Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Once again, I found myself in Miami with a free week-end and as has been my practice of late, I checked out the possibilities, hopped into a rental car and drove off to Key West. I had booked a hotel in a town called Marathon, which is about 2 hours’ drive from Miami. From Marathon, Key West is about an hour’s drive. In retrospect, it would have been better to stay at Key West itself but I couldn’t find an appropriate hotel as I was late in booking.

Key West is the southernmost town in continental US and is only 90 km away from Cuba. Naturally, there has been a lot of Cuban influence here and some early entrepreneurs had successfully run cigar rolling factories in the town. To me however, the more important aspect of Key West was that it was the home of Ernest Hemingway for about 10 years from 1931. Hemingway arrived at Key West when he was 28, along with this second wife, Pauline. He stayed here till 1940 and then he just jumped across the ocean and moved to Cuba and he also married his third wife Martha Gellhorn, at that time. Caribbean lifestyle is etched into Hemingway’s works and Hemingway himself was a great angler. His love for fishing was well catered to, during his life at Key West and he also bought the boat “Pilar’ which remained a love of his life, at this time.

A comfortable drive in the morning took me to Key West and the day was looking sunny even though there were a couple of clouds in the horizon. I had been told that the sunset, as watched from the western end of the town, called Mallory Square was a grand spectacle and was looking forward to that. The first port of call was, of course, the Hemingway House. It is a two storey house set in a one acre, lush green compound. The house itself is built in the Spanish Colonial style and was built in 1851 – Pauline’s Uncle Gus gifted it to the couple in 1931.

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There was a free guided tour going on when I arrived. The guide seemed to be very passionate about the house and she was full of energy and enthusiasm in explaining various aspects about the house. She mentioned that almost seventy percent of all of Hemingway’s works were written in this house and I suspect that was a case of her getting carried away by her enthusiasm. What I read in the internet was that he had done the final editing of “A Farewell to Arms” while he stayed at Key West and also worked on novels like “Death in the Afternoon”, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” etc. The only novel he wrote fully in the 1930s was “To Have and Have Not” and it is a novel based on Key West and its people. The house is filled with photographs and all rooms were filled with photographs.

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The rooms upstairs had photographs reminiscent of Hemingway’s time in Paris and trips to Africa. The guide explained that his first safari was once again sponsored by Uncle Gus at a tremendous cost of US Dollars Twenty Five Thousand, which must have been a huge amount of money in those days. The master bed room was nice and airy with a large bed.

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In one of the rooms there is a photograph of a lady named Agnes von Kurowski who was a nurse with American Red Cross and was serving in Milan during World War I. Hemingway was an ambulance driver with the Red Cross and after he suffered some serious wounds, he was admitted into the same hospital where Agnes was a nurse. They soon fell in love and planned to get married. However, later on she changed her mind and married someone else. Supposedly, she inspired the character Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms”.

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From the master bed room, one stepped out onto a beautiful, wide verandah that ran all around the house. The Key West lighthouse is located just across the street and could be seen from the house.

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Hemingway had a writing room or office set-up above the coach house and had also built a walkway from the verandah to the writing room. It seems he followed a rigourous work schedule of writing each day from six in the morning till twelve in the afternoon. Rest of the day was spent in socialising and recreation. These days, the walkway has been removed and the writing room is accessed through a separate staircase.

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The grounds of the house are lush green and very tastefully laid out. There is also a large swimming pool, which was supposedly the first pool in the area and constructed at a huge cost. Hemingway was apparently very superstitious and believed that six toed cats brought him luck (seems this was a common belief among sailors of the time). He kept up a large population of cats around the house and you can see them even today.

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While I had read many of his novels, I had not come across To Have and Have Not. I found a copy of the book in the gift shop and thought it befitting that I should buy that novel from Key West itself. I spent quite some time roaming around the house and noticed that it seemed to attract a good number of visitors.

After leaving Hemingway’s house, I wandered around the town, taking in the sights. Streets of Key West are lined with nice buildings that are decidedly Caribbean in appearance. It has a special charm and adds a wonderful feel to the place.

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There is a small marker to denote the Southernmost point and it shows that Cuba is only 90 miles away. This meant that smugglers used this place as a favourite arrival point into continental US.

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By this time, I was getting tired of all the walking and decided to pay a visit to another establishment that was connected with Hemingway – a bar named Sloppy Joe’s. It belonged to a person named Joe Russell, who was Hemingway’s friend. Hemingway spent quite a lot of time in this bar and it seems his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, met him here for the first time. Sloppy Joe’s has changed hands since but they keep the history alive with Hemingway look-alike contests that are conducted each year. There are many photographs of Hemingway inside the bar and it seems like a popular place with lot of people coming in. I spent about an hour there thinking about Hemingway and his life and books; of course, a nice Martini helped me along in the process.

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By this time, we were approaching sunset and I strolled over to Mallory Square. The place was getting crowded with people that had come to watch the sun go down. There were some clouds in the sky which were threatening to dampen the whole affair. Boats were going out to the sea and there was also lot of other activity in Mallory Square with entertainers and artists displaying their wares. I got a few pictures as the sun approached the horizon but then it started drizzling rather strongly and the sun got blotted out.

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the-journey

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As I drove back to Marathon, I reflected on the day. I felt the visit to Key West and Hemingway’s house had connected me more with his work. In the past, I had been to the Caribbean a few times and had seen the island lifestyle but somehow, I had not connected well with Hemingway’s writing about fishing – possibly because it does not appeal to me as a sport. Yet, I think I understand him a bit more now. As I sat down to dinner, I opened To Have and Have Not and started on the first page.

 

 1 October 2016

 

Last month, I found myself in Miami with a couple of days to spare. I was looking for something different apart from the beaches and entertainment parks of Florida and so, I decided to drive to the west coast of Florida and I chanced upon a town called Punta Gorda and dropped anchor there. Punta Gorda is a nice, small town right on the bay. About an hour’s drive from Punta Gorda is Sarasota and while looking through the images in TripAdvisor, a building in Sarasota caught my eye as it looked kind of out-of-place in Florida and I decided to go there. Further showed this to be the Ringling Museum complex and I set out in the morning on a beautiful sunny day.

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I was not much aware of Ringling before the trip though I had heard of Barnum Bailey Circus. John Ringling was born into a family of seven brothers and a sister in 1866 in Iowa. He along with four of his brothers started the Ringling Circus and then they acquired the Barnum Baily Circus to become the largest travelling circus in the US and they called it the Greatest Show on Earth. John turned out to be the most famous of the five brothers and also ventured into areas like real estate development and eventually became one of the richest men in the world at the time. So, when I drove there, I was expecting to see the house of a rich circus man and spend some time in a leisurely manner.

The house stands on 66 acres of land and is built in the Venetian Gothic style and is named “Cà d’Zan”, which means House of John in Venetian dialect. The grounds are beautiful with many wonderful trees and small ponds.

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There are three main attractions to visit – the Circus Museum, Cà d’Zan and the Museum of Art. I started with the Circus Museum. First off, what struck my eye were a series of posters that were quite nostalgic. The Circus museum took me right back to my childhood when the circus was a rare occurrence and a visit was always a keenly awaited event. I think I have only been to the circus twice – it was a different world of amazing, hair raising acts and exotic animals. Of course, at that time, I was too young to realise that life for those performers was totally unlike the glittering visual they presented. Of course, in today’s world where visual treats and images are dime a dozen, the circus has lost out. It is no longer possible to hold interest and cause excitement and amazement through such acts as trapeze or motorbike riding within a globe or jeep jumping or a parade of wild animals. To me, the circus represented an era gone by. Such were the thoughts that flashed through my mind as I walked through the museum. The third face in the poster below is John Ringling.

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Perhaps it was this foresight that the circus would soon die out which caused the artists and sculptor Howard Tibbals to create a miniature replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was the largest circus in the world at the time. This replica is available for view in the Circus Museum and is indeed a grand sight. Till then, I had no idea of the scale of size of this circus. I was thinking of something slightly bigger than the “Gemini Circus”, the whole of which fitted into 3 or 4 trucks. What I saw at the Tibbals exhibit was a circus that owned trains so that it could transport itself to various palces. The “Big Top” or the performance tent had three rings, four stages, a hippodrome track and the show lasted two and a half hours with about 800 artists participating and it could seat 15,000 people! The show was so large that it owned trains that were used to transport all the material, animals and people. The logistics behind the whole show must have been amazing. I read that the Big Top consisted of six centre poles, seventy four quarter poles, one hundred and twenty two sidewall poles, five hundred and fifty stakes and twenty six thousand yards of canvas and what was amazing was that they could erect this tent within four hours!

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There is also an exhibition of some of the real objects that were connected to the show like a human cannon, various cages used to transport animals and the private rail coach (named Wisconsin) that the Ringlings used when they travelled along with the circus.

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Cà d’Zan was finished in 1927 and looks quite beautiful. It sights right on the sea and there are steps leading to the water. The interior is quite rich and ornate with all the conveniences that the time provided.

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After a leisurely lunch at the café, I strolled across to the Museum of Art. Till then, I was thinking of the whole affair as the house of a very rich circus man who had an interest in art and nothing much beyond that. However, I soon got to know that this tale had some other interesting angles. John Ringling and is wife Mable wanted to build an art gallery to build up an awareness of art and culture in the people of the locality. It was not meant to be a museum for the viewing pleasure of a few rich people but was meant to bring the masters to be available for the public. The museum was set up with twenty one galleries and John Ringling gifted this museum with more than 400 art pieces along with an endowment of $1.2 Million to the State of Florida upon his death in 1936. There were works from masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Paolo Veronese, Diego Velazquez, Giambattista Tiepolo, Lunas Cranach the Elder etc. In the courtyard is a 19th century replica of Michelangelo’s David.

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Peter Paul Rubens: Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek

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Lunas Cranach the Elder: Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome

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Piero di Cosimo: Building of a Palace

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Paulo Veronese: Rest on the flight into Egypt

 

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Franceso del Cairo: Judith with the head of Holofernes

 

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Antonio de Bellis: The flaying of Marsyas by Apollo

 

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Jan Davidsz de Heem: Still Life with Parrots

 

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Peter Paul Rubens: Flight of Lot and his family from Sodom

 

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Peter Paul Rubens and Osias Beert: Pausias and Glycera

 

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Giambattista Tiepolo: Glory and Magnanimity of Princes

 

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Robert Henri: Salome

 

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John Ringling was one of the richest men in the Roaring Twenties and like many of his peers, he too thought that the good times would continue for ever. However that was not to be and the Great Depression arrived. Ringling suffered huge financial losses and he lost his wife Mable also in 1929. When John died in 1936, the man who was once the one of the world’s richest men had a princely sum of $311 in the bank! What struck me was that he had managed to fight his creditors for many years and hold on to his house and the art museum with its priceless works and finally willed it to the state so that all could benefit from it. John Ringling, obviously, was no ordinary circus tycoon.