Posted on February 04, 2014 by Janet Steinberg
Key West Icons: A Saloon keeper, a writer, and a President

Key West, Florida is many things to many people.

This Southernmost Point in the continental United States (only 90-miles from Cuba) is a place where pirates once preyed and presidents once played. It is a place where straight meets gay, where drunk drinks with sober. lt is Caribbean and continental, traditional and avant garde. It is Mallory Square Pier where the local Conch people, the visitor, the juggler, the belly dancer, and the mime, all gather for nature's nightly spectacular…a fiery sunset when that great orange ball seems to drop off the edge of the universe.

But for me, Key West is best remembered for three salty characters that made a permanent place in the city's history…a saloon keeper…a writer…and a president.

THE SALOON KEEPER: Joe Russell is a name you may not recognize, but I'm sure you've heard of "Sloppy Joe's", a bar that was born on December 5, 1933, the day prohibition ended.

Joe Russell was the original proprietor of a bar named the "Blind Pig", located in a rundown building that Russell leased for three dollars a week. Upon addition of a dance floor, the name was changed to the "Silver Slipper". It was a shabby, uncomfortable saloon where good friends gathered for gambling, fifteen-cent whiskey, and ten-cent shots of gin.

Ernest Hemingway, Joe's friend and a favorite patron of Russell's bar, suggested that Joe change the name of the bar to Sloppy Joe's. The new name was adopted from Jose Garcia's Rio Havana Club that sold liquor and iced seafood. Because the floor was always wet with melted ice, his patrons taunted this Spanish Joe with running a sloppy place…and the name stuck.


Sloppy Joe's is by no means sloppy. It is a well-oiled operation that gives humongous portions of food and drink at acceptable prices. Our order of Havana Nachos (tortilla chips, topped with jalapenos, tomatoes, black olives, black beans, cheddar and jack cheese, served with sour cream, salsa and Sloppy Joe mix was meant to be an appetizer. One order turned out to be lunch for two. A SINGLE ORDER OF HAVANA NACHOS...ENOUGH FOR TWO

Don't leave without trying a Sloppy Rita, (named the best Margarita in Florida) or a "Frozen Pain in the Ass". I don't know what that Rum Runner and Pina Colada drink tastes like, but its name intrigues me.


THE WRITER: "Papa" Hemingway, the first important writer to discover and make Key West his home, arrived there in 1928 when he was working on "A Farewell to Arms". lt was in Key West that he penned most of his great novels including "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "To Have and Have Not" and "The Macomber Affair".

Today, visitors can tour the National Historic Landmark that was the home of Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Hemingway. Several items of the property are of particular note. A replica of the ceramic cat sculpture, given to the cat-loving "Papa" Hemingway by his friend Picasso, sits atop a chest.

A discarded Sloppy Joe's urinal, given to Hemingway by his good friend Joe Russell (owner of Hemingway's hang-out joint "Sloppy Joes"), was turned into what must be the most famous feline watering hole in the world. An old Spanish olive jar forms the top of the fountain. The trough that forms the base of the fountain is the above-mentioned urinal. Hemingway's then-wife Pauline surrounded the trough with colorful tiles in an attempt to disguise its true identity.

Also noteworthy is a penny embedded in the poolside patio. Having paid $20,OOO for the first swimming pool built in Key West (in the late 1930's), Hemingway took a penny from his pocket, pressed it into the wet cement of the surrounding patio. Hemingway then told his wife: "Well, you might as well take my last cent." The wife, Hemingway's second of four, was ultimately divorced. The poolside penny remains.

A living memorial to the late author has also been preserved at his Spanish- colonial mansion. Approximately 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats, descendants of the nearly 50 cats who lived there with "Papa", still call 907 Whitehead Street home.

ernest hemingway

THE PRESIDENT: Harry Truman's Little White House, one of the most historic places in South Florida, initially served as the command headquarters during the Spanish American War. In 1890, the U.S. Navy built an 8700-square-foot home on the waterfront to house the base commander and paymaster.


From 1946 to 1952, this country's 33rd president Harry S. Truman used the house 175 days as both a retreat and functioning White House. It was while at the Little White House that President Truman enacted a Civil Rights Executive Order. In addition to Truman, the Little White House also served as a Presidential retreat for U.S. Presidents Taft, Eisenhower, Carter, Kennedy, and Clinton. Today, the Harry S. Truman Little White House is one of our county's most significant historical sites and Florida's only Presidential Museum.

When you step inside this comfy, unpretentious, wooden two-story home, you feel as if you are an invited guest, coming to share a meal, listen to a great fishing story, play a game of poker at the round rattan poker table, or hear about the important events impacting our country.


The furnishings in the home are largely the original furnishings used by Harry, Bess, and Margaret Truman. The presidential crystal, the red chintzy fabrics, and the upright piano are still there. On the wall is one display of White House Christmas Ornaments and another is a display with photos of Key West's #1 Tourist. And on that famous mahogany desk is a large green blotter, an ink pen and inkwell, and that famous sign "The BUCK STOPS here!"


JANET STElNBERG is the winner of 38 national Travel Writer Awards and an lnternational Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio

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