One of the things I like the most about traveling are the surprises. Usually the unexpected twists and turns reveal something funny or sad, or maybe just something really, really interesting. But in those rarest of instances, the discovery uncovers something truly remarkable about my life that I had never known or realized.
I hadn’t visited the Keys since way back in the 80s, and they have really shaped-up the place. Some of the new businesses look almost chic. But eccentric hippies and handsome roosters still rule the roost. The former are still planted along the bars at Sloppy Joe’s, Captain Tony’s, and the Green Parrot and ride the streets on goofy bicycles and mopeds, while the latter are constantly crowing – which, if you think about it, is an odd thing for a chicken to do because it isn't a crow. All in all, Key West is pretty much the same. And for all of laid back, unpretentious informality, it’s still too wealthy a place to be poor. Paradise aint cheap.
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be visiting the Conch Republic. Been there, done that.
We had hooked up the previous week with my old friends Larry and Teri from my days at Grand Canyon and we had been living large at Jimmy Buffet’s new Margarittaville Resort and Spa in Hollywood, about 175 miles north of Key West. And taking a trip back to Burnoutville and the Mallory Square Sunset Worshippers didn’t seem all that enticing. But my wife Inna had never seen the Keys and her friends had told her how neat it was. So, who was I to argue?
We spent our first day walking around the upscale waterfront where bands dished out Jimmy Buffett and the blues from tropical patio decks. Two cruise ships were docked near the red brick Custom House, including the Smooth Jazz Cruise aboard the Eurodam which we had sailed on in the Mediterranean a few years back. Small world.
After a late lunch at a great Sushi Thai restaurant on Greene Street we caught the Sebago Sunset Cruise on the Marquesa, a 69’ sail catamaran with over 2,300 feet of deck space. It was essentially a two hour “booze cruise”. For $39 per person we sailed slowly out of Key West’s historic seaport, taking in the flaming festivities at Mallory Square, Sunset Key, and the historic Fort Zachary Taylor. The price included complimentary champagne, wine, tap beer, sangria, and margaritas in unlimited supply.
Every time I go to Key West I run into someone from Annapolis. The two towns have a very active exchange program. And this was Key West Race Week, so there were many sailors from Annapolis in town for the fun and games. We kept running into Annapolitans wherever we went.
As we sailed out toward the sunset with at least a hundred other tour boats of all shapes and sizes I chatted it up with our skipper Sweeny. It turned out that he had crewed on the schooner Woodwind that sails out of the waterfront Marriott in Annapolis. It is a small world indeed.
“Are there always this many boats?” I asked as I watched what resembled an armada of sailing craft cruising toward the falling sun.
“The weather has been cold and windy all week and this is the first day that we have been able to go out. And given the forecast of 40 knot winds for tomorrow, the tour companies have all of their boats on the water tonight. Might be a while before we get out again. So, we gotta take advantage of the break in the nasty weather.”
“Must be hard to make it in the winter with so much down time,” I mused.
“Must be hard to make it in the winter with so much down time,” I mused.
“Well, the Captains are on salary, so we get paid whether we go out or not. We miss the tips, of course. It’s harder for the crews because they only get paid if we sail, and the tips are their bread and butter. But, to be honest, I like the break after a long summer of going non-stop every day. In summer, we go from seven in the morning until ten at night, seven days a week. It gets old after a while.”
“So, your peak season is summer?” I asked in confusion.
“Absolutely,” replied Sweeny as he kept a close eye on a bachelor party that was starting to get a little out of hand.
Weddings are big business in Key West these days and there are packs of wild girls roaming the streets and the bars, wearing pink shirts with slogans like “Let’s Get Drunk”, “We’re Here To Party”, and “Drunk Girl #” (each girl has a number).
“I thought that winter was the peak season down here,” I said. “That’s when all the snowbirds come south.”
“That’s true for the rest of Florida. Summers are hell. But Key West is pretty nice in the summer because of the Gulf Stream. So, our peak season is in the summer, not the winter. And in winter, we get a lot of storms from out of the west and we can get weeks of cool, wet, and very windy weather.”
“Still beats Maryland,” I said as I sipped my Margarita and raised a glass to the setting sun.
We hung out at the Marriott Waterfront’s jungle pool the following morning, so we didn’t catch the free shuttle down into town before noon.
We decided to take a long, lazy walk up infamous Duvall Street and after grabbing an excellent lunch at the Grand Café and taking in the crazy sights, we proceeded to Hemingway House, the place where Ernest Hemingway wrote most of his best-selling books. The Hemingway Home is a National Historic Landmark, Literary Landmark, and recorded in the Library of Congress as a Historic American Building.
It’s basically a big, brightly-painted box with a wrap-around porch, sitting on the highest point of land on the island at 16' above sea level.
Over the years, the town has reclaimed the ocean with some very valuable fill land and the ocean view that Hemingway and his second wife Pauline Marie Pfeiffer so enjoyed has been blocked by big trees and houses. The beautiful white and red lighthouse across the street is now a long block from the ocean.
We each paid our $13 and joined the tour led by a typical Key West funky matron named Maggie who was totally into the whole Hemingway mystique. She was full of fun facts and stories.
Ernest Hemingway was a gifted story teller. His writing style was simple, bare bones and almost conversational. And Maggie’s stories about “Papa” Hemingway were enthralling.
We all know about the brawling and boozing Hemingway, but I was amazed to learn that he had an extremely rigid worth ethic. There was a catwalk from the master bedroom to his second floor office in the adjoining carriage house where he wrote every day from 6-12. After that he would go fishing and have fun.
I had never realized how serious Hemingway was. When asked to list his three favorite things in life, he said, “Fishing. Hunting. And Reading.”
I would have guessed women, booze, or fighting.
The home itself is nothing special, just a large old house in need of repair. The walls were lined with photos of Hemingway and his buddies standing next to huge dead sail fish and Marlin, big game animals like lions from hunting safaris in Africa, and skiing shots taken on the snowy slopes of Northern Europe with other manly men. There were very few pictures of Hemingway and women. That’s not to say that he didn’t like the ladies. I mean, the guy was married four times. But his lust for life was inexorably drawn to the challenges between man and beast.
Most of Hemingway's books were turned into very popular movies and there were movie playbills adorning every room.
Hemingway coined the phrase “The Lost Generation” in his classic novel The Sun Also Rises to describe the people of his time. They came of age during horrific World War I and were championed by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Hemingway's loving patron Gertrude Stein.
Hemingway always appeared to be larger than life – even in death. Maybe even more so.
One of my favorite stories from our tour centered on Hemmingway’s boxing ring. He had this big boxing ring in his back yard and after a few drinks he would spar with local boxers, friends, or anyone who thought they were tougher than him. He would offer $325 (a lot of money in those days) to anyone who could knock him out.
In 1937, Hemingway went away to cover the Spanish Civil War and he started an affair with a famous war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, who would become his third wife.
When his wife Pauline heard about his romantic shenanigans, she had the boxing ring removed and built a large swimming pool in its place.
Hemingway returned home to find his beloved boxing ring replaced by the pool and asked Pauline how much it cost.
When “Papa” heard that she had spent $20,000 for the pool behind a house that cost $8,000, he pulled a penny from his pocket and tossed it to Pauline from his perch on the porch. “Well, you took my last penny.”
After the divorce, Pauline got the house, and embedded that penny into the brick patio in a plastic see-through case. She was a tough broad from Arkansas, and in the ensuing years she liked to host parties at the house. After a few drinks she was often heard to boast, “I was one of Ernest’s four wives.” She would point to the penny. “But I took his last red cent.”
Hemingway was an enigma. A man at war with both himself and the world. He was bi-polar and eventually killed himself with a shotgun in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, following a family tradition. His grandfather, father, brother, sister and daughter Margaux all killed themselves. And yet this tragically violent man loved cats. And not your average cat, but a special breed of polydactyl (six-toed) cats. There are photos all over the house of Hemingway, a bearded bear of a man, cuddling his many cats that roamed the grounds like lairds of the manner. He named them after his writing and party pals. There is even an entrancing cat cemetery behind the house where the cats are buried under the patio stones.
I’m not a big cat fan, but I must admit they were unusual critters. The Hemingway House is home to about 50 cats and they have very cute little cat houses scattered all around the gardens.
According to the tour brochure: “Cats normally have five front toes and four back toes. About half the cats at the museum have the physical polydactyl trait but they all carry the polydactyl gene in their DNA, which means that the ones that have 4 and 5 toes can still mother or father six-toed kittens. Most cats have extra toes on their front feet and sometimes on their back feet as well. Sometimes it looks as if they are wearing mittens because they appear to have a thumb on their paw. Ernest Hemmingway was given a white six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and some of the cats who live on the museum grounds are descendants of that original cat, named Snow White. The polydactyl cats are not a particular breed. The trait can appear in any breed, Calicos, Tabbies, Tortoise Shell, White, Black, etc. They vary in shapes, sizes, colors and personalities.”
If he wasn’t fishing or visiting Cuba, Hemingway liked to hang out at Sloppy Joe’s where he partied with the owner Joe Russell. When the landlord raised the rent from three dollars a week to four, his buddy moved up the street to its current location.
According to legend: “In true Key West fashion, the bar never actually closed during the transition – customers simply picked up their drinks and carried them, along with every piece of furniture in the place, down the block to 201 Duvall Street. Service resumed with barely a blink. The new Sloppy Joe’s boasted the longest bar in town. Behind the bar, in the back room, were gambling and pool tables. Inside the bar hung life-sized paintings of fighters on the walls, and adorning one wall was a 119-pound sailfish caught by Hemingway.”
After Pauline built the pool and before Hemingway moved out with Martha to Cuba, he told his friend Joe, “I pissed away a fortune in that urinal and I want to take it home.”
And to this day, the urinal from Sloppy Joe’s adorns the Hemingway House gardens near the pool where the cats use it as a drinking fountain.
I actually had some serious history with this splendid treasure surrounded by the historic naval base that was established in 1823 to rid the seas of pirates.
My dad befriended a former Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Admiral Robert McElroy, back in the late 50s when they met at the Navy Golf course, my father’s second home. Bob and his wife Jane became family and I grew up with their daughters Suzy and Maryjane. I called them Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane. Bob was like Ernest Hemmingway in dress blues and he was a force of nature. He was loud, liked to drink, and had a great sense of humor. I loved him to death.
When Uncle Bob left Annapolis he became the commander at the Sub Base in Key West. And we often spent our winters staying with the McElroys. I was about eight at the time, so my recollections are sketchy at best.
But I remember my mother always reminiscing about our days and nights spent lounging about in Truman’s Little White House. And she used to always talk about the time in 1961, when President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold McMillan held a surprise pow-wow at the Little White House to plan their strategy right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. My mother and Aunt Jane were tasked with getting the place ready in less than twenty-four hours. It was one of Mom’s fondest memories.
I truly wish I could say that I remember those times. But I really don’t. I was too young. And as we approached the large white cottage, I felt nothing. I mean, it’s very beautiful, a large Key West bungalow that is pleasing to the eye, but no past memories suddenly popped into my head.
Our most excellent guide was Chris Stone, a Navy brat who grew up on Taney Street in Annapolis. Small world.
As we walked past the den toward the back of the house we came to the place where Truman spent most of his evenings when visiting Key West, playing penny ante poker with his staff and dignitaries. The ornate mahogany poker table adorns the room like an altar.
I turned to my left and instantly felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I could vividly see Uncle Bob McElroy, standing behind the bar, mixing drinks and holding court as my parents and Aunt Jane traded playful verbal jabs.
The memories washed over me in waves and I felt dizzy. I grabbed the wall and noticed Inna standing in the dining room with her mouth agape. She motioned for me to come look at something.
We were both speechless. The dining room looked almost exactly like the one I grew up in at my family home “Cliff Edge” overlooking the Severn River and United States Naval Academy. My life had come full circle.
And as we toured the rest of the house, Inna and I just kept shaking our heads and laughing. The rest of the people on the tour undoubtedly thought we were nuts. But everywhere we looked there were architectural features and pieces of furniture that had been replicated in the home where I grew up. Inna kept pointing at familiar items, like the drapes in the First Lady's bedroom, the wallpaper, and a carved clam shell dresser, exactly like my mother had decorated our guest rooms, and we both smiled like we were visiting an old familiar place that was once our home.
Life is strange. There is no rhyme or reason.
I am fond of just saying, “That’s karma.”
But I was given a rare gift on our trip to Key West. Without warning or expectation.