I rolled into Key West on Friday evening, dumped my bag, and strolled down Duval Street to see what manner of craziness was afoot. Almost immediately I spotted a portly, white-bearded gentleman who looked for all the world like Ernest Hemingway, returned from the grave. I continued a bit further down the street, only to see another man who could have been Hemingway’s twin. As I approached the heart of the tourist district, the number of reincarnated Ernests increased, until it seemed I was surrounded by khaki-clad, red beret-wearing, white-bearded men.
No, I have not lost my mind. Nor am I seeing ghosts. I simply arrived in Key West during the 28th Annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, sponsored by Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Hemingway lived in Key West for a number of years and was an enthusiastic regular customer at Sloppy Joe’s. In fact, the author once called himself a silent partner in the enterprise. Today the bar celebrates its the birthday of Ernest Hemingway and honors his work as author and sportsman with the annual contest. Take a look at some of the Hemingway’s I spotted – and keep in mind that this is only a fraction of the 141 men who participated in this year’s contest, not to mention the previous winners who are now judges. I’d love to hear which one you think most resembles the famous author:
For the two days prior to my arrival, each hopeful ‘Papa’ had mounted the stage for their 15 seconds of glory during the semi-finals, where they tried to to convince the judges that they were most deserving to win this year’s contest. Yesterday began with Sloppy Joe’s interpretation of Pamplona’s running of the bulls; in honor of Hemingway’s love of bullfighting, contestants climbed aboard wooden bulls mounted on wheels, which were pushed around the block by a throng of semi- inebriated Hemingway wannabes. Following their triumphal return, the 25 finalists made their way back to the main stage inside Sloppy Joe’s, which was by this time surrounded by mobs of screaming, whistle-blowing, placard-carrying supporters lobbying for their respective candidates. With the crowd so thick that customers could barely move, the emcee of the event exhorted the supporters to stop their screaming and whistle-blowing and instead form a conga line through the bar. Impossible? Hardly. One clever group took up the challenge, placing a man so enormous at the head of the line that he simply muscled his way through the crowd. The guy had to be 350 pounds if he was an ounce. I’m surprised no one got trampled underfoot.
Finally, each contestant had 60 seconds to make his case as to why he should be chosen as this year’s honorary ‘Papa.’ I must admit that I left before the end of the competition. The guy with the whistle was standing right behind me and the sound was so shrill that it hurt my ears. The servers decided that the best path to the interior of the crowd was past me, and I was crushed into the surrounding spectators each time they delivered a tray of drinks. The Associated Press photo below shows not only the crowd, but in the lower right-hand corner, my friend Joan is plugging her ears (I am just outside of the frame, but I was standing right next to her with my fingers in my ears, too). We left right after the remarks of contestant Tom Grizzard, who was later declared the 2008 winner.
Over the years the festival has expanded to incorporate other events, including an internationally recognized short story competition, street fair, storytelling contest, a fishing contest (which is why all the Hemingways are so sunburned), and an arm wrestling competition. Not only is it all in good fun, the week-long affair has charitable goals as its basis. Last year, more than $11,000 was raised for various scholarship programs that benefit Key West residents. I can’t comment on people who claim to have seen Elivs, but as for Ernest Hemingway, I can personally attest to the fact that he is alive and well and living in Key West (at least for one week in July each year).