The Bell Tolls for Him

After years of playing Papa to Hemingway, the island of Bimini, and his own troubled brood, Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown is laid to rest

"Just another roughneck" is how Aubrey Sherman, age 77, remembers Hemingway. "It so happened that he became popular. He liked to box. He walked the streets with no shoes and no shirt. He boozed." Another islander, who crewed on Hemingway's fishing boat in 1935, recalls the heavyweight writer waking up from a blind drunk and rushing onto the dock just in time to take credit for a prize marlin two other men had actually caught. Whether that tale is factual or apocryphal, it illustrates the notion that while Hemingway's legend has been good for business, the true-life Nobel laureate may have been more tolerated than liked. But the people of Bimini, a former crown colony now a member of the British Commonwealth, are tolerant folk.

Hemingway is part of a long train of notable temperaments who have visited Bimini, responded strongly to its special charms, and lingered. But ultimately he was still a tourist, and like tourists after him he found on Bimini a garden of sensual delights: the pursuit of the big fish, trade winds in palm trees, pristine beaches leading down to gin-clear water, lazy afternoons with a rum glass close at hand. For those born on Bimini and trying to make a go of it, the picture is a bit different.

Imagine an island 150 yards at its widest, seven miles long, and so isolated from its seat of national governance (in Nassau, 130 miles away by plane or boat) as to make nationalism itself almost evaporate in abstraction. Then assume that this island is nearly barren in the agricultural and manufacturing sense, requiring all basic products and foodstuffs except fish to be hauled in from the United States. Though Miami lies a mere 50 miles to the west, the distance is deceptive because one of the world's major ocean currents separates the two locales. A skeptic might suggest that the speed of the Gulf Stream (up to five knots) and its unique meteorological phenomena are probably enough in themselves to account for the popular legend of the Devil's Triangle. But on a cold day in an unexpected gale, even the most level-headed will attribute to the Stream a certain diabolism. ("It's true that in some conditions the Gulf Stream can dish out a most unpleasant day of sailing," notes The Navigator's Gulf Stream Companion. "This occurs primarily when a strong, steady wind blows from the northeast, contrary to the flow of the Gulf Stream. The northeast wind has the effect of foreshortening waves, inducing many to break when conditions might not otherwise dictate breaking waves, and imparting a greater force to those which would already be breaking.... It's no wonder that the Stream has such an evil reputation.") Also consider that the island in question has no drinking-water wells. (Traditionally residents captured rainwater in cisterns. These days a massive desalinator converts seawater -- as long as the machinery doesn't break down or run out of diesel fuel.) Nor is there a hospital. Expectant mothers often travel to Miami to give birth; Brown died there while receiving medical treatment for leukemia. Finally, think about riding out Hurricane Andrew on a sandbar, with absolutely nowhere to run. That's Bimini.

In 1935 Hemingway and Harcourt Brown met one another across the bar at the Compleat Angler Hotel, then and now the best-known watering hole. Brown was the barkeep and headwaiter, and he soon became Hemingway's de facto valet. The Compleat Angler, with its comfortably worn armchairs and wood-paneled walls, is pretty clearly the model for "Mr. Bobby's," a fictional saloon that crops up several times in Islands in the Stream. Mr. Bobby, the humorous bartender, may or may not be Harcourt Brown.

That same year, Brown married a chambermaid at the Angler named Alma Violet Saunders. The marriage was to last 62 years and produce five sons and two daughters. One thing the couple had in common was that they were both natural-born entrepreneurs. In her off hours, Alma baked bread and sold it from a small shopfront on King's Highway (one of the two principal thoroughfares -- both sand -- on the island.)

The Angler closed in 1942 because of problems related to World War II. In those days Nazi U-boats prowled the Gulf Stream; sometimes the burning cargo ships they had torpedoed could be seen from Miami Beach. Travel to the island was severely restricted, and its fledgling tourist trade shriveled. Brown chose this unlikely moment to get into shipping. The Alma B. is the descendant of Brown's first supply boat; in between there were half a dozen others running back and forth to Miami twice a week almost nonstop for more than 50 years. On the outbound trip, Brown exported fish and lobsters, which he harvested through a growing fleet of smacks operating as far afield as the Abacos. People eventually began calling him "Captain."

After the war Brown acquired a small parcel of land, built a ramshackle dock, and started Brown's Hotel & Marina. Later he bought the Compleat Angler from his former boss, an English widow who for one reason or another wasn't interested in returning to the island after the war. In 1958 Brown had the bright idea of importing a set of electrical generators, and soon anyone who wanted it had modern lighting in their homes. Tiny Bimini, with 1700 souls, was one of the first places in the Bahamas outside Nassau to possess the miracle of the light bulb.

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