“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
No, this is not a quote from Ernest Hemingway. That aphorism is from late 18th and early 19th century English cleric Charles Caleb Colton, but it does reflect the spirit of the Hemingway Days celebration.
For the past week, the 34th Annual Hemingway Days Festival has been held in Key West, with a “Hemingway in Key West” exhibit at the Custom House Museum, a Marlin Fishing Tournament, an evening of readings and presentations by local authors, a Caribbean Street Fair, an arm wrestling championship, a unique “bull run,” and other events.
The winners of the Hemingway Short Story Competition are announced, and more than $120,000 is raised for nursing, poetry, and journalism scholarships in memory of writer Ernest Hemingway.
The focal point of the annual celebration is the Sloppy Joe’s “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. Prior to the festivities, dozens of finalists are selected from hundreds of applicants, nearly all of whom have white hair and matching beards. Through a series of eliminations before rowdy crowds at Hemingway’s old watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s, a single winner is selected.
Melbourne resident Dave Wallace, who says he has always admired Hemingway, was one of the selected finalists this year. “I’ve met several people from New Orleans, from Pennsylvania, from New York, Ohio, and one from Palm Bay. When I tell people I’m from Melbourne they say ‘Australia?’ Apparently there are people who have traveled from all over the world to be here.”
While this year’s competition is the first for Dave Wallace, Melbourne resident Hank Wielgosz has been participating in the Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest for 21 years and has been a finalist 11 times. This year was the first time Wielgosz moved forward in the competition beyond the first round of eliminations, and he was presented with a special recognition, the Jean “John” Klausing Memorial Award, named for the late owner of Sloppy Joe’s.
“The John Klausing Award means more,” than the contest Wielgosz says, “because it came from the original manager’s wife and that’s a great connection. We’ve met a lot of the folks who work here and we’ve had a great time with all of them.”
Known for his concise and direct writing style, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, following the publication of his novel “The Old Man and the Sea.” After completing his service as an ambulance driver in World War I, Hemingway worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris. His first novel “The Sun Also Rises” was published in 1926, when Hemingway was 27. In 1927, Hemingway divorced his first wife Hadley Richardson, and married Pauline Pfieffer.
Ernest Hemingway first came to Key West in 1928, and returned several times over the next couple of years, primarily for fishing trips that would sometimes last months. He would bring other writers with him on these trips, including John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1931, Hemingway and his wife Pauline bought what is still the largest residential property on the island, where they lived together until 1939. Dave Gonzales, Events Coordinator for the Hemingway House and Museum, says that Hemingway was more productive in Key West than anywhere else.
“This was his first writing studio, the secondary building in the rear of the main mansion. Prior to this time he wrote on table tops, bar counter tops, kitchen tops, coffee tables, wherever he could find a smooth surface to write.”
While living in Key West, Hemingway wrote the novel “To Have and Have Not,” the non-fiction book “Green Hills of Africa,” and the short stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Most of the participants in the Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest are not that concerned about who actually wins.
“They say that for us 45 first timers, it’s difficult to win your first time,” says Dave Wallace. Contest veteran Hank Wielgosz says, “It’s like a club. This is the only time we see a lot of these people and they’re all interesting guys,” adding that “it’s just fun participating.”
As Ernest Hemingway said, “When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.”
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.