Life lessons from the Papas: Hemingway Days, Key West

Sunday, July 29th, 2012. Filed under: Festivals & Events Florida

It’s Papa pandemonium in Key West every July during Hemingway Days.

It’s a sea of red berets outside Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida, headquarters of the Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Society and their annual running of the bulls. A bwip-wip from a motorcycle escort parts the crowd and, to the tune of Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy), the fist-pumping Papas roll out.

Papas are cool, not cruel.

Earlier that day, I had the surreal sensation that I was five years old again, doing doubletakes downtown before Christmas, wondering how Santa could be on five street corners at once. I spotted my first Papas in Key West while having breakfast by the pool at lovely Cypress House, then a handsome herd in khaki shirts and fishing vests on Duval. Near the house on Whitehead Street where Hemingway lived during the 1930s, another “Ernest” in a safari helmet posed for photos with tourists.

I was in Key West for the 32nd annual Hemingway Days festival (July 17-22, 2012) celebrating the July 21 birthday, adventurous life and literary legacy of writer Ernest Hemingway. The festival’s signature bull run is a nod to ‘Papa’ Hemingway’s obsession with bullfighting and the annual event in Pamplona, Spain. I’m glad to report that no live animals are annoyed or employed in Key West’s fun, faux version. And while TripAdvisor calls Hemingway Days one of the Top 10 Wackiest Summer Events in the U.S., I found there’s a lot more to it than just beards, berets and beer.

In addition to the bull run and look-alike competition, festival events this year included readings and book signings, a one-man play exploring the literary legend’s life and motivations, an exhibit at Custom House museum of rare Hemingway memorabilia (including his boxing gloves and blood-stained WWI uniform), and a three-day marlin fishing tournament.

Ernest Hemingway in 1957, by Yousuf Karsh.

The festival also has an important literary component, the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. A critically-acclaimed author and granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, Lorian Hemingway has directed the competition, which supports the talent of emerging writers, since it began in 1981. Attending this year’s award announcement and reading at Casa Antigua (Hemingway’s first Key West residence), I was struck by the supportive atmosphere that helps so many Key West authors thrive.

2012 is also the 75th anniversary of publication of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not (1937), largely set in Key West. I’d packed a copy for the trip and found it a suspenseful pageturner, love story and travel guide all in one. When I wasn’t attending festival events, I explored Key West’s atmospheric old lanes, art galleries, shops and museums.

On my last night, I had a blast with new friends and the Papas at Sloppy Joe’s Bar (where Hemingway himself used to drink) for the Look-Alike Competition finals. As their cheering squads waved placards, hopefuls were judged on appearance and performance.

Why run when you can ride and smoke a cigar?

Despite the lunacy, it was clear from watching the Papas in action that the festival is more than a chance to blow off steam. The Hemingway Look-Alike Society is earnest about raising scholarship funds. One Papa mentioned that he’d not had the opportunity to go to college when he was young so he was eager to help someone else attend and that the Papas were the fraternity he’d never had.

More than one tear was wiped from grizzled cheek over the evening as Papas remembered friends who’d passed and marveled that they’d made it back another year. I found the Papas’ mutual encouragement and commitment to living with vigor and joy truly inspiring.

My money that night was on ‘Hurricane Hemingway’ John Wilt in his red satin boxing robe and gloves but ultimately Greg Fawcett of Cornelius, North Carolina, took home the 2012 Look-Alike Competition trophy. With bearhugs all around, the Papas vowed to return next year even older, fatter and greyer. It’ll be the best-looking crowd yet.

Stay:  Cypress House, a beautifully-renovated Victorian-era Conch mansion (1888) with wrap-around porches, a 40-foot pool and friendly staff. A quiet, atmospheric retreat in Old Town, a short stroll to Sloppy Joe’s.

For more on visiting the fabulous Florida Keys, including accommodation links and a calendar of events,  see The Florida Keys.

Papas on parade, Duval Street, Key West.

Sloppy Joe’s Bar hosts the Hemingway Days look-alike contest and running of the bulls.

The scene inside Sloppy Joe’s Bar during the Hemingway Look-Alike competition finals.

The judges confer.

Greg Fawcett of Cornelius, North Carolina, takes the trophy as Papa 2012.

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