KEY WEST, FL — Normally, it’s not recommended to walk into a bar and call a strange man “Papa,” but at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, it’s encouraged.
For four decades, scores of white-bearded older men have taken over the iconic bar for a long weekend every July as they contend for the title of “Papa” — that’s the nickname author Ernest Hemingway gave himself — in the Hemingway Lookalike Contest.
Sloppy Joe’s — the entire island, really — reveres Hemingway, who lived in Key West in the 1930s and wrote several famous titles, including “A Farewell to Arms” and “To Have and Have Not,” while living on Whitehead Street. The local adoration of the author is so extreme that the watering hole’s annual contest to determine who embodies Hemingway’s spirit and looks like him the most has become a Key West tradition.
The contest has also spawned additional events inspired by Hemingway, including a fishing tournament, street festival and race. All money raised goes into a local scholarship fund.
Last year’s contest was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic but returned this year with the 40th look-alike competition taking place Thursday through Saturday.
Usually, 150 Hemingway wannabes compete for the title. This year, the bar limited entries because of the ongoing pandemic. Still, a group of enthusiastic look-alikes and their supporters descended on the bar throughout the weekend.
While the majority of the Hemingways donned a very specific look — white beards, button-down shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts — there were some more distinctive entries as well.
A couple of younger Hemingways, probably in their late 20s or early 30s, took the stage.
“I’m the actual age Hemingway was when he lived here,” one told the crowd.
There was also a baby Hemingway — a mustached man in a diaper and red beret and holding a rattle.
“Because the only way to live is to be born,” he said when making the case for why he should be the next “Papa.”
Ultimately, this year’s title went to a Georgia man, Zach Taylor.
While attending the contest and its sister event, the campy mock Running of the Bulls, Patch spoke with several contestants to learn what it takes to be a Hemingway lookalike.
‘The Young Man and the Sea’
After seeing his father-in-law, Harvey English, compete in the Hemingway Lookalike Contest in 2019, Collin Cope of Charleston, South Carolina, decided to make it a family affair and signed up for this year’s event.
“Really, it’s because of my father-in-law, just watching him do it,” Cope said. “But then, I’ve also read all of his books.”
Cope was one of the youngest Hemingways to take the stage.
“I thought I’d change it up a little bit,” he said.
He had throngs of fans stopping him after he left the stage. As Patch interviewed him, one woman stopped to praise him for standing out “in a sea of old men.”
He responded, “I’m ‘The Young Man and the Sea.'”
Despite the confidence, he said he felt his father-in-law should win.
“If it’s just a look-alike contest, he is a dead ringer,” Cope said.
English, a retired shop teacher living in Wilmington, North Carolina, said he only entered the contest two years ago because Cope and his daughter, who learned about the contest while visiting Key West, urged him to do so.
“They said, ‘You look like Hemingway. You have to do this,'” he said. “So, I entered the contest.”
He also feels a kinship with Hemingway. English has visited Key West many times throughout his life, and is “a big-time boater” and dives as well, he said.
As for Hemingway’s books,”I am aware of him because he’s a literary person and I’m a retired teacher,” English said. “I was a shop teacher, but I like literary things and I’ve known about him, admired him a little bit.”
‘Just glad to be here.’
One of the first things Tony Isacks of Freeport, Texas did in retirement was grow a beard.
“I worked in a chemical refinery for 20 years. I always said that once I retired, I’d throw away my razor,” he said. “And I did.”
A longtime Hemingway fan who has read all of the author’s books, Isacks first learned about the Hemingway Lookalike Contest five years ago.
He signed up for the 2018 contest and had a great time. However, he admits, “it was daunting” being on stage alongside “so many great Hemingways.”
He was unable to compete in 2019 and was disappointed when the event was canceled last year because of the coronavirus. When registration opened for the 2021 event, he was quick to sign up.
“It means a lot this year,” Isacks said. “We’re just glad to be here without a bunch of masks. We’ve been vaccinated, so we’re fairly confident.”
It felt strange getting back on stage, he added. “It was kind of spooky. … But that’s OK. That’s the way it is. I’m sure if I don’t win this year, I’ll be back next year and I’ll be more confident.”
‘I could possibly do this.’
First-time competitor Robby Beamer of Charlotte, North Carolina, has always loved Hemingway’s work.
“I’ve been reading Hemingway through the years, but also I’m interested in just his lifestyle, who he was,” he said. “I recently watched a documentary and all of a sudden I started growing a beard and thought I kind of looked like him. I thought, ‘I could possibly do this.’ And now here I am at the look-alike contest.”
Beamer, who worked in real estate sales and investment, said his favorite Hemingway title is “The Old Man and the Sea” and he’s also a fan of the author’s short stories.
“But really it was about the life that he lived. He made his characters who he wanted to be and how he lived,” Beamer said.
He also sees himself reflected in the author’s characters and works.
“I’ve got a crazy lifestyle. My life’s been pretty eclectic for the past 50-something years. I’ve got a crazy life, kind of like (Hemingway’s),” Beamer said.
It all started with a drink.
Former insurance real estate broker Jerry Ferris splits his time between New York and Florida — six months in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, six months in Islamorada, part of the Florida Keys.
While he’d always had “a great deal of respect” for Hemingway, he’d never considered entering the look-alike contest until he stopped in for a drink at Sloppy Joe’s in February.
“We came in for a drink and I got several suggestions that I get involved,” Ferris said. “I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.'”
The first-time look-alike even traveled to Key West during the time of year he’s normally in New York for the contest this year.
“It’s just a fun thing,” Ferris said. “It’s interesting to be a part of all this.”
He’s learned a lot about Hemingway in recent months as well and feels connected with him because of their shared hobbies.
“He was always a challenging man,” Ferris said. “But we had a lot in common. I’ve done the swimming, the sailing, I’ve done some other things, that nature beats out of you eventually, but I beat some of them.”
These days, his big passion is diving, which he didn’t learn to do until he was 61 years old, he said. “It’s beautiful. And what better place to be than Florida if you’re a diver.”
A six-time finalist
St. Petersburg lawyer Jay Fleece — a six-time finalist in the annual Hemingway Lookalike Contest — has been participating since 2015, when he entered for the first time.
“Only because some people said, after I grew a beard, ‘You look like Hemingway and, by the way, there’s a contest down in Key west and you should do it.’ So, I did it,” he said.
To Fleece’s surprise, he made the finals that year.
“First-timers don’t usually make the finals,” he said. “And I’ve been back every year.”
He and his wife took a more “low-key” approach to this year’s competition, he added. Normally, they have more supporters with them and make T-shirts and signs to promote his bid for the title of “Papa.”
“But not this year,” Fleece said. “This year, it’s just great to see everybody again after a year off.”
His favorite part of participating in the event has been the connections he’s made throughout the years, he added. “The Hemingway Lookalike Society is almost like a large fraternity. I’ve made some really great friends.”
Usually, when there isn’t a pandemic, there’s a midyear gathering of Hemingways in different places around the country.
“It all depends on who’s hosting that year,” he said.
And in December 2019, he was one of a dozen look-alikes to travel to Havana.
“That was awesome because they revere Hemingway in Cuba,” he said. “Everywhere we went. it was, ‘Hemingway! Hemingway!'”
Florida Road Trip is a new column exploring and celebrating Florida’s many interesting places and people. Email Tiffany.Razzano@gmail.com with suggestions or comments.