This year’s Papa should be celebrating in Key West, but caution over COVID-19 cancels tradition

Past winners of the "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alike contest in Key West.
Past winners of the "Papa" Hemingway Look-Alike contest in Key West. (WPLG)

KEY WEST, Fla. – For the first time in 40 years, no burly, white bearded men vying for the title of one of Key West’s most famous residents, gathered at Sloppy Joe’s tavern this weekend.

The Papa Hemingway lookalike contest has been a tradition on the island for four decades — a three-night contest at the end of July where 1 of 135-plus screaming Hemingway fans would be crowned the 2020 Hemingway Look-Alike.

Like much else, the global coronavirus pandemic put a temporary hold on the tradition.

Most contestants are between 60 and 80 years old, presenting a potentially risky situation since that age group is especially susceptible to COVID-19.

Organizers weren’t only concerned about staging the contest, but the packed crowds that come out to see the Papas.

“We miss all of our people that are competitors and the judges,” said 2009 winner David Douglas, who is president of the Hemingway Look-Alike Society, comprised of past winners and hopefuls. “After 40 years, we had great plans made for this year that really are going to have to be put off ‘til next year.”

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West throughout most of the 1930s and wrote many of his best-known works (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “To Have and Have Not”) in the second-story studio that adjoins his former home, now a museum. The mansion museum is also famous for its population of six-toed cats, descendants of Hemingway’s white polydactyl kitten named Snow White. The kitten was a gift from a sea captain named Stanley Dexter. Lore is that sailors favored polydactyl cats because they believed they were good luck.

As far as Hemingway being known as Papa, he gave himself that nickname when he was in his late 20s, while in Paris. Some historians say he did it because he didn’t care for his first name.

Hemingway Days contest officials announced more than 10 weeks ago that the event as well as several others during the festival couldn’t go on. The Florida Keys reopened to visitors June 1 after being closed for nine weeks, but several weeks ago, bars throughout Florida were forced to stop serving alcohol to keep people from congregating and the risk of not adhering to social-distancing protocols.

Start growing your beard now, which isn’t difficult these days in COVID-19 confinement. The group has already scheduled next year’s event for July 22-24, 2021.

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