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Kermit Forbes; One Punch Led to Fame

February 18, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His name was Kermit Forbes, but in Key West, Fla., everyone knew him as Shine, the old boxer who years ago threw a punch at Ernest Hemingway and became a legend himself.

Forbes, who died of pancreatic cancer at 84 in a Florida hospital Wednesday, was the last link to the old Key West, where Hemingway lived in the 1930s and penned such books as "Death in the Afternoon," "To Have and Have Not" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," as well as classic short stories such as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

It was in Key West that he took to calling himself Papa, though he was only 30, trawled the sea as a fisherman, broke up with his second wife and began courting his third. He turned this freewheeling island on the southernmost tip of Florida into a literary mecca, entertaining friends such as John Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis.

Sixty-four years ago, Forbes was a former prizefighter in the U.S. Army who had just returned to his native Key West on a freight train loaded with Cuban pineapples. After spending much of the Depression eking out a living plowing farmland and washing dishes in South Carolina, he had decided to go home and box again.

One day he was asked to work the corner for a fighter named Alfred "Black Pie" Colebrooks at a match held in the ring next to Key West's Blue Heaven bar.

The referee was a burly, sunbaked man in old khaki shorts held up by a rope.

"I thought he was a bum trying to earn money for a drink," Forbes recalled.

Black Pie was knocked down several times. The bout was so lopsided that Forbes started pitching a towel into the ring in disgust, but the referee kept throwing it back.

The fourth time the towel smacked Forbes in the face. He charged into the ring, all 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds of him, and "took a poke" at the 6-foot, 200-plus-pound ref.

He missed, but police officers pounced on him. The locals were incredulous.

"You know who you swung at?" they asked him.

Shine said he didn't know who they were talking about and he didn't give a damn.

But after learning that it was the famed author of "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms," he was persuaded to go to Hemingway's house and offer an apology.

Hemingway didn't just forgive him; he laughed, Shine recalled in an interview decades later, and praised the brash little fighter for having the "spunk and glory" to jump in the ring with him.

Then he invited Shine to put on some boxing gloves and enter his backyard ring. Shine became one of his sparring partners in the bruising sport that Hemingway loved. Every day Hemingway would go three rounds with various partners, always saving Shine for last.

Shine had a bad eye, but he didn't get it from Hemingway.

The author "was no fighter," Forbes told the Miami Herald last year, just before what would have been Hemingway's 100th birthday. "What he was was big. You'd run into him and just the weight of it would knock you down. But he never tried to hurt us. He always pulled his punches."

Hemingway soon moved to Cuba, the setting for "The Old Man and the Sea." Forbes hung up his gloves and spent the next three decades as a cook in Key West's old Naval Hospital.

After Hemingway's suicide in 1961, the great writer's favorite sparring partner was celebrated at Hemingway memorials. His home, identified with a sign that read "Shine's Ponderosa," was once described as an underground tourist attraction, its exterior a collection of fishing floats and other kitsch, its interior lined with photos of illustrious boxers, Hemingway look-alikes and Papa himself.

The denizens of Hemingway's Key West were in mourning at Forbes' death.

"Shine Forbes is the last person here who had contact with Hemingway. It's the end of that era," Key West historian Tom Hambright told Associated Press.

Forbes remained fit into his 80s. Going a round with a gold-toothed, 79-year-old Shine was the prize in a Hemingway look-alike contest just a few years ago.

"That big poke I took at Ernest Hemingway? Oh man, that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life," he said last year. "It kinda got me famous."

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