Why is this man smiling? Because he’s Ernest Hemingway, he’s still in his twenties and he’s hanging out in Key West, the Key West of 1928: just a sleepy little island more than 100 miles out to sea with a real Crossroads of the Caribbean feel. He doesn’t know it yet, but that’s all about to change.
Today, when most people think of Key West they probably think of Hemingway or Jimmy Buffett; they’ll conjure images of a laid-back tropical paradise with great fishing and a wild party scene where anything goes.
But few outsiders know that Key West the tourist town was actually created in the 1930s by the federal government as a way to save the island city, which had been bankrupted by the Great Depression. And those images people carry around in their heads of America’s most famous tropical bohemian outpost were first put there by government-paid artists and writers as part of a plan to provide Key West with a viable tourist economy that would sustain it for years to come.
Bohemia in the Tropics is an engaging account of this largely unknown story. The half-hour film opens during the darkest days of the Great Depression and goes on to explore how Key West, once the richest city in the nation, was forced to turn itself over to federal bureaucrats and accept a future forever tied to tourism.
The film introduces characters such as New Deal administrator Julius Stone, who leads the controversial effort to transform Key West into “The Bermuda of Florida.” We meet some of the era’s preeminent poets and writers, including Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hemingway, who “discover” Key West in the 1920s and are outraged by the government’s transformation of “their” sleepy little island into a tourist town.
The film features interviews with Gore Vidal and Russell Banks, who offer first-person accounts of how they were lured to Key West by its bohemian reputation. Newly uncovered archival photos and footage include rare Hemingway home movies from the JFK Presidential Library.