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

Major crime on Bimini is a stolen boat; all crimes are rare by Miami standards. In this context, Ossie's murder was unthinkable. Although a suspect has been arrested, the motive for the crime remains murky and the loss more agonizing for the lack of closure. Brown kept his sorrows to himself and refrained from grieving in public.

Harcourt Brown was a man who understood the importance of distance, both emotional and physical. He did not, in today's parlance, put his business in the street; and there are no doubt a number of secrets that went with him to his grave overlooking the Gulf Stream.

On a clear night from the churchyard one can see a dome of light 50 miles away. Depending on one's experiences in Miami, or in cities generally, the golden glow across the water may seem lovely or sinister. Certainly the collective candlepower dwarfs the modest electrical efforts of Bimini, precocious as they might have been, and conjures the question of just how many places still exist where a single human being can transform his environment and shape his own destiny as Brown did.

He is remembered as the creator of Bimini's modern hospitality industry, but in fact a seasonal tourist trade had already been formed when he was still a bartender at the Compleat Angler 60 years ago. His real genius was to turn an implacable force to his own advantage. He did so with a mannered subtlety that is easily missed; that is to say, he was mindful to keep a certain distance from the colossus across the water even while engaging it in trade. By doing so he managed to maintain his own old-fashioned virtues and attempted to protect the integrity of his home.

The Gulf Stream owns the same mysterious meanders and fearsome northers that it did when Ponce de Leon first stepped ashore on Bimini five centuries ago, but it is less and less a barrier between the island and the mainland. In the days after Brown's death, engineers completed a massive antenna tower that will allow Bimini residents to receive cable television. Brown's Hotel & Marina, the old man's first success story, was sold this winter to new owners from another island. A promised renovation hasn't happened yet, and the famous docks where Hemingway knocked out yachtsman Joseph Knapp are missing a few planks here and there. Meanwhile, the developers of a 500-room resort on the north end of Bimini await word on a casino license. If approved by the national government, the casino would be only the fourth in the Bahamas and would almost certainly change the nature and number of visitors. The world on Bimini is growing wider, not narrower, and perhaps the island is living through the last days of its traditional identity, that of a sandbar happily lost in an ocean river the size of a hundred Mississippis.

On the Sunday after the funeral an attorney boarded the seaplane to Nassau after having conducted the reading of the will at the Brown home on King's Highway. A family friend suggests that Julian did not fare well in the estate's division, that Spence was given responsibility for the Alma B. and the shipping business and that control of the rest of Brown's island empire devolved to a daughter, Betty Sherman, whose reserve, rectitude, and perspicacity most resembled the old man's.

To visitors it hardly matters. The Compleat Angler is open every day; Ossie's band, the Calypsonians, plays nightly without him. When the sun goes down beyond Miami, customers crowd the bar and wander through the paneled rooms to look at the hundreds of photographs lining the walls. Most are of Hemingway and his pals, but a single small image set on a pillar in the main barroom shows Julian in 1960, when he represented the Bahamas in track and field at the Rome Olympics. Another, undated and hanging at chest level behind a door, shows Harcourt Brown sitting under a palm tree in a rare and unposed moment of leisure. It's a lovely image, and has only just begun to fade.

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