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Key West, Day One: An Overview

January 8, 2012 in Florida Feature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Uncategorized

Arrive approximately 7:00pm at apartment/hotel. Clearly people live in this building full-time (“I’ve lived here five years and never taken the elevator,” one resident confessed), but we pickup our key from a “concierge” in another building; the one across the pedestrian bridge from the Sunrise Suites, our temporary home. The apartment smells like a hotel and the distinctly Floridian odor of sun-baked mildew.

As we head out for dinner, we weave through a parking lot full of white vans decorated with competitive messages and symbols. Each one ends up looking the same. The relay-race from Miami to Key West supports the Florida Special Olympics and hosts hundreds. Many of the runners at the Sunrise Suites wear tall striped socks and mill aimlessly. In addition to the literary conference going on, the tours, cruises and themed retreats, a 199 mile race stops here. Key West is full to the brim with visitors who want to have a good time.

On nearly every downtown corner, large groups of strapping young lads built like Hemingway roam like big cats, and I wonder, is everyone here to do something? Has anyone come to Key West to relax, or is it the kind of place fun looks tiring? The “rummies” look a wee bored, cigars fashioned listlessly in their lips. And fun-havers everywhere, stepping over obstacles, have their eyes fixed upon the next bar. Occasionally I witness a tourist stop to sniff out a particularly gorgeous scent in the air (which is where Key West gets truly interesting): ocean air, roasting meat, cigars rolled in the Cuban tradition. These are the real charms of Duval Street. The lights and shops are only a glint in her vast sparkling eyes.

Hemingway’s Key West: How to Travel like a Literary Icon

December 2, 2011 in American literature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel

  “Then we came to the edge of the stream and the water quit being blue and was light and greenish and inside I could see…the wireless masts at Key West and the La Concha hotel up high out of all the low houses”  – Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

If you are planning a trip to Key West, there are plenty of hotels to choose from, but for the literary traveler the choice is easy.  Dating back to 1926, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the La Concha not only provides you with luxurious accommodations amidst the excitement of popular Duval Street, but it also gives you access to a lush history without even leaving your hotel room.  The La Concha boasts a rich past, with former guests running the gamut from Harry S. Truman to Al Capone, and of course, literary legend, Ernest Hemingway.

At only seven stories high, the La Concha is the tallest building in Key West and one of its best known features is its rooftop bar and observation deck, which offers incredible views of the infamous Key West sunsets.  It is easy to picture Hemingway tossing back a daiquiri against a backdrop of dusky island ambiance.  In fact, he started work on his 1937 novel, To Have and Have Not, in a suite at the La Concha.  The novel, set in Key West, pays homage to the hotel, noting its prominence on the horizon as the protagonist, Harry Morgan, leaves Key West for Cuba.

Hemingway initially made the move to Key West with his second wife, Pauline, at the suggestion of fellow writer John Dos Passos.  In 1936 he met Martha Gellhorn at his favorite watering hole, and present day hot spot, Sloppy Joe’s.  If the walls of the La Concha could talk they would tell tales of their affair, which ultimately led to his third marriage.  For the true literary traveler, a stay in Hemingway’s suite at the La Concha is a very real possibility. While in Key West you can definitely walk a mile in his shoes, but why not kick off those shoes and spend a night in his suite?

While the literature aficionado and history buff alike will take pleasure in sitting where Hemingway sat as he penned his classics, a warning to those looking to stay in the room where he wiled away his days.  According to a chapter on the hotel in Greg Jenkin’s Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore, strange and possibly otherworldly happenings have been reported in the suite, and one possible culprit is believed to be the ghost of a mischievous Hemingway playing tricks on guests who have taken over his space.  For those who enjoy a little mystery with their history, a tour of haunted Key West landmarks actually starts in the lobby of the La Concha.

For further information on Hemingway’s ties to Key West and the La Concha check out Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon’s 2008 literature themed travel guide, Novel Destinations, a very comprehensive handbook for the literary traveler that The Chicago Tribune calls “a fun read whether for armchair travelers or actual literary pilgrims.”  Now doesn’t that sound like a great book to peruse en route to Key West?  So pack your bags, find a sitter for your six-toed cats, and we will meet you on the rooftop of the La Concha for a mojito in Hemingway’s honor.

Happy Key West Friday! Why Don't You Have A Drink?

November 4, 2011 in American literature, Classic Writers, Cocktails Inspired by Literature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Recipes, Travel Writers

Hemingway drinks in the Plaza Del Gastillo, July 1959.


Today’s edition of Key West Friday is going to focus on something very near and dear to my own heart: literary cocktails. More specifically, I want to talk about one of the greatest mixologists of the 20th century—I’m speaking of Ernest Hemingway, of course—and his personal creations.

Though some may think of Hemingway as just another author you had to read in high school, overlooking Hemingway’s massive influence on American culture, masculinity, and writing would be a sorry mistake. Even if we leave aside his incredible literary talents, Hemingway was far more than simply a writer. He was a celebrity before we truly had celebrities; he single-handedly defined a generation in a way that few authors have since. While his perpetually disillusioned anti-heroes certainly played a role in capturing and symbolically creating the post-war American, (Hemingway’s case is, I happen to believe, one of those chicken-or-the-egg issues. Did he simply record what he saw, and capture the disenchanted drifting of many young men, or did his novels contribute to a certain image of the American identity that was beginning to coalesce? I imagine it was a bit of both) his actual person was just as instrumental in the process. He was, according to those that knew him, a force of nature.

He let loose his forceful personality during his time in Key West, where he lived for several years before relocating to Cuba. During this time, Hemingway did little to reel in his natural vivaciousness, and found himself what PBS’s Michael Palin describes as “Hemingway’s wild adventures:”

In a rain-splattered Key West street, he duked it out with Wallace Stevens after the poet had insulted him. In his beloved boat, Pilar, he battled man-sized fish (managing to shoot himself in both legs while trying to gaff one shark). Hemingway belted back drinks at Sloppy Joe’s, a speakeasy that went legal after Prohibition ended. While at his favorite watering hole, he befriended a young journalist named Martha Gellhorn, who traveled with him to Spain to cover the civil war there. Eventually, she would become his third wife.

As Palin makes clear, these episodes were often fueled by alcohol. But what kind of alcohol?

Here we have to turn to another source. According to the wonderful site Codex 99, in 1937, Hemingway created a drink that Charles Barker later included in his book The Gentleman’s Companion. Hemingway called it a “picker-upper” but it went down in history as “Death in the Gulf Stream.” Despite the morose name, the actual mix sounds rather delicious. For those of you interested in celebrating Key West Friday at home, here’s the recipe for Hemingway’s scary little cocktail:

2 oz. Lucas Bols Oude Genever
4 dashes Angostura
1 lime
Add crushed ice to a thin tumbler. Lace the ice with 4 dashes of Angostura and add the juice and crushed peel of 1 lime. Nearly fill the tumbler with Genever.

Of course, you can always go the traditional route and make yourself a mojito, but we think this Death sounds much more impressive. Happy drinking.

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