The Hemingway name really matters in Key West. After all, Ernest Hemingway lived on this tiny coral rock for most of the 1930s — fishing for marlin and other gamefish, penning some of America’s most enduring literary masterpieces (including “To Have and Have Not,” his only novel set in the United States), and leaving a legacy that still draws writers to the island today.
In addition there’s Pauline Hemingway, the author’s wife during his Key West years, who remained a resident and guiding force in island society even after her husband moved on.
And then there’s John Hemingway, grandson to Ernest, who was in Key West recently helping debut a remarkable new exhibit about his legendary relative. John Hemingway too is an author, whose book “Strange Tribe” paints a fascinating portrait of his complicated grandfather and equally complicated father.
But even more fascinating for those who visit the island Ernest Hemingway loved is the exhibit at the renowned Custom House Museum. Titled “Following the Fish: Hemingway in Key West,” it showcases Ernest’s love of Florida Keys fishing — a sport he did much to popularize among fellow writers, readers and anglers.
It also spotlights a surprising aspect of the late author’s personality: conservation activities that are an intriguing counterpoint to his well-known passion for boating giant marlin, tuna and other prey (a pursuit sometimes compared to oceanic big game hunting).
“What the exhibit endeavors to do is show that, while Hemingway is perceived as an aggressive personality, he did have a vested interest in safeguarding the fish populations in the Florida Straits,” said Cori Convertito, curator at the Custom House. “By inviting scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences to visit this region with the intention to study marlin, tuna and other species, Hemingway demonstrated his true preservationist disposition.”
When he wasn’t writing literary classics, Hemingway plied the waters between Key West and Cuba on his 38-foot fishing boat, “Pilar.” Encounters with finned prey found their way into his books from “To Have and Have Not,” set in Depression-era Key West, to the Nobel Prize–winning “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Visitors to the Custom House will discover a model of “Pilar” on display — as well as Hemingway’s detailed fishing logs and field notes, which illustrate his quest to understand the science of fishing.
Particularly engaging is a 1937 letter to Ernest from the Belmar Fishing Club, informing him that he has been awarded a “Glory of the Sport Fraternity” pin recognizing his “outstanding catches and activities in promoting angling.”
Other exhibit elements focus on the Keys’ angling legacy and its environmental effects.
The author himself presides over the collection. A six-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Hemingway, created by internationally acclaimed artist Terry Jones, depicts him in casual garb, holding a fishing rod — as though he’s ready to step aboard “Pilar” and cast off to battle monsters of the deep.
Tackle to do just that has pride of place in the exhibit: antique fishing tackle utilized by big game fishermen during the 1930s and 40s.
Standouts include a Greenheart rod with a Pflueger Atlapac reel, South Bend marlin teasers designed by Western writer (and Keys fishing aficionado) Zane Grey, a Pompanette 6” flying gaff and much more.
It’s scheduled to run through July 2015, and those intrigued by angling and Hemingway’s work are invited to check it out. They can even attempt to emulate Ernest’s skill by trying a challenging fishing simulator — just as John Hemingway did when he helped launch the must-see exhibit.