Neptune Beach: Pete’s Bar

by Tim Gilmore, 7/7/2014

Sometimes it seems that every bar of a certain age claims Ernest Hemingway drank there. And maybe it’s true. But Pete’s Bar has the photos to prove it, even if guys with neck tattoos playing pool couldn’t tell you who Hemingway was or what he wrote. Hemingway wouldn’t have minded.

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A metal sign screwed into the wall shows a drunken cartoon Hemingway and says, “The Hemingway Years Spent Here 1933 1937.” A framed and blown-up photograph from the 1950s is captioned, “Ernest Hemingway and Beach Girls.” The anonymous “beach girls” look pretty bleary-eyed, but Hemingway’s eyes look like portals to a scrambled brain.

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Even if Hemingway didn’t really invent the Mojito or the Bloody Mary, he’s the classic example of the alcoholic writer. For Hemingway, how much you could drink was about your manliness—as was seemingly everything else for the writer who ran with the bulls in Pamplona, hunted lions at Kilimanjaro, and awarded Fidel Castro a fishing award in Cuba. He was as macho as a man could be until he put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger in 1961. Maybe that was his last act of machismo.

Besides Hemingway, Pete’s is famous as the oldest bar in Duval County. You can feel it in the sodden atmosphere of swirling cigarette smoke among walnut-hued walls. Somehow there’s a heaviness even in the conversation by the pool tables:

“I recognize you, man.” / “No way, man. Really? You remember me?” / “Yeah, man, you still got that skateboard?” / “Naw, man, I fuckin’ lost it.”

If history weren’t just the records, if history were all that happened in time, not just the story, wouldn’t most of it sound just like this?

During Prohibition, a bootlegger named Peter Jensen sold hooch from his oceanside shingle-walled house grocery. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed Prohibition in 1933, Jensen got the first liquor license in Duval County. Now Peter’s granddaughter Nancy Jensen owns Pete’s Bar and claims her entrepreneurial motto is “Change nothing.” Every now and then people who haven’t visited the beaches in decades come back and thank her, saying everything has changed but Pete’s Bar.

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Every Thanksgiving, a block party fills Pete’s Bar and First Street South and the beach. A place at the pool table still costs you a quarter. Beers are still cash-only. Regulars for the last 30 years who’ve contributed to making Pete’s “lived in” come back every other day and kids with dreadlocks come in and soak up the beer and the smoke and the years.

Hemingway frequented the bar and John Grisham sat in Pete’s and described it in his 2000 novel The Brethren, but the strangest writer to visit was surely the reclusive J. D. Salinger. After Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, brought the shock of the public eye in 1951, he became more and increasingly reclusive. Ten years later, Time magazine put Salinger on its cover while it paradoxically profiled “the life of a recluse.”

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Salinger died in New Hampshire in 2010. By then, “Salinger sightings” were reported almost as cult phenomena among sightings of other famous reclusive writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

According to several local publications, Salinger came to Jacksonville to see his son Matthew act at the Alhambra Dinner Theater toward town on Beach Boulevard, but a Public Broadcasting Service American Masters series timeline says that in 1982, the 63 year-old writer came to Jacksonville to see his new 37 year-old girlfriend, Elaine Joyce, perform at the Alhambra. She played the part of disillusioned housewife Anne Miller in Bob Randall’s 1972 play 6 Rms Riv Vu. Joyce later married the prolific playwright Neil Simon.

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photo courtesy The Florida Times-Union

The life of the bar is soaked into the walls, the sodded and saddened photos and guns, many of the faces. This place has lived, maybe not always the best life, but it’s lived many lives, and Liquor License No. 1 still opens, after every last night’s din, each day at noon, and welcomes every new surfer, redneck, skateboarder, beachcomber, recluse and writer who wants to come in.

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