What Would Hemingway Do?
Finger Lickin' Good
Eighty-something years ago, the Blind Pig opened its’ doors on the corner of Duval and Green Street. Key West, along with the rest of the country, was emerging from thirteen years of prohibition. Key West spent those dark years littered with speakeasys and backroom gambling parlors. Today the Blind Pig is known internationally as the cornerstone of lower Duval Street’s nightlife scene as Sloppy Joe’s.
Everyday, hundreds of tourists pass through the doors of the establishment that has cleverly co-branded itself with the American novelist Ernest Hemingway and his time spent in Key West. His image is inextricably linked through merchandise, barroom walls adorned with Hemingway memorabilia and even an annual week long celebration of his life called “Hemingway Days” when men from far and wide travel to the Keys with hopes of winning the vaunted “Look-A-Like” contest.
But Ernest Hemingway – the brooding, brawling, balling and boozing bear who called Key West home for most of a decade (1928-1938) – would never in his wildest dreams imagined that in the year 2015, he would have become as iconic as Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders. This all leads to the big question, “What would Ernest Hemingway think if he walked into Sloppy Joe’s today?
For years, Captain Tony’s Saloon owner, Tony Tarracino, waged a campaign against Sloppy Joe’s for claim to the title of “The Original Sloppy Joe’s”. There was little to argue about here because Josie Russell did run Sloppy Joe’s at 428 Greene Street (the current home of Captain Tony’s) for years before moving his business four buildings down the street to Duval after a landlord dispute in 1938 – the very same year Hemingway left Key West. To a much greater degree, the real problem that Tony had was that Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street had also taken with it the legend of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway actually spent very little time at the corner of Duval and Greene Street.
When Papa first arrived in Key West in 1928, he was having trouble cashing a thousand dollar royalty check at the local bank when he happened upon Joe “Josie” Russell who came to his rescue and personally cashed the check. This was the beginning of a long relationship. After spending most of his day bent over a typewriter, Ernest would make his daily afternoon rendezvous on Greene at 3:30 PM. They say that you could set a watch to it.
Josie would drag Hemingway back and forth to Havana for the next ten years and expose him to experiences that would have a great impact on his writing during this time. Characters such as Santiago from “The Old Man and The Sea”, Freddie and Freddie’s Bar from “To Have and Have Not” and Karl from “The Green Hills of Africa” were all inspired by people from this time. His Key West experiences often formed themes for many of his stories.
There at 428 Greene St, Ernest swilled his scotch and sodas and romanced wife number three, Martha Gelhorn. This created an awkward situation between himself and Pauline Pfeiffer, wife number two, with whom he was still married to and before long, Big Papa split town.
Ernest Hemingway’s children thought they knew what their father would think if he walked into Sloppy Joe’s today.
According to the Sun Sentinel in a 2005 piece on Hemingway Days, “In 1997, Hemingway’s three sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory, tried to take control of the festival, claiming their rights to the name had been usurped and that it was a tasteless exploitation of Hemingway’s memory. They demanded total creative control, 10 percent of the 1997 profits and 10 percent of the previous five years’ profits. According to news stories from the time, their demands and the threat of a lawsuit caused organizers to call off that year’s festival. Six weeks later, the rights to the festival were acquired by the owners of Hemingway’s home and Hemingway Days went on as scheduled.”
Do you think Hemingway2016 would down a few cocktails at Capt Tony’s (in Tony’s honor, of course) and then descend upon Sloppy Joe’s in a drunken mess while this week’s Top 40 band cranked out a rousing rendition of “Play That Funky Music White Boy” and begin bareknuckling patrons until the KWPD showed up and tasered him? Maybe he would just let out a gigantic guttural laugh that could be heard from the Southernmost Point. Or perhaps, in the immortal words of Tim Catz, Papa would just, “feel like killing himself all over again.”