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Hemingway Adventure

Key West, Florida (second day)

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Michael Palin - Hemingway AdventureErnest Hemingway would have been a hundred years old today and I can find no mention of this fact in the newspaper. I check the date again, July 21st 1999. But there’s nothing there. My copy of USA Today is still full of news of the death of JFK Junior in an air-crash at the weekend. The grief of the Kennedys has eclipsed the celebrations of the Hemingways.

But he is not forgotten here in Key West. Indeed every year at this time, in the height of sub-tropical summer, men with beards don thick woollen sweaters in imitation of their hero and gather in the steamy heat of a downtown bar to see who looks most like him.

The Hemingway Look-Alike Contest is one of many highlights in a ten-day orgy of Ernestness called the Hemingway Days Festival, which also features competitions for story-telling and arm-wrestling. Flicking through my programme I see that the centenary will not go unnoticed. A giant birthday cake will be cut outside Sloppy Joe’s Bar at six.

Sloppy Joe is a potent figure in Hemingway mythology. His full name was Joseph Russell; a native of Key West, married with three children, he had first endeared himself to Hemingway by cashing a thousand-dollar royalty cheque from A Farewell to Arms which the First National Bank had refused to do on account of Hemingway’s scruffy appearance.

Hemingway liked a drink or two and though the sale of alcohol had been illegal in the States since 1920, Joe Russell ran a speakeasy and a 34-foot ocean-going launch with which he brought liquor in from Cuba, only ninety miles to the south. Hemingway joined him on some of these trips, slaking his considerable thirst and gaining, besides an appetite for marlin-fishing and Havana night-life, the basis for a character in one of his novels. Joe Russell, rechristened Harry Morgan, became the anti-hero of Hemingway’s Gulf Stream novel, To Have and Have Not.
Havana, Cuba 
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The Cuba branch of Sloppy Joe's survives only as a name in the sidewalks of Havana.
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  • Series: Hemingway Adventure
  • Chapter: Key West, Florida (second day)
  • Country/sea: USA
  • Place: Key West, Florida
  • Book page no: 139

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