Key West's Literary Culture
Published: November 2009
By Tom Austin
T+L explores a storied literary culture that is alive and thriving.
Block for block, Key West has to be the smartest town in America. Despite the slap of vulgarity that is the circa-1829 Duval Street, which attracts an eternal honky-tonk herd of cruise-ship gawkers, wayward sorority girls, and tipsy conventioneers, the community has always embraced the subtler realm of Ralph Ellison, John Dos Passos, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and Ann Beattie. Today’s literary locals cling to the everyday wonders of the town: browsing at Voltaire Books; picnics at Nancy’s Secret Garden, a tropical wonderland in Old Town created by artist Nancy Forrester; bike rides past landmarks like the former home of novelist James L. Herlihy (Midnight Cowboy), now owned by writer Brian Antoni. In the evenings, it’s theater at the Waterfront Playhouse, an art film at the nonprofit Tropic Cinema (founded, in part, by writer Jean Carper and George Cooper, a retired law professor and author), or a show at the improbably first-rate Red Barn Theatre on Duval Street, where local boy Richard Wilbur once helped out with Molière translations.
As it happens, Wilbur, a former U.S. poet laureate, will be back on Duval in January at the San Carlos Institute, a beautifully faded former Cuban consulate. He’ll be honored there during the Key West Literary Seminar, an open-to-the-public symposium, held yearly since 1983, that encapsulates the town’s steadfast cultivation. Sixty years of American poetry will be celebrated, with seven U.S. poets laureate in attendance—Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, Maxine Kumin, et al.—and events scheduled all over town. For one, Kumin will also be kicking off a lecture series at the Studios of Key West, an arts complex with gallery exhibitions and workshops.
This season’s guest speakers include Robert Stone, author of A Flag for Sunrise and Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. Stone came to Key West in the 1970’s during the post “grouper and grits” era, when the town was dirt cheap and Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison were young bohemians. Not many are all that young or bohemian anymore, and the literary crowd now includes a new crop of luminaries: Michael Mewshaw, Harry Mathews, Meg Cabot. Popular destinations, as with great lines in literature, become clichés because they are great, and to Stone, lingering over a beer in his unpretentious house, Key West is still a remarkable place with “less tolerance for McMansions and the general crappiness of American life.”
Architecture is destiny, and Key West’s Old Town—a dizzying array of Queen Anne, American Foursquare, and Classical Revival work—is a true neighborhood, not a theme park, more Caribbean than American in its aesthetic clashes. A $5 million mansion might sit next to beat-up Bahamian Conch shacks, an evangelical church, or a drag queen’s front yard with a dozen pairs of high-heel pumps jammed into the trunk of a cabbage palm tree. Feral chickens frequent even the better addresses, and, bright and early, crowing roosters rouse all classes of society.
Across the street from the clothing-optional Garden of Eden bar is the Caribbean colonial grace of the Key West Heritage House Museum, which dates to 1834. Since the 1930’s, the property has been owned by the Porter family, one of the founding clans of Key West: Robert Frost wintered in a garden cottage here between 1945 and 1960, with his hostess, Miss Jessie Porter, entertaining such legends of wit as Tallulah Bankhead. A few blocks away, the circa-1891 Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House features a dripping-with-malice portrait of Truman Capote, waving a 1976 American Bicentennial flag and pistol, a Vote for the Man sign and a bloody young couple in the foreground: it was done by Capote’s fellow all-star of writing, Tennessee Williams.
To the remaining old guard of Key West, gentrification has brought better food—the restaurants Antonia’s and Michaels; conch salad at Eaton Street Seafood Market; mango bread at Cole’s Peace Artisan Bakery—and mixed blessings. William Wright, who goes back to the era of poet James Merrill, thinks that bohemia has changed forever. “One holiday weekend,” he says, “I counted 25 private jets at the airport.” Alison Lurie, author of the set-in-Key West novel The Last Resort, worries that “only rich writers can afford it here now.” Edmund White, whose latest memoir, City Boy, came out this fall, has been renting Lurie’s guest cottage most winters since 1979. He finds that Key West has become “fancier than Provincetown” and crossed the tipping point. “Gays are always the worker ants of society,” he says, “pioneering places and eventually pricing themselves out of the towns they build.”
Beauty still unfurls in the most unlikely places. On Duval, tourists feed the multinational beast that is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and futilely prowl for something real. But right behind the strip is a ramshackle compound with piles of old bottles, withered magazines, and battalions of cats. This is the studio of Suzie DePoo, a character out of Grey Gardens who hails from one of the town’s most august families. Her wonderful work, which is carried by the local Gallery on Greene, is all angels, unicorns, Garden of Eden scenes, and hope. She has spent 50 years in this house and is an artist given to the local Conch philosophy: “I guess Key West is like life,” she says, “and all the things that happen to you without you even knowing.”
New Town, largely rooster-free and more suburban in tone than Old Town, is also about the life of thinking people. Susan Henshaw Jones, president and director of the Museum of the City of New York, shares a perfectly calibrated Modernist spread with her husband, Richard K. Eaton, a federal judge, and enjoys the “mini-Manhattan” conversational gene pool. Phyllis Rose, author of The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, lives nearby with her artist husband, Laurent de Brunhoff, son of the creator of the Babar series. Inside his studio, de Brunhoff unveils a drawing for Babar’s USA, taken from a gathering at the couple’s house with the real-life literary models of Annie Dillard, of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Maytrees, and her husband, Robert D. Richardson, the author of acclaimed biographies of such subjects as William James.
Every writer in town knows David Wolkowsky, “Mr. Key West,” the Conch equivalent of Gerald and Sara Murphy. (On Wolkowsky’s private island, Ballast Key, Tennessee Williams would write while listening to Billie Holiday records.) After an oceanfront lunch at the writer’s hangout Saluté Ristorante Sul Mare, Wolkowsky points out the site of the old Sands Beach Club, his bar-and-restaurant complex that once served as an iconic pit stop for the chic. Standing by the ocean and looking out over the last remaining legacy of the Sands, an ornate wooden dock that now adorns the Reach Resort, Wolkowsky contemplates the horizon of memory: “We had real people here then,” he says. “People like Rudolf Nureyev and Leonard Bernstein, not tourists.”
The notion of the real Key West is a dreamscape that slips out of your grasp the tighter you try to hold on, and the echoes of the past are everywhere. But at this moment, new possibilities in the life of a remarkably thoughtful American resort island are created every day. At a recent fund-raiser for the Florida Keys SPCA, Claudia Miller—whose Old Town house includes an art studio and her own portrait of the Buddha, painted on the exterior wall of her meditation room—talks about Key West’s offering a learning curve for America. “The rest of the country could take something from the creative spirit here, the way it expands your sensibilities,” she says. “This place is about the mind and what the mind wants to do.”
Tom Austin is a T+L contributing editor.
Key West, which is a three-hour drive from Miami, has its own airport; most flights connect through Atlanta or other Florida cities. Bicycles are the best way to get around.
Great Value Reach Resort Beach Club Sister property to the Casa Marina, featuring an outpost of the Strip House. 1435 Simonton St.; 305/296-5000; doubles from $149.
Antonia’s Modern Mediterranean. 615 Duval St.; 305/294-6565; dinner for two $75.
Eaton Street Seafood Market 930 Eaton St.; 305/295-3474; lunch for two $25.
Hogfish Bar & Grill Tables overlooking a dock crowded with shrimp boats. 6810 Front St., Stock Island; 305/293-4041; dinner for two $50.
Michaels Steaks and seafood in Old Town. 532 Margaret St.; 305/295-1300; dinner for two $65.
Saluté Ristorante Sul Mare 1000 Atlantic Blvd.; 305/292-1117; dinner for two $75.
See and Do
Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House 281 Front St.; 305/295-6616; kwahs.com.
For our insider picks, from cool vintage shops to authentic Cuban restaurants, visit the T+L Miami destination guide.