There’s a new “Papa” on the scene — and it’s no surprise that he looks a whole lot like Ernest Hemingway.
Wally Collins, a 68-year-old white-bearded restaurateur from Phoenix, won the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest on his sixth try — beating even his son Matt Collins, who competed as the young Hemingway.
The contest is a highlight of Key West’s Hemingway Days, which takes place in July each year and celebrates the work and exuberant lifestyle of the legendary writer who spent the 1930s on the island. Each year, it draws about 125 stocky, bearded middle-aged men vying for the title of “Papa.”
They parade across the stage at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where Ernest enjoyed cocktails with local and literary cohorts, during two preliminary rounds and a hard-fought final battle. They dress in khaki safari garb or wool fishermen’s sweaters, copying the author’s signature look in his later years. Many, like Wally Collins, come back year after year to compete.
“I never imagined that this event would mean this much to me when I first started,” Wally admitted after his victory.
The 2014 competition was tough, however — especially in the final round. Finalists marched onstage and took turns pleading their case, while crowds of spectators roared applause for their favorites.
One competitor even performed a song parody trying to convince the judges (all of them past contest winners) that he was the best possible choice for “Papa.” Semi-finalists, by the way, included four-time entrant Michael Groover — the husband of celebrity chef Paula Deen.
But when the voting was over, Wally was the clear winner. Afterwards, standing outside Sloppy Joe’s as scores of strangers rushed up to shake his hand, Wally appeared slightly dazed but clearly triumphant. And as it turned out, his resemblance to Hemingway goes far deeper than simple appearance.
He’s tried writing short stories — and twice entered the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition directed by Ernest’s author granddaughter. He once delivered a research paper on the man himself at a Hemingway conference.
“I didn’t have as many wives as he had, and I have a lot more children and grandchildren, but there are a lot of things that he stood for that I really like,” said the new “Papa.”
Wally particularly admires Hemingway’s ideals and spirit.
“Ernest Hemingway was adventurous,” he stated. “And in our family, we have a family motto: Life is a pizza. Order the one with everything on it.”
During his Key West years, Ernest Hemingway wrote classics including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Death in the Afternoon” and the Key West-based “To Have and Have Not” — his only novel set in the United States. Many experts say his writing style changed the face of American literature.
While doing so, he embraced Key West’s renegade lifestyle. He fished for marlin and other “big game” in the waters surrounding the island, occasionally refereed local boxing matches in the Bahama Village neighborhood, and drew inspiration for his work from the tough Depression-era residents that were his friends.
In fact, if new “Papa” Wally Collins and the author he resembles could ever sit down to share a pizza, it’s virtually certain that they’d order the one with everything on it.