EErnest Hemingway survives as much through his macho mythology as through his writing. Hemingway was involved in two plane crashes in two days. Hemingway shot himself in both legs as he argued over a shark. Hemingway has had at least nine major concussions – and four women. He had brain damage. He won the Pulitzer and Nobel prize. He hunted, fished and wrote plays, books, articles and stories, always in search of the truest sentence. He was enraged, charming, violent, brilliant and drunk.
Hemingway is also something of a Key West mascot, especially for a week every July, when a festival called Hemingway Days, which coincides with his birthday (this year he would be 122) honors his legacy by bringing together his lookalikes.
Sneaking through the drunken, sunburnt revelers that pack Duval Street, it can be hard to imagine Key West as Hemingway experienced it in the 1920s and 1930s: a sleepy tropical escape. “This is the best place I have ever been, anytime, anywhere,” the author wrote in a letter to the South Island, where he wrote several of his most famous works , including Death in the Afternoon and To Have and Have Not.
“Ernest was recognizable in the streets of Key West: a tall, handsome man, usually in very casual clothes,” writes Mary V Dearborn in her Hemingway biography. “In fact, he almost always wore shorts, using a knotted rope as a belt. On his feet he wore Indian moccasins. As he got older, he grew a white beard and belly to make way for the ‘Daddy’ look – and if you’ve ever seen Hemingway’s 1957 portrait in a fisherman’s turtleneck, you can perfectly imagine it. .
It’s the version of Hemingway that most look-alike contestants – this year there were 137 – aim to emulate.
The contest, which turns 40 this year, takes place at Hemingway’s favorite bar in Key West, Sloppy Joe’s, and is fueled by the myth of the man as much as the growing myth of the contest.
“There was a tussle competition until a kid on a cruise ship had an open fracture,” a t-shirt seller tells me, although the event’s website says that any arm wrestling was prohibited because of Covid. “They keep ambulances on standby in case the old men pass out from the heat,” said a waitress, though I didn’t see any. Covid canceled the events of last year, but this year candidates told me they were vaccinated, that precautions were being taken, that they were not worried.
The very first lookalike competition was held in 1981 and hosted by then-Sloppy Joe’s manager Michael Walton. He envisioned it as a way to attract tourists to Key West during the sweltering summer season. There were 36 contestants and Hemingway’s brother Leicester was a judge.
Today there is a fairly official Hemingway Look-Alike Society; their rule of article 1 states: “Have fun”. At the heart of the Society are the Dads, the previous double winners, who form a brotherhood of white-haired men. Together, they raise money for the Hemingway Scholarship, which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, primarily to students at the College of the Florida Keys.
The contestants are known as “Wannabes”, and they come year after year from all over the world (one Wannabe I spoke with was there for his 27th time – he still hasn’t won). Right now, including this year’s winner Zach Taylor, there are 14 Dads in total. “Sadly, we’re all in the age group we’re in, so to speak,” says Papa Stephen Terry, the 2013 winner. “We have a few casualties every year.
The Wannabes come in their best Hemingway, including turtlenecks in the Florida heat, and sing songs, recite poems, or give short speeches about why they too should join Daddy’s ranks. Sections of cheering appear in the crowd.
“Looking for someone who looks like Hemingway,” Papa Joe Maxey, who won in 2019, tells me wryly. “I’m looking for someone to have a beer with the rest of my life.”
Of course, there is a “running” of the bulls, which is more like a rowdy walk around the block. “It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” says Papa Wally Collins, who won in 2014. “It’s not just a bunch of ass catchers. It’s a bunch of good guys with good hearts.
For those who come in expecting a traditionally fair contest, this is not it. “They said if Hemingway came he wouldn’t win the first three years. You have to show longevity and what you can bring to the scholarship fund, and people get to know you and your personality, ”said 2018 winner Papa Michael Groover, married to celebrity chef Paula Deen. (It took Papa Michael eight years to become a dad.)
“It’s a brotherhood,” says Papa Wally. “You don’t want a guy to win just because he looks like Hemingway. You want an adventurous guy – we’ve all done adventurous stuff. I’ve been around the world twice, I was in war, done all kinds of fun stuff, and I was sensitive to the idea of Hemingway’s masculinity and heroism.
Masculinity is, of course, a loaded word. Dads and wannabes I spoke to all said they admired Hemingway for what they considered to be his – his fishing and hunting, his ability to test himself, his daring journeys, his love of women and rum. “A lot of people think he was a real hole,” says Papa Matt Gineo, who won in 2011. “But I like his style.”
The least talked about in the lookalikes contest is Hemingway’s actual writing. When asked, everyone said they had read it – some in school, others as adults, and a few became amateur academics through their similar participation. But what is clear here is that Hemingway’s myth far eclipses his work.
In fact, others come to Key West for… cats. “We notice that a lot more people come here for them,” says Andrew Morawski, director of the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. He refers to the 60 cats there, all descendants of Hemingway’s Snowball, a polydactyl feline (meaning he had six toes). All of his heirs are also blessed with extra toes. “Hemingway’s name is no longer mentioned,” adds Morawski. “Unless you’re really majoring in literature or some type of English degree in college, you don’t hear Ernest Hemingway’s name.”
Much like cat lovers, dads and wannabes descend on Key West just for companionship and fun. Many are much older than Hemingway when he died at 61, and I wonder what the man would think if he walked into his favorite bar and saw all these men pretending to be him in the place he was. ‘he liked the most. “He would waver on that line of I love him and I hate him,” Morawski hypotheses.