In the 1984 movie, Terminator, Sarah Connor is having a particularly tough day as a waitress at a diner in her home town. The child of a disgruntled customer, much to her dismay and surprise, puts a scoop of chocolate ice cream in the pocket of her waitress uniform. A gum-chewing fellow waitress comes over to her and says, “Look at it this way. In 100 years who’s gonna care?”
This month 100 years ago a young man of 18 returned home to his parents’ house in Oak Park, Illinois. He came from the front lines of World War I. He was recovering from shrapnel wounds to his legs, and for the first time in his life, he was very much in love. He’d fallen in love with an Italian nurse that attended to him during his post-surgery recovery. He was expecting her to join him in a couple of months, and they were to be married. Instead he received a letter, telling him she was engaged to be married to an Italian officer. He was heartbroken. That young man was Ernest Hemingway. As he sat reading that letter he didn’t know it would be 7 years until he published his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, 11 years before he moved from Paris, France, with his second wife (leaving behind his first wife and son) to Key West, Florida. His second wife, being from a wealthy family. Her Uncle bought them a house in Key West for $8000. That is $117,000 in today’s currency. The Great Depression was underway, which makes the gift that much more astonishing.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Key West for 5 sun-filled days. Of course, visiting Hemingway’s museum, the house he lived in, was high on my list. Before I knew it, there I was standing in the upstairs room of the carriage house that was Hemingway’s writing room. When he lived there, the only access to this room was an elevated walkway from the master bedroom. Hemingway was in the prime of his life. From this room, with nothing but a high school diploma, at 500 to 700 words a day, he changed the literary world. The room sat quiet, even with the modern day bustle on the streets. The room felt isolated. As those who have gone through the novel writing process know, this can be a good and bad thing. The isolation of this room and of Key West in general drove Hemingway on many excursions in the 1930’s. I could see him there; the house was preserved to reflect, as close as possible, the way it was then.
However, little else about Key West felt or looked the same. The downtown streets were full of tourists—walking, biking, on motor scooters and in cars. In the bars Hemingway went to, I searched for the same atmosphere. Instead each one was noisy, crowded and had a guy playing cover band music on his guitar. In the marina I saw a building where Jimmy Buffett records his music. I saw the huge yacht that is rumored to belong to Beyoncé. I saw two women sitting near the stern of a yacht enjoying the sun and the 80 degree temperature and an afternoon snack. The yacht was from Delaware. Snowbirds of the upper crust kind. At every opportunity Key West promotes Hemingway’s name. But Key West, along with the rest of the world, has left the world he knew behind. We are all keeping up with the Kardashians now. On the main street, near the marina, at the stroke of midnight, they dropped a wench—not a real wench, just a woman dressed up as one. On the other end of the jam-packed street, in a huge high heel shoe, covered in glitter, they dropped a drag queen—a real drag queen. I always choose something real over something fake. Where else are you going to get to see such a spectacle? I’m pretty sure, as he stumbled his way home from the bar at night, Hemingway could never have imagined this Key West. The world has changed. And it has not changed.
Before I left the Hemingway house, I bought a book in the shop, it is the only novel published in the years he lived in Key West. The story is even set in Key West—To Have And Have Not, published in 1937. “Ah, the perfect read for my stay”, I thought. In 1937 my father was 7 years old. Now his brain is battered by Alzheimer’s disease. He knows he knows me, but he isn’t sure how. For some reason he is sure he doesn’t like me very much. In 1937 Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world, never to be seen again. I would get some of the old Key West I was looking for one way or the other.
In the story in my freshly bought book, the protagonist, Harry Morgan, is a fishing guide forced into a situation that causes him to transport a variety of illegal cargo from Key West to Cuba. It cost him the lower part of an arm in a shootout. Then later, as he helps bank robbers escape to Cuba, it cost him his life. As Harry’s boat is towed back, with poor Harry near death aboard, it passes yachts moored in the marina. The wealthy are onboard dealing with their own set of issues, which seem trivial compared to the suffering life Harry has dealt with. Harry’s death is devastating to his wife and children but otherwise, life in Key West continues on undisturbed.
It was a very interesting story to come from Hemingway, who was a rising star at the time but not uber-rich by any measure. It was his wife that had the money and elevated his standard of living. He had a unique view into the way the uber-rich lived, via his wife’s family. But Hemingway spent his evenings in the local bars, in a town that, at its core, was a fishing village. Few things bond like drinking friends, and his were the common people of Key West. The Great Depression bit hard. The rich stayed above the fray. He lived in both worlds.
Four days after my book purchase I sat on a metal chair outside the strip of shops on the edge of the marina. Like many other tourists, I’d rode there on a rented bike from my rented room. My wife browsed inside a shop, not really intending to buy anything. I watched the upper crust snowbirds snacking away. My time in Key West was almost over. It was fun, overall, but I already knew I wouldn’t be coming back. I expected too much from Key West. Slap the ‘hopeless romantic’ label on me and send me on my way down the crowded streets of Key West. “Maybe I can find the Hemingway atmosphere in the next place his life took him”, I thought. After ten years he left his second wife and two sons behind in Key West, and with his third wife moved 90 miles south to Cuba. As long as I have the hopeless romantic label I might as well get all I can from it.
Today, 100 years since that 18-year-old returned wounded and in love, the world, as different as it is, still cares about Hemingway. There’s a brisk business at the Hemingway museum. The line to get in stretched to the end of the block. The shop’s cash register worked steadily. Of course, he’s not as popular as he once was but he’s still hanging in there. High school students still read his novels. To Have And Have Not still resonates. I doubt that will be said about the Kardashians in 100 years.