Fire destroys storied Bimini bar

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Caretaker dies in blaze at Compleat Angler, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering holes

Caretaker dies in blaze at Compleat Angler, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering holes

Bimini’s Compleat Angler Hotel, known for 70 years as one of the great watering holes and a haunt of the novelist Ernest Hemingway, has burned down, its caretaker dying in the blaze.

Built like an old English country house, the three-story inn had just 12 rooms but two raucous barrooms downstairs. It burned Jan. 13, and Julian Brown, whose family owns the hotel, died inside. Bahamian press reports say Brown — an Olympian in track and field in the 1960s — rousted out the hotel’s one guest, then tried to put out the fire.

The bars “definitely were the social center for most visiting boaters, even locals,” says David Kresge, a frequent visitor to the island and author of the Vantage Point Guide to Bimini. That leaves just one other “ex-pat” bar, End of the World Sand Bar, also in Alice Town, he says.

Much of the wood used to build the Angler was scavenged from barges that lay in Bimini’s harbor during Prohibition. The barges supplied illegal liquor to rumrunners, who ferried the contraband across the Gulf Stream to Florida 50 miles away, according to information on the Bimini Museum’s Web site

(www.bimini-museum.org ). Eighty-year-old liquor barrels still undergirded one of the bars that guests would belly up to when the hotel burned down.

Helen Duncombe, wife of the British commissioner of Bimini, built the hotel as a private club in 1935. It closed during the war, but afterward Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown, the island’s most prominent businessman, bought the Angler. Brown, owner of a fleet of commercial fishing skiffs and a shipping business that ran small freighters to Florida, brought electricity to the island by building an electrical generating plant there. He died in 1997, but his family still owns the Angler, as well as the Blue Water hotel and marina.

The Compleat Angler thrived on its reputation as a historic inn with ties to Hemingway and other renowned big-game fishermen. Hemingway lived at the Compleat Angler from 1935 to ’37, penning his novel “To Have and Have Not” there and fishing for marlin, wahoo and sailfish on Pilar, his 38-foot Wheeler Playmate. Some of the material for his “Islands in the Stream” came from his memories of Bimini.

A remembrance of Harcourt Brown in the Miami New Times after Brown’s death says he was the bartender and headwaiter at the Compleat Angler when Hemingway stayed there, and that “Mr. Bobbie’s,” a bar in “Islands in the Stream,” is probably the Angler. It was on a fishing trip to Bimini that Hemingway shot himself in both legs with a pistol while trying to gaff a big bull shark. The author recounted the incident in a humorous piece for Esquire titled, “On Being Shot Again.”

The Compleat Angler housed a small museum of Hemingway memorabilia, but Kresge says just as important were the decades of Bimini history that filled the bars’ walls from floor to ceiling: license plates, notes, memorabilia, and news clips and photos of hundreds of fishing tournaments, anglers, boaters and visiting celebrities. Infamous Congressman Adam Clayton Powell caroused at the Compleat Angler, as did presidential hopeful Gary Hart on a visit with Donna Rice that torpedoed his presidential hopes.

“All that stuff is lost forever,” says Kresge.

Kresge expects the Brown family to rebuild. “We just don’t know what yet,” he says. In the meantime, boaters will miss Audley “Shorty” Bean, the Angler’s bartender. Kresge says boaters visit Bimini for the diving, fishing and nights at the Angler, which was twice rated by no less a connoisseur than Jimmy Buffett as one of the 10 best beach bars.

“The question now is: Where is everyone going to go out and drink at night?” Kresge asks.