Once upon a time Bimini was my first choice when clearing into the Bahamas, not because it’s the closest settlement to Florida, but because of the Compleat Angler, once one of the world’s great saloons. Replete with photos and memorabilia, the Angler was one of three great shrines to Ernest Hemingway, who, according to legend, wrote much of “To Have and Have Not” within its old timber walls.
My crew and I had a few beers there on Jan. 11, 2006, soaked in the atmosphere, listened to a couple of songs by the Bahamian band, and after waiting until midnight to drink one last cuppa rum for my 51st birthday, rowed back to the boat for an early start to Chub Cay the next morning.
Twenty-four hours later, in the early morning hours of Friday the 13th, the Compleat Angler burned to the ground, killing its owner.
The Angler was erected in 1933 — as Prohibition was winding down in the United States — by a prominent local Brit named Helen Duncombe, whose husband had been Bimini’s British colonial administrator. Inspired by her friend, sportfishing pioneer Michael Lerner of New York, Mrs. Duncombe believed this new sport had a future in Bimini. She built her place to resemble a comfortable old inn like those from her childhood in Kent.
Appropriately, the builders used the weathered timber of a derelict liquor barge named Dreamland, which had supplied American rumrunners from Bimini waters since 1924.
Not only did Hemingway write while staying at the Angler, but a description inspired by the old inn also appears in his great posthumously published novel “Islands in the Stream,” in which the author alludes to the inn’s shippy feel:
“The house felt almost as much like a ship as a house. Placed there to ride out storms, it was built into the island as though it were part of it; but you saw the sea from all the windows and there was good cross ventilation so that you slept cool on the hottest nights.”
In a 1980 interview with Ashley B. Saunders, author of the “History of Bimini,” local singer Nathaniel Saunders recalled Hemingway’s time at the Angler:
“He used to tell me whenever any fight or anything start, come up there by the Compleat Angler and call him and let him come down. One night we was playing aboard a yacht and a fella started a fight. He fired off a pistol and wanted to be bad and so forth like that. So I went up to the Compleat Angler and called Papa Hemingway. He say, ‘Who’s there?’ I say, ‘this me.’ I say, ‘A fella down by the dock wants to fight.’ So when Papa Hemingway got there, he said, ‘Who is it here wants to fight?’ And you couldn’t hear a pin drop. You couldn’t hear a sound. As much loudmouth as this guy had. You couldn’t hear a sound. Nobody say nothing because that was Papa Hemingway.” (See footnote below.)
Bimini probably represented Hemingway at his worst. My opinion: “To Have and Have Not” was his most wretched work. He boozed and brawled and slaughtered the beautiful leaping stingrays for which the harbor is known with his Tommy gun. An ancient Biminian once told me that one of his earliest childhood memories was Hemingway “disrespecting them fish.”
The night of our visit was amusing and jovial. Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential candidacy ran aground here when he was photographed with Donna (not his wife) Rice on his lap during a visit aboard the M/V Monkey Business. We were amused by the other — equally scandalous though less famous — photo of Hart and Rice together on the Angler’s gazebo. I could not find a copy of it on the internet.
Other famous guests included Jimmy Buffett (of course) and Lucille Ball.
During our visit a well-spoken young Bahamian hustled a Guinness from us by besting another stud in the ring toss. It was a little too early in the season for the usual crowd of sportfishermen unwinding after a day prowling the drop-offs along the Gulf Stream. Instead we had a coed crowd of what I took to be marine biology students in full mating mode.
The loss of life and destruction of such a longstanding attraction was an everlasting blow to Bimini’s cachet. Thereafter, the world had to visit the Hemingway homes in Key West and Havana to commune with the spirit of the great author.
To me, the lone consolation was having had a chance to see the place one last time — like seeing a friend or family member once more before he or she “crossed the bar,” as the old sailors used to say.
Nathaniel Saunders was a musician famous for chronicling Hemingway’s very short fistfight with Collier’s magazine publisher Joseph Knapp. The song was “Big Fat Slob”:
Mr. Knapp called Mr. Hemingway
A Big Fat Slob
Mr. Ernest Hemingway balled his fist
And gave him a knob
Big fat slob in Bimini
This is the night we have fun
Oh the big fat slob in Bimini
This the night we got fun
Mr. Knapp look at him and try to mock
And from the blow
Mr. Knapp couldn't talk
At first Mr. Knapp thought
He had his bills in stalk
And when Mr. Ernest Hemingway walk
The dock rocked
Mr. Knapp couldn't laugh
Mr. Ernest Hemingway grin
Put him to sleep
With a knob on his chin