Hemingway Heads List of Notables Who Followed Passion, Dreams

By Karen Rubin

You see it in the Spanish gold on display at Mel Fisher’s Museum; the artifacts from the Golden Age of Piracy that fill Pat Croce’s Pirate Soul Museum, in the manuscripts that Hemingway produced while living here, in the meticulously drawn birds of James J. Audubon.

A Hemingway look-alike, who happens to be out docent for our tour of the Hemingway Home & Museum (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

You can also find it in the aptly named “No Name Key” where Bill Keogh operates his Big Pine Kayak Adventure (you can even do a kayak wedding). In Marathon, you see it at the sea turtle hospital and at the Dolphin Research Center.

It is also in Islamorada, where a passion to save marine animals led to Theater of the Sea, the second oldest marine park in the country. It’s a wild bird sanctuary, a fishing center, and where a lifetime passion for collecting diving artifacts has produced the History of Diving Museum.

Each is the result of a lifetime passion.

With a deserved reputation for being welcoming and accepting, with an “anything goes” atmosphere, combined with a unique confluence of colorful history, balmy climate, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture and unabashed romantic appeal, people of all stripes have been coming to the Florida Keys to pursue their dreams and passions for decades.

And we, who follow, are the beneficiaries.

Throughout the Florida Keys, from Key West at the southernmost point of the United States, to Key Largo on the northern border of the “Conch Republic” are the fruits of people who have come to live out their passion, fulfill a dream – in one form or another.

This spirit – free-thinking, independent, and good natured, to be sure – led to the Keys actually declaring independence from the United States. You, too, can become a “citizen”- even an Ambassador – of this “sovereign state of mind,” the Conch Republic.

We followed these passions, starting in Key West, closer to Cuba than to Miami, and up the full length of the Florida Keys archipelago to Key Largo.


Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Most people only get a small, even frenetic glimpse of Key West during a few hours stopover on one of the popular cruises. But Key West, an island city at the end of the road, literally at Mile Marker 0, can easily fill a multi-day visit, or in the case of Ernest Hemingway, a visit that lasted 10 years.

Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the famous who found solace and inspiration in Key West. But so did Bahamian wreckers who salvaged the ships that wrecked on the coral reefs, earning Key West the moniker “the richest city in the world” for a time; commercial fishermen, spongers and Cuban cigar makers.

They came on a tide of geography, history and sociology, and the result is endlessly fascinating.

Key West’s Cuban heritage are evidenced throughout the island in restaurants and cigar shops, museums and accommodations, and gives a back-beat to the city.

We feel it immediately, when we enter El Meson de Pepe, (410 Wall St., Key West. 305-295-2620,, which makes you feel like you are sitting within a creation of folk artist Mario Sanchez – it is colorful and whimsical.

It is the best place to begin the story of Key West. The restaurant, itself is housed in Cayo Hueso y Habana, a building almost as old as the city itself. Located on Mallory Square, facing the Gulf of Mexico, it was the site where thousands of refugees from Cuba would have disembarked on American shores during the 19th century.

The décor of the building is as true to the heritage and spirit of the island as it could be. Inspired in part by the imagination and historical accuracy found in the art work of native son Mario Sanchez, the atmosphere and design of Cayo Hueso y Habana interprets scenes of old Key West, the Key West of Sanchez’ boyhood, and its Cuban flavor.

Enjoy the fire jugglers at Mallory Square each night at sunset (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Cuban fare is sensational. We savor Antojitos, an appetizer of fried cheese and chorizo over a bed of plantain chips cooked with garlic; Pepe’s Cuban Nachos with homemade plantain chips topped with Ropa Vieja (a flavorful dish of shredded beef and tomato), Picadillo, guacamole, cheese, diced tomatoes, and onions.

Here is the perfect atmosphere in which to get oriented to Key West. As we enjoy course after course, our local hosts regal us with the spicy tidbits that make Key West so special.

The main courses arrive – Ropa Vieja,literally translated as “old clothes,” is a traditional Cuban shredded beef stewed with fresh tomatoes, green peppers, onions and red wine; Picadillo Habanero, tangy ground beef cooked with sofrito, olives, capers, and raisins; Paella a la Pepe – Pepe’s “New World” paella, brimming with fresh seafood, homemade chorizo, chicken & pork in a rich saffron wine sauce, and tasty Spanish rice, prepared for two; and my own savory dish, Rabirubia Frita Entera, a delectable fried whole yellowtail, marinated with fresh key lime, garlic and onions.

It is not surprising that Hemingway would have felt so at home in Key West, or would have been inspired to write most of his most famous novels, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “To Have and Have Not,” “Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Key West’s story is like a Hollywood script with waves of adventurers coming in search of one thing or another – more similar than different.

Somehow, over the years, the community demonstrated an amazing capacity to assimilate successive groups. Key West’s association with the gay community began in the late 1940s, when Tennessee Williams lived here and Truman Capote visited .. There was a gay “renaissance” in the 1980s. The legacy of that is probably Key West’s reputation for nonconformity, live-and-let-live, joie d’vivre.

But what surprised me (among the many surprises), is how traditional – even conventional – this nonconventional place is.

For one thing, the architecture is arduously preserved. Key West has a strong preservation movement, fiercely protecting its “Old Town” architecture – the charming gingerbread that decorates the Victorian-era buildings. It is reputedly the largest predominantly wooden historic district in United States with some 3000 structures in place for 50 years (I would have thought Cape May, Charleston or Newport).

We learn that the gingerbread contained “coded” messages: cut in the shape of bottles, it indicated “speakeasy”; hearts meant card-playing inside.

Sunset is a nightly carnival at Mallory Square (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

We savor the food and the stories as we dine at Meson Pepe. It’s the sort of dinner where you don’t know and don’t care how much time you’ve sat and talked. But we finish just in time to enjoy the sunset festivities at Mallory Square – like a street party but with a backdrop that takes your breath away differently every night.

Every night at sunset, Caribe of Key West (which claims to be the only local Salsa Band) performs while people dance and mingle outside the restaurant at its colorful Patio Bar. The music is our favorite among a number of venues that we happen upon as we stroll along the waterfront walk. And here, you can enjoy the music without missing the fire-tossing juggler.

We pull ourselves away from the music and the juggler and roam about the waterfront, taking in the carnival-like atmosphere with buskers of all sorts entertaining. There’s Dominique & his Flying House Cats, a local legend.

The festive atmosphere continues on the famous Duval Street – reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans or the Honky Tonk strip in Nashville – lights, music that flows out into the street, activity. It is entertaining in a different way night and day. The colorful neon of Sloppy Joe’s (the saloon if not actually in the same place, that Hemingway would hang out in).

The next day, we start our exploration. Key West, we discover with the luxury of time, is as complex and fascinating as the famous people who pursued their passion here.

Breakfast is at Ana’s Cuban Café, a local Cuban restaurant, where you order your selection, then take it to a table. The coconuts with straws, left over from last night’s revelry, belies the fact that Key West is a fabulous destination for families (sort of ironic, in fact, because themeparks routinely plagiarize the Key West atmosphere).

We find ourselves at the southernmost point of the United States. We are bound for the Butterfly & Nature Conservancy but can’t resist the opportunity to take a peak at The Southernmost House, 1400 Duval St.; 305-296-3141,, a grand home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, built in 1896; the public rooms feature an extraordinary array of political and literary memorabilia – including letters handwritten by Ernest Hemingway – collected by the house’s owner.

Just up the street is The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, one of three major butterfly facilities in Florida and just 23 in the United States. This one is delightful, offering a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed habitat where exotic and tropical butterflies fly free. It is set out so you can follow the stages of butterfly development, observe the hatching process and stroll among as many as 1,200 butterflies from 50 to 60 species. The state-of-the-art solarium and nature exhibit also is home to red-factor canaries, zebra finches, cordon-blue finches and “button” or Chinese painted quail – as well as thousands of tropical plants and trees.

It’s tremendous fun to shoot pictures here – give your kids a point-and-shoot digital and they will see with new eyes, more engaged and probing. An on-site gallery features the nationally acclaimed butterfly artwork of Sam Trophia, the conservatory’s co-founder (1316 Duval St., 305-296-2988 or 866-949-0900,

Our next stop is the Key West Aquarium, Key West’s first tourist attraction, built during the Great Depression as part of a strategy to stage an economic recovery as “America’s Caribbean Island.” Open since 1934, the historic facility was one of the first open-air aquariums in the United States. It’s been updated a bit. The aquarium’s “Atlantic Shores” exhibit features a 50,000-gallon tank displaying a cross-section of a near-shore mangrove habitat. The tank’s inhabitants include a variety of tropical and game fish. The aquarium also has a touch tank for hands-on interaction between sea creatures and visitors. You can watch feedings of resident sharks and turtles while guides explain their habits and habitats. If you take a guided tour (offered at 11 a.m., 1, 3, and 4:30 p.m.), you even get an opportunity to pet a live shark. The Aquarium is also engaged in protecting endangered sea turtles, and is home to several recovering turtles and some whose injuries prevent their release back into the wild. (open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (1 Whitehead Street at Mallory Square, 305-296-2051,

The Key West Museum of Art & History, which offers wonderfully eclectic exhibits, is housed in a former U.S. Customs House (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Just across the square is the Shipwreck Historeum Museum, which really gets to the heart of Key West’s rather unique heritage and the underpinnings of its society. You enter an 1856 Key West wrecker’s warehouse to discover how Key West became the “richest city in the USA”.

The story revolves around the Issac Allerton, a 594-ton square rigged packet ship that left New York on August 5, 1856, headed for New Orleans on a course through the Florida Straits, between Key West and Cuba, when, on August 28, it was engulfed by a hurricane and sank.

The Isaac Allerton became the largest individual award in the history of wrecking, its cargo – that included marble floors, capitol, lintels for the Federal Customs house in New Orleans – valued at $150,000. In those days, the salvaging was done “bareback” – diving without masks, tanks or diving suits, and most of it could not be reclaimed. But in 1985, a group of local divers discovered the Allerton wreck. Two of the divers, brothers Steve and Ray Maloney, were the great-great-great-grandsons of Walter C. Maloney, the lawyer for Asa Tift who had claimed the first half of the original 1856 ship’s cargo. The “Historeum” is Asa Tift’s warehouse that you enter.

After visiting the intriguing exhibits, climb The Tower, the last of Key West’s 20 lookout towers (a faithful reproduction of the original built on the site, and now Key West’s only remaining wrecker’s observatory), for a splendid view of the harbor and city (One Whitehead Street, at Historic Mallory Square,, 305-292-8990).

Hemingway Was Here

Key West’s arguably most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway, provides the basis for one of the most popular (in a long list of popular) annual events: Hemingway Days. Organized around his birthday, July 21, the streets are filled with some 125 to 150 look alikes during the annual festival, who come to compete in the highlight of the five-day event, the Look Alike Contest, as well as authors’ readings and presentations, a book signing for a children’s book by Hemingway grandson Edward Hemingway, an exhibition of rare Hemingway memorabilia, a three-day marlin tournament (it’s catch-and-release, Key West is very environmentally friendly), an offbeat “Running of the Bulls” and the culmination of a short story contest traditionally directed by author and Hemingway granddaughter Lorian Hemingway.

We get to see our own Hemingway look-alike – our docent who took us through the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum just happened to also have that look (the other guides did not, so I can only assume it was not a prerequisite for the job).

I adore visiting homes of important people. It is as if their spirit is here… you feel a connection, a living link; you almost imagine you can sense the creative spark. This is especially true when the personal artifacts – photos, the furnishings and paintings they selected. Invariably, there are anecdotes that are so revealing.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is one of the best, most interesting, and even most surprising. I would have expected something “avant garde” or unconventional, or macho. The home was furnished in 17th & 18th century Spanish antiques; the most “out-there” aspects were the fact his wife, Pauline, removed the ceiling fan, and built Key West’s only in-ground pool (which cost a fortune); the fountain he put in, made of a urinal from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, was to spite her. And yes, there are the 50 or so cats, descendants of the six-toed cat, Snowball, that Hemingway kept (apparently, their care is the second largest expense of maintaining the house).

But the fabulous collection of paintings – Picasso was a friend – were sold off by his sons; today, the paintings are by local artists.

Hemingway's Underwood typewriter, on view at the Key West Museum of Art & History (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

We see a photo of Fuentes, a Cuban man who knew the water and was Hemingway’s fishing guide. It is believed he was the model for the character in Hemingway’s “Old Man of the Sea”.

The pinnacle for me was climbing the stairs to his writing studio in a separate building, where he wrote so many of his most significant novels.(standing up, apparently, because of injuries suffered in World War I). He wrote half of his life’s work, here, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “To Have and Have Not,” which is set in Key West. It is said that he would spend the evening at Sloppy Joe’s, collecting stories from the locals, which would make their way into his manuscript the next day (907 Whitehead St.; 305-294-1136,

I follow my Hemingway trail to the Key West Museum of Art & History (once again, enjoying the luxury of having time to explore), where there is a room devoted to Hemingway’s “Life & Times.” Seeing his actual Underwood typewriter and pages of his manuscript for “Death in the Afternoon” was thrilling.

As a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star at the age of 17 (instead of going to college as his parents wanted), Hemingway “learned what he would use as his rules for writing: ‘Use short sentences, short first paragraph, use vigorous English. Be positive. Never use old slang and eliminate every superfluous word’.” He was only there a short time, before joining up with an ambulance corps to go to Europe in World War I, but later said, “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them.”

Here I see photos of a dashing, virile Hemingway as a young man – not just that iconic image of the older man with a grey beard, as well as home movies.

The exhibit combines my favorite things – photos (Walker Evans’ photos of Cuba in 1933 with Hemingway), writing, and art.

Operated by the Key West Art & Historical Society, The Key West Museum of Art & History showcases fine art and historic collections, and is a vital repository for artifacts related to the history and culture of the Florida Keys. The museum is located in Key West’s restored Custom House building, absolute stunning (281 Front St. near Mallory Square; 305-295-6616,

You can continue on Key West’s literary history trail to the Key West Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage, Once the home of Key West hostess and preservationist Jessie Porter, the Heritage House was the gathering place for literary luminaries including Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and Frost. The cottage on the grounds, where Frost stayed during his 1945-1960 winter sojourns in Key West, is now a National Literary Landmark. The museum also contains hundreds of mementos from Key West’s early days, when shipwreck salvaging made it the richest city per capita in the United States. This (410 Caroline St., 305-296-3573,

Personalities Plus

Take time to smell the flowers, and see with new understanding a butterfly on a flower at Key West's Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

In 1832, artist and ornithologist John James Audubon visited Key West and the Dry Tortugas, sighting and drawing 19 new species for his monumental “Birds of America” folio. It is believed that many of those detailed paintings were conceived in the garden of the 205 Whitehead Street property now known as the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens. The 19th-century home, originally built by ships’ carpenters for harbor pilot and shipwreck salvager Captain John Geiger – whose family occupied the house for approximately 100 years – is now a museum that showcases both the Audubon connection and Key West’s early years.

The antique-filled house contains nearly 30 first-edition Audubon works and adjoins a gallery featuring 500 Audubon lithographs. Like the Hemingway Home, the Audubon House is a jewel – you feel you have stepped back in time. The house is so interesting in so many respects – the connection to Audubon, a towering figure, is one aspect; Captain Geiger and his family also flesh out the human side to history, but the house, itself – its architecture and furnishings – has its own story. The gardens surrounding the Audubon house, encompassing nearly an acre, contain a stunning variety of tropical foliage, native plants and exotics. In the front yard stand three Geiger trees – one of which appears in Audubon’s painting of the white-crowned pigeon (205 Whitehead St., 877- 281-2473 or 305-294-2116,

Another figure walks into Key West’s multivariate history: Harry S. Truman visited Key West 11 times during his presidency. The mansion home he occupied became his Little White House. The house is fascinating, built in 1890 by the U.S. Navy to house the base commander and paymaster. Thomas Edison lived in it while conducting experiments and developing over 41 weapons for the U.S. Navy during World War I. But it is most famous for Harry S. Truman, who, from 1946-1952, used the house 175 days as both a retreat and a functioning White House; it was while here that he enacted the Civil Rights Executive Order. Docents guide visitors through the meticulously restored residence, which contains items including the original piano and poker table used frequently by the former president. The house also has hosted former presidents William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Even if you do not take the tour (hopefully, you will have the time), there is a free gallery of historic photos that is fascinating (111 Front Street, 305-294-9911,

See also:
Key West: Shipwrecks, Pirates & Sovereign State of Mind
Marine Creatures Rule the Day in the Middle Keys
Exploring the Undersea World in the Upper Keys

Wednesday, 27 May, 2009

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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