In Winter, U.S. Writing Talent Pools on the Sensual, Timeless Port of Key West
When the sun first assembles itself over the broken skyline of Key West, a thunderous light fills the city and everyone moves in stately flotation through streets that are conduits of something empyrean. Also, things can get sweaty.
Ponce de León dropped anchor at Key West in 1513—and promptly pulled it up again. The oyster-shaped coral reef off the coast of Florida had no fresh water to speak of and thus, he reasoned, could hardly boast a Fountain of Youth. Ah, but Ponce, look again: Past the lush swaths of palmetto and frangipani, among such haunting local ghosts as Papa Hemingway, James John Audubon and Harry Truman, walk a band of living artists who find in its tropical, end-of-the-world abandon a life-giving balm. There is a strange, manic spirit that writes upon the local garbage truck "We cater weddings" and inscribes a tombstone in the graveyard "I told you I was sick." The jugglers, trampolinists and fire-eaters performing on the docks are somehow no more and no less real than the feathers of famed fan dancer Sally Rand that are said to be scattered across the island. Tennessee Williams wrote Sweet Bird of Youth and The Night of the Iguana here only yesterday. "Time past has a wonderful way of remaining time present here," he says. "I once wrote a line, 'The day turns holy as though God moves through it.' At moments that's the way I feel about Key West."
The worldly and rich have naturally grasped at this Key to peace: Calvin Klein recently paid a record $975,000 for shelter on the island, joining such other landed squires as artist Jim Dine and sportscasters Frank Gifford and Curt Gowdy. But, more important, for the past few years the slow, steamy changelessness of the place has lured the American muse to winter here. On one recent afternoon—writers being in some respects no fools—a fair cross section of all U.S. literary circles could be found at the pools and beaches of Key West: poets James Merrill, John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur; prose writers Joseph (Eleanor and Franklin) Lash, Nancy (Men in Love) Friday, Philip (Horn of Africa) Caputo, Ralph Ellison and John Hersey. "It's the winter Hamptons," trumpets New York literary agent Jay Garon. Fellow agent and Key Wester Dick Duane exultantly dubs it "the new Bloomsbury." Non-agents demur. "Key West is the end of the line," says James (A Chorus Line) Kirkwood, who, along with writers Tom (92 in the Shade) McGuane and James Leo (Midnight Cowboy) Herlihy, came to town in the '60s. "It's a place for lost people who are a little tilted. It's such a crazy place and the craziness helps the writing."
To hear the locals talk, this six-and-a-half-square-mile island set in a shining sea is the greatest incentive to creativity since a Medici's change purse. "It was much more like a frontier town when I came—no Holiday Inns or McDonald's," says Tennessee, now 69, who has held court since 1949 from his cottage and gazebo. But he recently finished a new play, The Dancie Money, which is scheduled to open this spring in Chicago. "I still do my best work here," he says.
Likewise Joe Lash's new effort, based on the correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok and titled Eleanor in Love, is going, well, swimmingly. "It agrees with me, this being able to write in the morning when the mind is free, then in the afternoon being able to swim," he says. "It gets the writing done." A few blocks away, still recouping from three "deadly serious" games of anagrams with fellow poets Ciardi and Wilbur, James Merrill, 54, is busily preparing what he wryly calls a two-volume "tombstone edition" of his work, inspired continually by Key West's natural wonders. "I love the sunsets here," he says. "The light is marvelous." Alison (The War between the Tates) Lurie, who worried that the Key might be beautiful but dumb, has found otherwise. "It's got all you thought you'd miss in leaving New York," she says. "It's got a good bookstore, an arty movie theater and, most of all, artists and writers—people to talk to. I never knew a place like this existed." Nancy Friday appreciates the creature comforts along with the company. "I thought up the title for My Mother/My Self sitting under an umbrella at the Pier House," she says. "As a writer you usually have to wait so long for the rewards because the publishing process is so slow. Here your reward is right outside at the pool."
The writer who casts the longest shadow over Key West is one who died long ago: Ernest Hemingway. But in some respects his memory has become the island's nemesis. His old home is enshrined as a museum, placards with his likeness dot the landscape—and merchants are all too willing to supply whatever other mementos tourists demand. Says Wilbur: "They sell Hemingway T-shirts in five different colors at the bar where he didn't drink." Adds Lurie, 54: "The Hemingway mystique almost delayed my coming. I had this picture of an overweight, beefy man with hair on his chest drinking a good deal and shouting. I thought it might be a macho social world down here with all the women little and Southern and fluttery."
Then there is the local tourist trolley, the Conch Train. "Jimmy Herlihy and I always wanted to rob the Conch Train with a couple of horses and get all the tourists' money," says Kirkwood with a wistful smile. "But we figured the Key West jail wasn't worth the money." Kirkwood, 50, who is working on a new Broadway musical called Murder at the Vanities and a novel about his Hollywood childhood, is saddened by compromise—his own and Key West's. "I liked it when Key West was a Navy and shrimper hangout for all those people who sail to the end of the earth," he says. "I'd rather have it the way it was."
Actually, the old outlaw mania hasn't left—it's only taken on new masks. Caputo, 39, who is working on a novel about an itinerant news photographer called Del Corso's Gallery, appreciates the "fringy atmosphere. It's getting boutique-ized, but it still has a rowdy, raffish quality." Richard Wilbur, 59, who has been coming to the Key with his wife, Charlee, since 1967, finds the eccentricity of the place absolutely lovable. "One year the Fourth of July Parade here got lost," he reports happily. "Only in Key West could they screw up the parade route." It is a point of pride to Wilbur, who is currently working on a translation of Racine's Andromaque, that his first Key West home was once a house of ill repute managed by the infamous "Singapore Sadie."
Some of the island's peccadilloes go beyond mere eccentricity, however. No one can visit Key West for long without noticing that drugs are an important part of the economy. "The pirate tradition is part of Key West," observes Tony Tarracino, 65, the owner of Captain Tony's bar, where Hemingway did do serious drinking. "We are one of the main feeder lines for the drug trade in the U.S." Indeed, smugglers trying to outrun the Coast Guard regularly ditch bales of marijuana in the waters off the Key. The "conchs"—as native islanders are called—have nicknamed the packages "square grouper" in honor of a favorite game fish. T-shirts in town read "Save the Bales," and every effort is made to do so. One afternoon, when the cry "Square Grouper!" echoed through the halls of the pricey Pier House, the bar and dining room quickly emptied. Every dinghy, sunfish and ferry in the harbor was commandeered as citizens and tourists alike set out in pursuit of the prize catch. When the bale finally washed ashore, it was set upon and dissected with the Pier House's silverware. There is also a widespread taste in town for harder drugs. One freelance balladeer—sporting purple shorts, a yellow T-shirt, hiking boots and a fake handlebar mustache—sings for his supper on a local pier, regaling passersby with a lyric that runs, "I'm an old cowpoke. When my horse gets tired, I just give him some coke."
Predictably, the drug trade has some decidedly unfunny consequences. Former Fire Chief Joseph "Bum" Farto was arrested—and finally convicted—on three counts of drug trafficking. The chief disappeared, and gleeful residents began sporting "Where is Bum Farto?" T-shirts along Duval Street, the main drag. One local rumor has it that Farto is now driving a taxicab in Costa Rica. But Kirkwood has heard a more disturbing tale: "Some people say that Bum Farto is wearing cement shoes off the pier." Saloon keeper Captain Tony says corruption is "a lifestyle in Key West," and Caputo sadly concurs. "The ma-and-pa dealing is gone," he says. "Now it's the big stuff here." Dealers in Key West have become a discernible type. Says David Kaufelt, whose new novel, The Wine and the Music, is partially set on the island: "On the plane coming down here, you'll see a beautiful girl in silver leather trousers and silver glasses, and she'll get into a black Corvette with silver mirrored windows and you just know she's a cocaine dealer. There's an outlaw romance on this island."
For many years Key West has also been known for its vocal homosexual population. Two years ago a series of attacks against gays—including Williams and his friend, the writer Dotson Rader—received wide attention. But a community-wide effort has restored order; the revelers at the weekend "Tea Dances" at a guest house nicknamed "La Tee Da" are emboldened to swim bottomless without fear of reprisal. Indeed, most of the Key West writers say it is the democratic mélange—gays, straights, conchs, Cubans and even retired brass from the Navy base—that makes Key West so attractive. "At New York parties you get this feeling that you only see people like yourself," says Alison Lurie, now finishing her first non-fiction book, The Language of Clothes. "That's bad for writing—you need a mix." Kaufelt agrees. "At a party here," he says, "the mayor might come in a polyester suit, and the sheriff, and some Cubans, and some gays, and John Ciardi, and Richard Wilbur. It's a wonderful thing."
Part of the wonder is that the conchs so peacably co-exist with all the strange goings-on. But in fact the locals have certain strange practices of their own. In the black and Cuban communities, for example, voodoo is practiced. There are at least two witch doctors on the island who prescribe such remedies as ground lizard powder mixed with chinaberries (for cancer) and a stew of goat's blood and human hair (for migraines). Evan Rhodes (best known for his book The Prince of Central Park and author of the upcoming novel On Wings of Fire) reports with a shrug: "The guy on my corner splashes a glass of water on the street every time a stranger goes by to ward off the evil spirits."
To some on the island the most fearful evil spirit is the venality of the encroaching outside world. As Richard Wilbur puts it: "We don't need any more condominiums or little leather shops." His worry is pragmatic: He fears that an influx of tourists and property seekers will upset the Key's delicate balance. "It's like Isaiah's holy mountain," he says. "The lion and the lamb are lying down together here."
But his wife, Charlee, tells a story suggesting that Key Westers enjoy a madcap ethos deeper and stronger than any dissension that may break out in their green and pleasant land. "We were riding our bikes by the beach one morning and two cops in a parked squad car jokingly told us to slow down," she recalls. "Don't you two have anything better to do than kid around?" she chided. One of them swilled something cold from a bottle. "But ma'am," he said dolefully, "can't you see we're in love?"
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