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TRAVELING IN STYLE : PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE : Ernest Hemingway Roamed the World, but Made Himself at Home in Four Very Different Corners of North America

October 16, 1994|John Balzar | Balzar is The Times' Northwest bureau chief

ERNEST HEMINGWAY LIVED AN INTERESTING LIFE. WRITING, he said, is alchemy, a blend of observation, experience, travel and imagination. From that, he made words into style. He stayed devoted to his craft throughout the whole journey--and his sense of place was as sharp as an ice pick.

Hemingway is well-traveled territory himself, of course. Every secret that can be uncovered about him, every aspect of his life and work that can be interpreted, already has been. His trail is old, but it is not so cold as you might think. And following his footsteps has this reward: Hemingway favored the kinds of places that are easy to enjoy--the dizzying dark waters of the Gulf Stream, the high blue sky of the Rockies, the boisterous corners of good saloons. . . .

UNDER THE STARS IN THE STEAMY AIR AT HEMINGWAY'S 95TH BIRTHDAY party, I dance the rumba with my wife on the old man's second-story veranda in Key West, Fla. The band plays on the lawn below and the weepy trees are draped with lights. Through the window we can see his toilet and the bed he shared with his second wife, Pauline, and the clay Picasso sculpture of a cat that is glued to his dresser--and, off in back, the detached studio with the old Royal portable where he wrote sentences that even today have the artist's unmistakable brush strokes in them.

The rumba is my wife's idea. "Hemingway was a bastard," she'd said, "but he was a romantic, no? Dance with me." Frankly, I don't know that Hemingway ever danced. But I know when to say yes in the starlight. And I know how to rumba.

Hemingway arrived here, in the southernmost city in the continental United States, in April, 1928, on the advice of John Dos Passos "to dry out his bones." By the time he departed in December, 1939, he had left such an indelible mark that his haunts remain the biggest tourist attractions in the Florida Keys to this day.

Visitors crowd Hemingway's former house at 907 Whitehead St., now a museum and home to about 54 descendants of his swarm of six-toed cats. His favorite saloon, Sloppy Joe's, is a rock 'n' roll bar with a Hemingway mural behind the stage and pictures of him on the wall. The saloon where wife No. 3, Martha Gellhorn, pursued him is now called Capt. Tony's. The marina where he docked his boat, the Pilar, still bristles with fishing boats.

Shopkeepers at local bookstores say they do at least 15% of their business in Hemingway publications. "People come down here for lots of reasons," says John Boisonault, proprietor of Key West Island Books, "and they seem to get wrapped up in Hemingway. Some people cannot name two of his books and end up paying $500 for a first edition. Others can tell you the most amazing trivia--how many steps there were on the walkway up to his boyhood cabin at Walloon Lake in Michigan--but they don't know the year Scott Fitzgerald died. One thing I can tell you, though: Hemingway sells more books now than when he was alive."

Once a year for the past 13 years, in the heat of July (when Hemingway himself always made sure to be somewhere else), a festival has been convened here in his memory. Though the event's organizers have tried to give the festival some trappings of seriousness, with writers workshops, storytelling performances and a first-novel contest, it remains mostly a campy week that gives Hemingway fans a terrific excuse to go on a bender and celebrate his birthday. One tour book describes the festival as "a ritual of alcohol indulgence." Indeed, Key West's beaches are lousy, its offshore reef is dying, the fishing is not what it used to be--but the bars and Hemingway's memory endure in a boozy, fun-loving embrace.

This year at the festival, more than 80 men have entered the three-day Hemingway look-alike contest, and everywhere you turned in Key West you saw a burly chap with a pot gut and a silver beard, sly grin, khaki shorts and a long-billed fishing hat--a good many ghosts with cold drinks in their hands.

If you insist, of course, you can always find someone to talk with, to argue the contradictions that make Hemingway so lastingly interesting: He glorified the kill, but wouldn't shoot an elephant because it was too majestic. He was a macho maniac, but his posthumously published "Garden of Eden" was full of androgyny and gender-switching. He was a bigot and an anti-Semite, but he sought out, befriended and glorified the working underclass, and his generosity is without dispute. He was a poseur. He was a man of deeds. And, excuse me, may I have another rum soda, please?

NINETY MILES AWAY, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF the world, is Cuba.

At night, approached from the air, Havana is a city of few lights. Abandoned by its old ally the former Soviet Union, and periodically embroiled in yet another bitter showdown with its erstwhile friend the United States, Cuba suffers oil shortages and power blackouts, as well as scarcities of food and other necessities of life.

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