Key West will be overrun with ‘Papas’ for Hemingway Days this week


Explore events across the state of Florida this July.

The Papas are returning this week, and not a moment too soon.

Every July, scores of white-bearded men in stifling wool sweaters, khakis and safari hats make a pilgrimage to Key West for the Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike contest. It’s a jolly crew of grizzled wannabes on Florida’s southernmost Key, competing in arm-wrestling contests and a running of the “bulls,” a street parade where aspiring Ernests schlep down Duval Street astride fake bulls on wheels.

It all culminates in the look-alike contest on Saturday at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the one-time haunt of the chest-thumping novelist who called Key West home in the 1930s. Contestants are judged by grooming — is the white beard expressive enough? — but, more important, personality. Look-alikes must do anything to curry favor with the judges, who are themselves former look-alike winners: sing, read poetry, shadowbox in fighting trunks. At no point would this fraternal order of hirsute Hemingways ever admit the irony that the real author was never old and bearded in 1930s Key West. He was a young and strapping brunet with a mustache and a clean-shaven chin.

But the sea of white beards is what makes it fun. And vital: When the Hemingway Days festival returns to Key West this week, it will be the first one since Hurricane Irma ripped through the Lower Keys last September, leaving millions of dollars of damage in its wake.


From her perch on the third floor of the sunburn-red Custom House in Key West, Hemingway Days organizer Adele Williams has had a bird’s-eye view of the city’s slumping tourism since Irma made landfall.

“There was this perception that Key West was on its knees [after Hurricane Irma],” says Williams, an education director for the Key West Art and Historical Society. “In actual fact, Key West got away relatively unscathed, but there was a dearth of tourism, anyway.”

More than 92 percent of Key West lodgings reopened by March. Williams spotted patches of flooding confined to low-lying bars and restaurants, but weeks of power outages caused bigger headaches after the storm, she says.

Still, nine months on, the island stands in stark contrast to the roadsides flanking the Overseas Highway, the main drag connecting the Upper and Lower Keys. Piles of palm fronds and broken fence posts could be seen near Sugarloaf Key, 17 miles from Key West, on a drive from Key Largo to Key West in early June. On Ohio Key, near the Seven Mile Bridge, a former RV park was now an empty field of gravel and sand. Next door, Bahia Honda State Park seemed barely recognizable from the highway, the park’s entrance denuded of its signature trees and sea grapes.


Key West never saw this level of destruction, Williams says.

“Now that we’re on summer break, I think people have put behind them what they thought the damage was to Key West,” says Williams, who expects Hemingway Days will be many tourists’ first glimpse of the island since the hurricane.

Hemingway Days will kick off 6-8 p.m. July 17 with an evening of symposiums with Hemingway scholars and writers, highlighted by a talk from writer Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, the novelist’s great-granddaughter. A meet and greet with competing Papa look-alikes will take place 5:30 p.m. July 18, followed by “Voices, Places, Inspirations,” a Key West-themed night of readings and storytelling.

The Key West Marlin fishing tournament continues the festival 8:30-4 p.m. July 19, followed by the first round of Sloppy Joe’s Hemingway Look-Alike Contest at 6:30 p.m. The July 20 lineup is highlighted by “Papa’s Poems,” a free reading of Hemingway’s poetry at Key West’s Old City Hall. On July 21, faux Hemingways will dress in their Pamplona best and compete in a Running of the Bulls at 1 p.m. The best-looking Papa will be decided during final-round judging at 6:30 p.m. at Sloppy Joe’s.


New this year is Hemingway’s Key West by Trolley on July 22, a trolley tour led by Sharon Wells that will revisit sites the author frequented during his Key West years, Williams says.

“We’re adding more cerebral events to Hemingway Days, like essay competitions and author talks,” Williams says. “So I think people will be happy to be back.”

Hemingway Days will take place July 17-22 at venues throughout Key West. For the full schedule, call 305-295-6616 or go to

Advertisement videos

Review: Billy Jack's Shack in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea

Instagram famous: Marmosets Diddy Kong and Yeti Kong

Spatch's famous Coleslaw

Erika Moon's 'Burlesque Avant-Garde'

The Lubben Brothers

Topgolf Miami Gardens

15th annual Royal Coils Natural Hair and Beauty Expo in Fort Lauderdale

Marjory Stoneman Douglas drama teacher to receive Tony Award Sunday

RuPaul’s Drag Race stars in Miami

Axe-throwing bar among new drinking venues in Fort Lauderdale or 954-356-4364