In the early 1930s, famed author Ernest Hemingway began spending his winters in Key West, Florida and soon after, purchased a home where he would later write one of his many acclaimed novels, To Have and Have Not. Eighty years later, Hemingway’s presence is still hard to miss when visiting the island. Images and mentions of the burly writer can be found everywhere, from museums to gay bars. But every year on the week of July 21st, otherwise known as Hemingway’s birthday, it becomes impossible to ignore the legacy that Hemingway has left behind on the island of Key West as it engages in a week-long celebration of the writer and his time spent on this veritable paradise just eight hours south of Tampa.
The 35th annual Hemingway Days celebration took place July 21-26 this year and had no shortage of happenings that highlighted the profound legacy left behind by the writer lovingly referred to as “Papa” in those parts. Events range from wacky and unpredictable to more serious and informative ones, but each event made clear the fact that Key West was an inspirational location for Hemingway, and continues to inspire the artists that choose to carry out their careers there today.
Part of Key West’s allure lies in that “90 miles to Cuba” post that famously sits on its coast. Visitors are often enamored with the fact that this island, mysterious to so many, is such a short distance away. With the recent change in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, this week-long celebration of Hemingway’s life and time spent in Key West seems even more fitting as the author also had close ties with Cuba. The unique relationship that Hemingway had with Cuba is one of many themes that are explored at The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, where Hemingway lived and made several influential excursions to Cuba from throughout the 1930s. The impressive Spanish-Colonial style house still features many of Hemingway’s original personal touches, including European antique furnishings. Perhaps most impressive, however, are the approximately 40-50 cats that live on the grounds, many of which are direct decedents of a white, six-toed cat that Hemingway was gifted by a local ship captain. Exploring the rooms that Hemingway lived and wrote in, as well the impressive grounds on which you can find cats peeking out at every corner, is an inspirational experience for visitors, artists and non-artists alike.
The Hemingway Home and Museum is just the tip of the iceberg for Hemingway Days, though. Perhaps most memorable are the Hemingway look-a-likes that pass you on every street and sit a few stools down from you at every bar. Yes, that’s correct- pretty much everywhere you turn in Key West during Hemingway Days, you’re bound to run into at least one slightly portly, white-haired, bearded man (think a slightly more brawny version of Santa Clause). These look-a-likes participate in three separate contests, where one lucky competitor is eventually crowned winner of the “Papa” Hemingway look-alike contest. Just before the final contest, competitors participate in the annual Running of the Bulls. This much safer and whimsical version of the world-famous event in Spain features Hemingway Look-A-Like contestants parading through the streets of Key West alongside and on top of man-made bulls. The event, seemingly silly, draws a huge crowd of onlookers and cheering.
After enjoying the spectacle that is the Running of the Bulls, I found myself not far from the Hemingway Days Caribbean Street Fair. Duval Street, the main drag in Key West, closes itself off to vehicular traffic to make room for an open-air Caribbean market filled with vendors offering crafts, jewelry, art, and food for sale. While perusing everything the fair has to offer, I quickly started to notice some respectable art galleries scattered along the side streets off of Duval. One such gallery was artist Letty Nowak’s Lemonade Stand Gallery. Nowak’s unique style breathes character into the larger-than-life portraits adorning her small gallery, a welcome relief from the kitschy paintings of sailboats and sunrises that tend to overpopulate Southern Florida.
These are just a few of the events that take place every year in order to pay tribute to the life that Hemingway led while in Key West. And many of the attractions mentioned, such as The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum and the art galleries, are present year-round. So if you’re ever looking for an inspiring break from your every-day routine, look no further than Key West, where you can get that rejuvenating and inspirational combination of arts, sun and fun.