August 19
by Jim Elliott

My assignment for the Cleveland Press was to cover the Grand Opening of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway set for July 4, 1938. A special bonus for me was that I would get to interview Ernest Hemingway in Key West. Our editor, Louis Seltzer, knew Hemingway’s wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and convinced her to arrange an interview with her husband. I got the job since Hemingway was leaving for Cuba at the end of the week and I was the only reporter available to go.

After the flight from Cleveland to Miami, I wanted to fly on to Key West but Mr. Seltzer decided against the flight. He felt that since my primary job was to cover the Grand Opening, a Greyhound Bus would get me to Key West and give me a first hand view of the Highway.

The moment we crossed Jewfish Creek at the northern end of Key Largo, the starting point of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, it was the beginning of an unbelievably beautiful journey. The 120-mile long Highway was an engineering and scenic marvel requiring 51 bridges to connect the string of islands that terminated in Key West, the Southernmost City in the United States. Water surrounded us in every direction. The Atlantic Ocean with infinite shades of blue was on one side of the road and on the other, the Gulf of Mexico with an endless panorama of mangrove covered islands.

Our first stop was at The Florida Keys Memorial, 75 miles south of Miami on Matecumbe Key. The Memorial was dedicated to the 259 World War I veterans and 164 civilians who perished in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. Entombed in the Memorial were the cremated remains of over 300 of the storm victims. At the time of the storm, nearly 700 World War I veterans were working on the Overseas Highway. It was a ‘make work’ program designed primarily to remove the veterans from the spotlight of their hunger marches on Washington D.C. The veterans had been rounded up by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, F.E.R.A., and the politicians thought it wise to get them away from Washington and out of sight by sending them far away to the Keys.

The evening of Labor Day, September 2, 1935, the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the United States struck the Florida Keys. A 17-ft. storm surge hit Matecumbe Key like an explosion and all but one of its buildings were blown away. Bridges and railway embankments were washed away and trees were broken off at the ground. A train had been sent from Miami to evacuate the workers but arrived just as the hurricane hit the island, and was derailed and severely damaged.

Hemingway had written an article for a leftwing political magazine, New Masses, about the deaths of the World War I veterans that he felt had been abandoned by the F.E.R.A. As a result of his scathing and widely circulated report, the storm came to be known as Hemingway’s Hurricane. Titled, Who Killed the Vets, the article was highly critical of the failed rescue efforts and ended with the final question, “Who left you there and what’s the punishment for manslaughter now?” However serious the results of the disaster, no one was ever formally charged for the neglect and failed rescue of the veterans.

My appointment with Hemingway was for 4 PM, so as soon as the bus arrived at the station, I caught a cab to his house on Whitehead Street. No one was home and I was worried. Did I have the wrong day or was I mistaken about the time? An older man crossing the street saw me and said, “If you’re looking for Papa, he’s at Sloppy Joe’s.
Of course I had heard of Hemingway’s famous hangout but I had no idea where it was located. The man saw the look on my face and said, “Don’t worry, just go on down to Greene, take a right and you can’t miss it. You can hear the noise from two blocks away.”

The old man was right, I could hear the clamor and spotted Sloppy Joe’s as soon as I arrived at Greene Street. I elbowed my way through the drinkers toward the bar and found myself face to face with the black bartender. He had to be over 300 pounds and was the largest man I had ever seen. I asked and he pointed me toward Ernest Hemingway who was surrounded by a mob of drunken admirers.

Hemingway obviously did live by his maxim, ‘done by noon, drunk by three.’ The book on him was that he would rise at 6 AM, write standing up at his typewriter until noon, then make a break for Sloppy Joe’s where he would captivate the crowd until closing.

How was I ever going to get him away from the crowd? I decided quickly. Gene, you’re a reporter for the Cleveland Press and you better get your butt moving. I walked up to the great man and said, “Mr. Hemingway, I’m Gene Rodgers with the Cleveland Press and we have an appointment for 4:00.”

He looked through me for the longest ten seconds of my life and finally said, “Well as usual, I’m right on time. Lets get started.”

I managed to talk Hemingway to a table away from the bar and said, “Mr. Hemingway, I know you wrote an article for New Masses magazine about the government’s poor treatment of the veterans and the lack of an escape plan in the event of a hurricane. Why did the magazine hire you? I couldn’t find any record of you having written anything for them previously.”

Hemingway said, “Call me Papa. That’s a good question Gene, I never did understand why those commie pricks hired me for the job. They hated my guts and everything I had written. Maybe because I was handy, living here in the Keys. Frankly, I didn’t spend much time worrying about why they hired me, I was just happy to take their money.”

“How long did it take you to get to the site of the storm?” I asked.

“I was there the next day,” Papa said. “No one else had been able to get onto Indian Key but we managed to on my boat, Pilar. The island was leveled and we found 69 bodies. When we arrived at Matecumbe it was more dead men. Some had drowned. Some were crushed by trees. Others were impaled by limbs or lumber or decapitated by flying tin.

Some bodies were tangled in the tops of fallen trees where they had tried to climb to safety. Others were literally sandblasted to death, not recognizable as sand driven by the wind had blasted away their faces.

I saw a man sitting against a broken wall. The force of the wind had driven a piece of two-by-four completely through him. The man was worried that when it was pulled out he would die. He asked for two beers, drank them and said, ‘Now pull.’ The Doctor pulled and he died. Army units were assigned to search the shoreline, tidal creeks, and other likely areas where bodies might have washed up after the hurricane. Over 300 bodies were found and cremated on the banks of Snake Creek.

There were 61 members of the Russell family living on or near Matecumbe and 50 of them died that night but I didn’t write much about the deaths of the locals because New Masses wasn’t interested in the locals. They were after Roosevelt’s ass and used the screw up on the rescue to embarrass him. They knew I wasn’t a fan of Roosevelt and possibly that was why they hired me.

The politicians sent the veterans to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys during hurricane months with no opportunity to leave, simply to get them away from Washington. F.E.R.A. sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them were close to being mental cases. The locals on the other hand were on the Keys of their own free will. They made their living there, had property and knew the hazards.”

Papa jumped up and said, “Whenever I think about those poor bastards, I get depressed. Gene, this interview is now over and we are off record. What you hear in Key West, stays in Key West. Let’s have a drink.”

The bartender met us at the bar with a drink in hand for Papa. “This is Big,” Papa said. “He thinks he can drink a lot because he’s big and black. What he doesn’t know is that he’s just like the Indians I knew in Michigan. Neither one can drink worth a shit. Big, this is Gene, give him what he wants.”

“The same as Papa,” I said.

“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Big said. “Papa drinks his with no sugar. Why don’t you try one with just a little sweet? For him, it’s just rum, key lime juice, and grapefruit juice. Claims it’s hard to put a lot of liquor away if you use sugar. Have four or five of my daiquiris and you’re ready for some shrimp. But don’t do like Papa, he bites the heads off and eats the rest, shell and all.”

“Cut the bullshit, Big, he’s not interested in how I eat,” Papa said. “You know, Gene, I started out as a reporter. The Kansas City Star. I learned almost everything I ever needed to know about writing in that six months. I learned basic things like you should use short sentences, write what you see and boil it down to the simplest things. I ditch the dictionary and write simple declarative sentences, and look at the words as if I’m seeing them for the first time. Forget about posterity and think only of writing true.

When you write a novel, make it all up, but make it up so true that later it will happen that way. All good books have one thing in common, they are more true than if they really happened. You have to accept that writing is something you can never do as well as it can be done.

Ezra Pound used to look over my early manuscripts in Paris and returned them to me mercilessly marked up with the adjectives gone. Ezra told me to never trust an adjective and not to use one unless it added to what was already on the page.”

“We had some fun here a few nights ago, Gene.” said Big. “This woman walked up to me, boy she was a looker, said her name was Martha Gellhorn and she would give me twenty bucks to introduce her to the famous Ernest Hemingway. I told her he was a private man and didn’t like strangers but since she seemed like a nice lady I would do the introduction. What a bunch of crap. Papa loves people who suck up to him. I think she might have paid more than the twenty bucks. How’d you do with her Papa?”

“Great if you like spending seven dollars to sleep on the floor at La Concha,” Papa said. “I was so damn drunk I fell asleep waiting for her to come out of the bathroom. When I woke up the next morning, there was a note pinned to my shirt that said, ‘nice to have met you.’ Sometimes I wish I’d been sober for all the good times so I could remember them and write about them. But then, if I had been sober, the times probably wouldn’t have been worth remembering.”

A few days later, Hemingway and reporter Martha Gellhorn left Key West for Cuba and later for Spain where they both reported on the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway divorced Pauline Pfeiffer and Martha Gellhorn became his third wife. He seldom returned to Key West.

Author Note: This is a work of fiction although I believe the facts on the Hurricane to be accurate. I have taken great liberty with the time line. Martha Gellhorn met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s around Christmas time in 1936, when she paid $20 to the bartender, Al “Big” Skinner, for the introduction. They left together in the spring of 1937 for Spain and reported on the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway divorced Pauline Pfeiffer in November of 1940 and married Martha Gellhorn later that month.

Hemingway was not a communist but like many writers of the thirties, leaned to the left and wrote a total of four articles for New Masses between 1935 and 1939.

Read about Jim Elliott on the Writer’s Bio page