Why We Still Worship Hemingway at His Bars

Even to the Hemingway dilettante, the bars where the literary giant drank are famous. But what has his legacy bequeathed to them? Leslie Pariseau traces her way through Hemingway's haunts to see how his memory, and the near-religious fervor he continues to inspire, has affected them through the years.

Inevitably, a conversation about Hemingway will trickle into a conversation about drinking. The guy wrote and drank a lot—though he didn’t drink while he wrote—and he’s been immortalized for both with countless namesake cocktails, books and bars dedicated to his affection for boozing. There’s even a Cuban bar that shamelessly manufactured its own Hemingway legend in order to capitalize on a dead man’s image.

Of course, there are other perpetually shit-faced writers celebrated for their bad behavior—Rimbaud, Coleridge, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, all of the Beats and Hunter S. Thompson. Mostly men, mostly tragic and, according to record, mostly trashed beyond comprehension. But of all of the literary screw-ups, Hemingway is most revered for his outsize way of approaching life and drink, consuming it with his bare hands and stuffing it in wherever it could fit like a bear readying himself for an unpredictable winter. But unlike, say, Fitzgerald and Rimbaud, he’s remembered surprisingly as one of the best behaved, which is probably why so many pubs and taverns welcomed him in, day after day. No profit-loving bar turns down a faithful regular, after all. And no profit-loving bar turns down the memory of a famous faithful regular.

Half a century after his death, Hemingway remains the most romanticized patron saint of literary drunks. And, like all saintly icons, his image has been imprinted upon a cadre of bars around the world—on a drink list, in adjacent conversation, in a namedrop from a bartender—and, for better or worse, they continue to run on the fuel of his erstwhile presence.

So far removed from his physical presence and often invaded by tourists, what is the allure of these “Hemingway bars,” and why do they continue to draw acolytes?

The first notable bars in which he forged a reputation were across Europe in the post-WWI years. In 1921, he moved to Paris as a foreign correspondent and began circulating in the company of other Lost Generation writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound—who spent their afternoons and evenings in Left Bank cafés like Les Deux Magots, Closerie des Lilas and Café de Flore.

Today, these once lustrous corners are dated and touristy in the way that many Parisian landmarks become dated and touristy—elegantly, and rightly so. But they aren’t filled with selfie-snapping voyeurs necessarily because Hemingway penned dispatches from its tables while talking politics with Stein. Rather—like so many French curios—they’ve cultivated a patina worn in by dozens of celebrity regulars including Picasso, Sartre, Camus and Toklas, lending them a shimmering worldliness that one man cannot alone impart. Here, Hemingway was but a thread in a tapestry being woven throughout Paris in the early 20th century.

Throughout the 1920s and again during the Spanish Civil War in the late ’30s, Hemingway traveled to Spain, gravitating toward bars and restaurants like La Venencia and El Sobrino de Botín in Madrid where he immersed himself in the everyday conversations of locals and Republican sympathizers. Some of these places became the research material for many of his novels, including The Sun Also Rises, whose characters wander through the winding streets around the Plaza Mayor. It’s here where the first inklings of modern annoyance—or at least concern—at Hemingway’s ubiquitous presence begin to manifest.

However corny or misguided it might seem, drinking the drinks he drank, sitting at the barstools in sat in and preserving the booze-soaked trail he blazed, everyone—drinkers and bars alike—is attempting to get closer to this devil-may-care Hemingway experience, to brush up against it and hold onto it for a moment or two. Somehow, if we could all just observe the world from the angle that he saw it, then perhaps we could know what it’s like to be immortal, too.

James M. Markham, the New York Times’ Madrid bureau chief from 1976 to 1982, discusses the hard-drinking, Hemingway-spouting writers he encountered there in a 1985 editorial. As he observed their habits of retracing Hemingway’s steps to Cerveceria Alemana (a local beer hall he frequented) for one too many, he writes, “I do not say that they would not have destroyed their livers without Papa Hemingway’s inspiration, but it seems to me that his ghost was a spiritual accessory to their self-inflicted wounds.” According to another Times article from 2011, a sign that once hung above a restaurant near Botín declared, “HEMINGWAY NEVER ATE HERE.” Yet, according to the same article, Botín still maintains the memory of Hemingway without irritation; he did immortalize it as “one of the best restaurants in the world” in the pages of his first novel, after all.

By the time Hemingway made his way to Key West in the early 1930s, he’d published his first two novels to critical acclaim. He was well known in literary circles both foreign and domestic, and was bouncing as a journalist from Africa to Spain to Cuba and back to Key West again. It was in this strange, sandy back pocket of the American continent that he acquired a house (a historical landmark today), a bunch of now-mythic cats and a habit of nightly slipping over to Sloppy Joe’s, his neighborhood bar. At that time, Key West was a village with only a handful of watering holes that were certainly closer to American-style saloons than they were the established intellectual bastions of Europe’s capital cities. And it’s in these young, American establishments that Hemingway staked his own claim, unwittingly bolstering (and, in some ways, eclipsing) them for generations to come. On one hand, his ubiquitous presence often overshadows the very place that attempts to keep his memory alive. But on the other, without him, well, there would be no Hemingway stories.

Perhaps one of the bars that—without Hemingway’s tenure—would be little more than a faceless dive is Captain Tony’s, the original bar that Sloppy Joe’s once occupied (no relation to Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, Cuba). The dank, ephemera-filled den still benefits from the writer’s visits, even though Sloppy Joe’s (now a corporate entity with branches in Daytona Beach and Treasure Island, Florida) moved down the street sometime during the late 1930s. Legend has it that Hemingway acquired one of its urinals and installed it as a fountain-trough on his property.

For a long time, Captain Tony’s continued to proclaim itself “The original Sloppy Joe’s,” to which Sloppy Joe’s responded with a lawsuit. Now a sign hangs outside precisely stating, “The First and Original Sloppy Joe’s from 1933 to 1937.” For extra measure, there’s also a sign laying claim to Hemingway’s memory, though, “we have a lot of history outside of Hemingway’s years here,” says general manager Jason Lansdown. This includes having been a one-time icehouse that doubled as a morgue in the mid-19th century. Somehow, the Hemingway story is sexier.

Down the street, Sloppy Joe’s holds an annual Hemingway lookalike contest, which ushers in dozens of potbellied men with downy hair and snow-white beards. But, as Philip Greene, author of To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, says, “Hemingway didn’t look like that when he lived there. He was slim and still had dark hair and a moustache.” Even so, the tourists flock and the pair of bars is happy to have them.

Further south, in Havana, where Hemingway lived and wrote for the better part of the 1940s and ’50s, is the fabled Floridita, an ancient lounge still dripping with red velvet, dark wood and a constant line of tourists in Old Havana. Undeniably the best-known of Hemingway’s favored bars (perhaps thanks to the fact that he was a living legend by the time he moved to Cuba), Floridita has also become the most caricatured. Granted, it was famous with Prohibition-era tourists before Hemingway ever set foot in it. “Hemingway just made it more famous,” says Julio Cabrera, the Floridita’s global ambassador.

And for that, they’ve honored him. In a spot along the bar where he once downed double Daiquiris by the dozen, there now stands a life-sized bronze effigy of a potbellied, bearded Hemingway hulking over the bar, staring into space. Each day, visitors line up to snap photos with the monument, while bartenders still dole out “Papa Dobles” by the dozen, albeit with neon colored straws. “I don’t think it affects anyone,” says Cabrera. “It’s part of the custom. It’s part of the every day.”

However corny or misguided it might seem, drinking the drinks he drank, sitting at the barstools he sat in and preserving the booze-soaked trail he blazed, everyone—drinkers and bars alike—is attempting to get closer to this devil-may-care Hemingway experience, to brush up against it and hold onto it for a moment or two. Somehow, if we could all just observe the world from the angle that he saw it, then perhaps we could know what it’s like to be immortal, too.

There are, of course, many other Hemingway bars that have attempted just the same. The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris; Harry’s New York Bar just an arrondissement over; Harry’s in Venice; El Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, which falsely claims Hemingway as a regular and the Mojito as his go-to; Bar Marsella in Barcelona; The Carousel Bar in New Orleans. According to Philip Greene, there’s even a Hemingway-themed bar forthcoming in New York. Each of these places, including Paris’s cafés and Spain’s Republican taverns, delight in perpetuating Hemingway’s legend. And when that legend concerns a man who was larger than life—and yet living that life amongst plenty of witnesses to his sobriety, his drunkenness—the legends multiply, split and multiply again.

A patron saint’s canonization is built upon adoration and miracles that support the idea of immortality and something more spiritual than we know how to imagine. But it’s also built upon the belief that this person, this regular human being, was able to achieve some intimate connection with god. However sacrilegious the idea of Hemingway as patron saint might be, his uncanny ability to reveal the humanity—his, ours—in a bust-up world is its own small miracle. And in the spirit of what a bar is, or at least what we often need it to be, it’s no wonder that so many still hope to meet him there.