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Key West's Literary Culture

Riding through the Old Town section of Key West.

Photo: Brooke Slezak

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.

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