The Bell Tolls for Him
On a full moon night preceding the longest day of summer, a casket came to be placed aboard the Alma B., an 85-foot cargo vessel berthed beside the Twelfth Avenue drawbridge on the Miami River. The planked afterdeck of the ship would normally have been crowded with sacks of potatoes, cases of soft drinks, and shipping pallets laden with cinder blocks and lumber, but tonight the stern was empty save for a yellow forklift chained in place against rough seas, and the coffin, sheathed in cardboard and covered with flowers.
The man inside the casket had lived 83 years and been dead nine days. His face was yellow-white in death, with two gray tufts of hair protruding from above a pair of fleshy ears. Thick spectacles straddled his bulbous nose, and he wore a starched white collar and lace jerkin denoting long service in the Anglican Church. Had he opened his eyes and looked up, he would have seen that the inside of the coffin lid was embroidered with a likeness of the Alma B., overflown by a pair of seagulls, and with his name, Capt. Harcourt Neville Brown.
A midnight traveler crossing the drawbridge might have stopped to watch what now unfolded, though in fact no pedestrian happened along and the scene went unnoticed by passersby in cars. Two dozen men and women gathered around the casket and were led in prayer by a pastor from Fort Lauderdale. The prayer went on for several minutes, stopping once for a passing jet and then rising and falling in rhythmed exhortations that were answered by the crowd with mmm-hmms and amens. After that the preacher removed himself to the dock and helped cast off the lines. A tricky current caused the Alma B. to collide briefly with the drawbridge, crushing the starboard running light and a portion of the pilothouse ladder. But soon the ship made its way to the mouth of the river, thence to the sea buoy marking the end of Government Cut.
In deference to the dead, no beer drinking was to be permitted on the stern, and once this prohibition was announced all sinners moved quickly to the bow. A brother-in-law of the departed, a Mason, hunkered on a milk crate and kept vigil through the night, in accord with the custom of Masons. Aside from these gestures the atmosphere was markedly unsentimental, as the dead man had been in life. The relatives and family friends who had joined the corpse for its final voyage felt little compulsion to talk about Brown's passing. Ladies dozed in lawn chairs in the galley, and the mates' and navigator's bunks filled up with sleeping children. On the bow, conversation turned to the things conversation turns to at sea: boats, fish, men and women, the sea itself. Around three a.m. a son of the deceased, Capt. Spence Brown, took a break from the helm, climbed down to the stern, and promptly went to sleep on a comforter spread out on top of his father's coffin.
A grandson (one of 30 grandchildren in all) assumed the wheel, turned up Clarence Carter on the tape player, and steered east on Jupiter toward the far edge of the Gulf Stream and the island of Bimini beyond.
"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 a 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. The house was painted white to be cool in the summer and it could be seen from a long way out in the Gulf Stream. It was the highest thing on the island except for the long planting of casuarina trees that were the first thing you saw when you raised the island out of the sea. Soon after you saw the dark blur of casuarina trees above the line of the sea, you would see the white bulk of the house. Then, as you came closer, you raised the whole length of the island with the coconut palms, the clapboarded houses, the white line of the beach, and the green of the South Island stretching beyond it."
The house described in paragraph six of Islands in the Stream is the Bimini Blue Water Resort, one of four hotels and marinas owned at various times by Harcourt Brown. It is no longer the first building one sights when approaching Bimini by sea, that tall order having passed to Our Lady and St. Stephen's Anglican Church. On chilly winter nights at the hotel you can eat an excellent lobster salad and toast your friends and your shins beside the island's only fireplace, the same one described in loving detail by the hero of Hemingway's posthumous sea tale.
Hemingway first came to Bimini in 1934 and got so excited blasting away at a shark with a Colt pistol that he managed to shoot himself in both legs. All healed up, he returned in 1935 and spent the summer on the island with his sons.
"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.
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.
"We are shocked and saddened, but we will survive the passing of Captain Brown," Sir Turnquest noted. "This community will continue to benefit from all that he has done to make Bimini a fishing and hospitality leader. This community will continue to benefit from the steps he took to ensure its security. This church, which he loved passionately, will certainly endure this passing, but terrible, darkness. And from a life so bold, so rich, so creative, so enterprising, so industrious, so generous, we are left, strange as it may seem at this sad moment, with a gain -- with a profit.
"And so, as we pay our funerary farewells to the man, to the patriarch, to the justice of the peace, to the all-encompassing entrepreneur, to the father of the Bimini community, I can think of no more appropriate epitaph than that which was voiced by Marc Antony at the burial of Julius Caesar." Turnquest paused, his voice lowering and softening: "'His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.'"
Had Brown been alive he might have smiled, partly abashed but partly gratified. Funerals are for the living, and whatever else was true, every hotel room and boat slip on the island was rented and the rum would most certainly flow that night.
Neither Sir Turnquest nor Bishop Gomez chose to dwell on the private sorrows Brown faced during the last three decades of his life. They were serious, numerous, and entirely unexpected.
The sorrows began in 1970 when Brown's son Frank was electrocuted while working inside his father's power plant. (Soon after, Brown sold the generators to the government-owned Bahamas Electrical Corporation.) Last year another son, Ossie, died in a coma after being beaten with a lead pipe by a man who broke into his house.
The two horrific deaths were like bookends framing the problem of son number three, Julian. The details of his predicament are contained in a series of case files housed in a federal records depository in Atlanta, but the long and short of it is this: Soon after Frank's death, Julian traded in his lobster skiff for a 36-foot Cigarette boat with a lot of horsepower hung off the transom, and his name began to be known in certain business circles in Miami that had only an indirect connection to the fishing or hospitality industries.
By 1975 Julian had been indicted for smuggling cocaine and bringing undocumented Cubans to the United States. He was for a time a fugitive from justice and briefly retained the services of famous (and now imprisoned) Miami drug lawyer Mel Kessler. In the end, Julian declared himself guilty to reduced charges and showed up at the federal work camp at Eglin Air Force Base on June 16, 1976, to begin serving a four-year sentence. While there, Julian worked as a cook, went to church every Sunday, and became a star participant in the Toastmasters Club. According to federal records, he also worked as an informant for the DEA for several months before reporting to prison.
Biminians have always done what is necessary to survive, and smuggling is nothing new to the island. But Julian's involvement in the drug trade seemed like evidence of abject disdain for his father's favorite adage: "Slow dollar better than a fast dollar." It was during the Eighties that Harcourt Brown's work came to fruition and his wealth became apparent. At the same time, bales of cocaine and marijuana fairly rained out of the nighttime sky, to be taken by fast boat from the Bahamas to South Florida. Some wondered if the two phenomena were connected; after all, Harcourt Brown controlled Bimini's docks. "You don't become a multimillionaire on a desert island by exporting a few lobsters and renting hotel rooms," says a former smuggler in Miami. The rumors endured, and more than twenty years after Julian's first run-ins with the American authorities, a few people on Bimini will even speculate that Julian's high-stakes smuggling career had something to do with Ossie's murder. All of this, naturally, has bred a degree of defensiveness in Brown's survivors. During an interview with Alma Brown, the widow offered a sprightly but entirely unsolicited denial of any drug-money taint on the family holdings.
Aubrey Sherman, the septuagenarian bartender at the Harbour Lounge, is among those who consider the rumors complete poppycock. "Every family has its black sheep, and Julian's errors of youth were something people could seize on to criticize Harcourt. You see, there are people who are jealous that Harcourt could put his hand on anything and make it succeed. What they forget is the years of hard work that went into his successes."
Surviving sons Julian and Spence, whatever their considerable strengths, do not possess their father's charm. Both men can be abrasive, and the effect is to push people away instead of drawing them in. It was Ossie who had the natural warmth and subtle social skills that are crucial for doing business in a small place. At the time of his death, Ossie was managing both the Compleat Angler and the Bimini Blue Water Resort. His band, the Calypsonians, performed at the Angler virtually every night, with himself as lead singer and songwriter. (A placard on the porch offers an example of his verse: "When you're tired of catching fish/The Compleat Angler has the things you wish/Go up there and have a ball/Oswald welcomes one and all.") He served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and was a joiner of half a dozen civic organizations. In short, he was the beloved heir apparent to Harcourt's throne.
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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.