-Alike Competition, where his spirit still looms large.
Ron Thomas, winner in 2002, tells the story of how one year he found someone tapping him on the shoulder. “There was this magnificent, old woman with a textured face that looked like alligator skin,” he recalled. “She was somewhere in her 80s with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She wore a hat with a sunflower pinned up front.”
“Do you have time for a cigarette and a drink?” she asked.
“I’ll have a drink.”
Between puffs on the cigarette and sips on the drink, the woman pointed to the Papa photos in Sloppy Joe’s Bar.
“Have you looked at all the pictures of Mr. Hemingway on the wall?”
“Yeah. Being a graphic artist, I look at all of that.”
“I mean, the one where he was wearing his boxing gloves, and they weren’t laced up.”
“Right. He didn’t have a shirt on. Just a tank top. I looked at all of them.”
She took another drag from her cigarette, blew the smoke, and declared, “You have exactly the same physique as Mr. Hemingway.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about his physique.”
“You’re damn right, I do,” she said forcefully. “I was one of his paramours.”
The first Hemingway Lookalike contest was held back in 1981, when just a handful of bearded hopefuls took the stage to be judged by members of the actual Hemingway family. The winner that day was US Coastguard Tom Feeney, a resident of neighbouring Big Coppitt Key. Leicester Hemingway (younger brother of the writer) judged Feeney to be “the nearest thing to Ernest I could find!” Asked for a comment about his selection as the first Hemingway Look-Alike winner, the bearded and buoyant premier Papa exclaimed, “Now if I could just write like Hemingway!”
Today, the event has grown to a three day extravaganza, with contestants traveling from as far away as Brazil and Kazakhstan to try and win the prized bust of Hemingway. The competition is friendly but fierce. “We all know that only wannabe Papa will win each year out of 140-160 guys that compete,” explains one of this years hopefuls, Tim Stockwell. “It can take several years just to make it to the final night, and then years to make the top five! But we’re all friends that stay in touch throughout the year and the event itself is filled with great camaraderie, and cheering each other on.”
Most contestants favour the iconic Hemingway look captured by Yousuf Karsh in 1957; beard and hair – neatly trimmed, fisherman’s sweater – oversized. “I expected to meet in the author a composite of the heroes of his novels,” recalls the photographer. “Instead, in 1957, at his home Finca Vigía, near Havana, I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed – a man cruelly battered by life, but seemingly invincible. He was still suffering from the effects of a plane accident that occurred during his fourth safari to Africa. I had gone the evening before to La Floridita, Hemingway’s favourite bar, to do my ‘homework’ and sample his favourite concoction, the daiquiri. But one can be over prepared! When, at nine the next morning, Hemingway called from the kitchen, ‘What will you have to drink?’ my reply was, I thought, letter-perfect: ‘Daiquiri, sir.’ ‘Good God, Karsh,’ Hemingway remonstrated, ‘at this hour of the day!’”
To be crowned Papa, contestants must compete in one of two preliminary rounds. “Each round is narrowed down to approximately twenty four contestants to compete in the final round,” explains Donna Edwards. “The contest is judged by former winners. Once someone wins, they do not compete again.”
Ernest Hemingway might be regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, but he was equally known for his pursuit of adventure, big game hunting, deep sea fishing and bull fighting. As such, the annual Look-Alike competition isn’t awarded on looks alone. Over the course of the three days, contestants will head to the Conch Republic Seafood Company at the docks on Greene Street to compete in a dockside catch-and-release challenge using traditional Cuban ‘yo-yo’s. Feats of strength will play their part in the arm wrestling section, whilst on the final Saturday, contestants will don fetching red berets, white shirts and shorts, with a dashing red sash at the waist, for the Key West version of Pamplona’s ‘running of the bulls’, featuring wooden bulls.
Hemingway once remarked ‘Pamplona is no place to bring your wife!’, but the streets of Key West’s Old Town are lined with competitor’s wives and partners alongside the hundreds of supporters cheering on their favourite lookalike. “I think another key element of the event is the camaraderie that exists for the wannabe spouses,” explains Tim Stockwell. “They also form long lasting friendships that extend throughout the year and not just during the Hemingway Day’s events.”
But the Ernest Hemingway lookalike competition is much more than a three day spree of drinking daiquiris. The ‘Hemingway Look-Alike Scholarship’ programme was created several years ago to provide students attending the Florida Keys Community College a helping hand, and the Look-Alike Society has distributed tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to deserving students. “This is at the heart of the Hemingway Look Alike Society (HLAS)” explains Tim Stockwell. “We have raised substantial amounts of money over the years to create scholarships for students studying nursing and journalism while attending The College of the Florida Keys, located here in Key West. Both of these vocations were near and dear in Papa’s life.”
Even though there will be only one Papa crowned this July, it’s the camaraderie between the Hemingway lookalikes that bring these good humoured, bearded men back to Key West each year. “The friendship that develops over the years is a great experience for all involved,” explains David Douglas. A few years ago, twelve Hemingways traveled to Cuba, in what must have made for quite the spectacle on the airplane.
The Sloppy Joe’s 40th Annual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest starts this week, from July 22nd-24th, with a friendly, raucous atmosphere filling the infamous old saloon. At the heart of it, will be one hundred fifty or so bearded gentlemen, all hoping to be voted this years Papa, all of them bearing an uncanny resemblance to the famous writer, all of them receiving the same double takes and looks of surprise from passers by.