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

Brown was born on the island in 1914; he had no formal education beyond elementary school. By the Sixties he controlled all but one of the major hotels and marinas, all shipping in and out of Bimini, and the only public utility.

Perhaps it's the combination of watery vistas and arid soil that accounts for Bimini's exalted place in the firmament of drinking spots. The roaring boy of Oak Park, Illinois, liked to drink gin and tonics with Angostura bitters; when U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York showed up in 1968 he took to Scotch and milk, apparently picking up the habit from Harcourt Brown. (Both men suffered from ulcers, and Brown believed the drink soothed his stomach.) No one can remember seeing Brown falling-down drunk, but he wasn't a teetotaler, either. As busy as he kept himself, he always found time to relax. But even his leisure time had entrepreneurial overtones. Brown had an amazing knack for seating himself at the bar next to the most interesting people -- people who soon afterward did outrageous things that brought fresh customers to his hotels and marina slips.

Take Powell, for example, the first black congressman since Reconstruction. He arrived on Bimini with a beautiful woman who did not seem to be his wife; this after losing a libel suit in New York and getting embroiled in a corruption scandal so rank that his colleagues expelled him from Capitol Hill. Powell made the Compleat Angler the headquarters of his balmy exile and called Bimini "shaggy paradise." Soon there were more mysterious, beautiful women. Then there were planeloads of TV and print reporters in need of lodging for weeks on end. (Powell fought back and won a measure of vindication in the Supreme Court, as well as re-election, but by then he seemed to have lost interest in politics. He died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in 1972. His mistress scattered his ashes over Bimini.)

Presidential candidate Gary Hart was almost as good for business as Powell. On March 28, 1987, a cabin cruiser appropriately named Monkey Business pulled up to the dock at the Compleat Angler. The married Senator Hart proceeded up the hill with a paramour named Donna Rice. Within days, Brown's hotel rooms were once again booked solid with reporters come to cover the scandal.

By then Hemingway had long since blown his head off with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, leaving behind his thousand-page celebration of Bimini and various other islands in the stream. The book, originally intended as a trilogy of novels, was actually written at intervals during 1946-47 and 1950-51, years after the author had decamped from Bimini. The manuscript sat in the vaults of the Trust Company of Cuba in Havana until 1961 and was published, finally, in October 1970.

One thing the belated publication of the book suggests is that Hemingway may not deserve all the credit he's gotten for making Bimini the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Record-setting marlin, tuna, and wahoo have been caught near the island for most of this century, and Bimini's reputation was well established before Islands in the Stream appeared. Brown worked for 50 years to promote big game fishing. Naturally he had the grace (and business savvy) to name the two biggest fishing tournaments after Hemingway and Powell.

Our Lady and St. Stephen's Anglican Church is the largest house of worship on Bimini, but by the early afternoon of Saturday, June 21, every seat was taken, every folding chair at the back of the church occupied, and every bit of shade outside was filled up by mourners. Rarely has such a proliferation of ladies' hats been seen on either side of the Florida Straits. The well-dressed gentlemen sitting near the altar included the Right Reverend Drexel Gomez, Lord Bishop of Nassau; Cicero Fountain, former chief justice of the Bahamas; David Wallace, Bimini's newly elected representative to the national assembly; a deputy prime minister; a former governor general; and various mainlanders, including a state representative from Florida, Beryl Roberts-Burke.

Ten rotary fans tried to keep the heat at bay. In due time a funeral procession of some 300 people would form outside the church and walk with the body to the graveyard half a mile away. The interment itself would go on for more than an hour, with songs and prayers and, toward the end, a violent thunderstorm that seemed like a warning from on high about the perils of verbosity. First, though, Sir Orville Turnquest, the Queen's representative to the Bahamas, and Bishop Gomez, the nation's highest-ranking cleric, rose to enumerate Brown's accomplishments: congregational catechist for 50 years, president of the Bimini United Burial and Aid Society, justice of the peace, notary public, District Deputy Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks.

Everything, in short, except elected office. As Drexel noted: "[Brown] said that there was one thing for which he was most grateful: that God had delivered him from entering into politics."

Aside from this hint at humor, there was little mention of what Brown had actually been like, of his personality. Perhaps the assembled were so familiar with the subject as to make mention of it redundant. Perhaps the formality of the day warred against the notion of recounting anecdotes designed to illuminate his private identity. Or perhaps Brown was simply what he seemed in the eulogy: the quintessential family and civic man, pious and principled -- someone for whom the modern American brand of self-centered individualism could never be an option.

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