Unlocking Key West
Caribbean Languor, Bohemian Flair
By Sharon McDonnell
endearing about a town that sees sunsets as cause for celebration.
As the sun sinks into
the Gulf of Mexico, Key West marks it nightly with jugglers who toss
flame-topped batons and knives, tightrope walkers and other street theater.
It's a bit over-the-top, as are many things here -- like the roosters who
strut the streets, crowing at all hours, the "Conch Republic" flags and
passports, and the10-day Fantasy Fest where flamboyantly-costumed revelers
and their spiffily-costumed pets celebrate Halloween. Not to mention
tombstones that coyly note, "I told you I was sick."
Then there's the
tombstone that kept bumping up against my feet on the floor of Captain
Tony's Saloon, inscribed "Reba Sawyer, 1900-1950," which begged for an
It seems a man
discovered after his wife died that she had been having an affair for 10
years with a man, whom she used to meet at Captain Tony's, thanks to love
letters she left behind. One day, the man drove by, dumped her headstone on
the sidewalk in front, and shouted, "She wanted to be here so much, now she
can be here for all eternity," our waitress said.
After bartender Tony
Tarrancino heard Reba's kids didn't want her headstone back, the future bar
owner and future Mayor of Key West (1987-89), imbedded it in the floor of
the bar. This is the original Sloppy Joe's where Ernest Hemingway drank
mightily and met his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, before owner
Joe Russell, a fishing buddy of Papa's, moved it around the corner to
protest a $1-a-week rent increase. Fading campaign posters and newspaper
clips noting Jimmy Buffett of "Margaritaville" fame would be Captain Tony's
campaign manager hang on the wall, while bras, license plates and business
cards dangle from the ceiling.
A freewheeling bohemian
streak and a Caribbean languor fill the subtropical air on this island --
the southernmost town in the mainland U.S., twice as close to Cuba (90 miles
away), as to Miami. Carol O'Shaughnessy, a local publicist, told me she once
saw her husband, a mortgage broker, staring pensively in the mirror one day.
"I'm meeting a client for the first time today -- I wonder if I should wear
shoes," he said.
Key West even seceded
briefly from Monroe County and the U.S., declared itself the "Conch
Republic," and printed its own currency and passports. Miffed that the U.S.
Border Patrol set up a roadblock and began searching all Keys-bound cars on
US Highway 1 for drugs or illegal aliens -- causing miles-long traffic jams
-- the Mayor led the five-day revolt in 1982. The town then "surrendered," a
good excuse to party for a week. Today, Conch Republic flags -- a conch
shell inside a sunburst, with the motto "We seceded while others failed" --
and passports are sold all over Key West.
four-by-two-mile island at the end of the Overseas Highway, an hour-long
flight from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, is eminently walkable and a delight to
the eye. An architectural medley of century-old wood frame houses ranges
from Victorian style with gingerbread trim, towers and bay windows, Greek
Revival-style columns and widow's walks, Bahamian style with louvered
shutters and overhanging eaves, to Gulf Coast-style "shotgun" houses,
inspired by the Caribbean and West Africa. Lush palm trees and fuchsia
bougainvillea nearly strangle the houses and many B&B's, mostly white, but
Key West has lured
writers like a magnet, from Hemingway to Tennessee Willhiams, Wallace
Stevens, James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop. Hemingway lived with his second
wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy Vogue magazine editor he met in
Paris, in a Moorish-style villa her uncle bought for them in 1931. He wrote
"To Have and Have Not," about Depression-era Key West, "For Whom the Bell
Tolls," and other works in his studio in a former carriage house, which he
reached by a rope bridge from the main house.
No genteel poverty for
Papa -- the villa's tall shuttered windows open onto lush palm-filled
gardens, the carved mahogany bed, dining table and chairs are from
17th-century Spain, and a cat figurine is a gift from Picasso. (It was
stolen but found damaged, so a replica now takes its place.)
Here's Hemingway with wife #1, Hadley Richardson, with whom he fled to Paris
and Switzerland. She strikingly resembles Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse he
loved while wounded in World War I. And here are wives #2, #3 and #4 --
Pauline, Martha Gellhorn, who moved to Cuba with Hemingway, and Mary Welch,
a Time journalist with whom he lived in Cuba and Idaho, where he
committed suicide in 1961.
The swimming pool was
built by Pauline while Hemingway was in Spain covering the Civil War with
Gellhorn, his future third wife. Angry when he heard it cost $20,000, the
author threw a penny on the ground, and said she had spent his last cent.
Pauline embedded it in the cement, where it remains today. About 60 cats
prowl the grounds -- descendants of the six-toed Hemingway pet, Snowball --
and one reclined regally on the bed for photo sessions.
One of the biggest
collections of shipwrecked treasure anywhere is on display
at the Mel Fisher
Maritime Heritage Society Museum. Jewelry, gold, silver and gems salvaged
from two 17th-century Spanish galleons, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the
Santa Margarita, after a 16-year search by a team led by the late Fisher,
an ex-chicken farmer from Indiana who opted for a more glamorous life, are
valued at over $400 million. The "poison cup," a gold goblet with dragon
designs dating from 1620, once contained a stone believed to protect the
drinker against poison. A sign notes no magic, just science, was responsible
-- the gallstone of a goat or llama, whose protein can detect arsenic, was
used. The collection's single most valuable item is a raw emerald crystal,
valued at more than $500,000.
One distinctive area of
Key West is Bahama Village, where historically many Bahamians and
Afro-Cubans have lived Filled with one-story shotgun houses, small cottages,
and narrow lanes, it's also home to Blue Heaven, a restaurant where I swore
I was on a Caribbean island. Amid the roosters and cats underfoot under the
palms, seafood specialties are served at casual picnic tables, washed down
with wines from a list of 160 selections from France, Italy, Australia,
Chile and Spain. I had a shrimp omelet crammed with cheese and scallions for
breakfast here, and if it wasn't for previous commitments I would happily
have dined here nightly on dishes like yellowtail snapper with citrus beurre
blanc or Caribbean-spiced grouper.
The "Conch Train"
trolley tour is a delightful way to hear Key West's intriguing history,
peopled by Cuban cigar-makers, New England sea captains, pirates, Bahamian
spongers, fishermen, wreckers and treasure hunters. For a shining couple of
years in the 1800's Key West became the richest town per capita in the U.S.,
thanks to the wrecking industry -- salvaging cargo from shipswrecks. The cry
"Wreck Ashore!" sent men racing to their boats -- first one there won the
lion's share of the pickings.
"Even if it did have
the wrong initials on it, we had beautiful china, jewelry and furniture,"
Robert, my trolley tour guide, noted drily.
One thing found both
sitting on plates and walking around Key West is a "conch." A large
snail-like sea creature and food staple of Keys natives for centuries, it's
found in conch chowder (tomato-based or creamy), deep-fried fritters, or raw
in ceviche and salads. But people born in Key West are known as "conchs;"
while more recent residents are called "freshwater conchs."
Duval Street, the
mile-long main street that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic
Ocean, is lined with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops from tacky to
upscale, and art galleries. I saw a cocker spaniel topple off a bar stool at
The Bull here (his owner didn't look too good, either.) Raucous at night as
bar-hoppers do the "Duval crawl," it extends from Mallory Square -- site of
the sunset celebrations, near both Captain Tony's on Greene Street and the
new Sloppy Joe's on Duval -- to South Beach, a . palm-fringed beach.
Duval Beach Club, one
of three restaurants actress Kelly McGillis owns here, overlooks the beach.
Here I had a killer seafood pasta -- shrimp, scallops, mangoes, and sundried
tomatoes with white wine cream sauce. Directly across the street are two
ornate mansions. The J. Vining Harris House, a Queen Anne-style beauty built
circa 1900 for a judge, was a popular waterfront nightclub frequented by
Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal in the 1950's. Next door,
the E. H. Gato, Jr. House, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1885 by the son
of Key West's first cigar magnate, is today the Southernmost Point
Guesthouse, since.the buoy marking the southernmost spot on the U.S.
mainland is nearby.
A favorite activity of
mine in Key West was figuring out the best bars and restaurants to stare at
the sunset, the best show in town. I found Billy Fish Bar and Grill,
outdoors on a pier topped by flaming torches facing the Gulf, which belongs
to Ocean Key Resort, a great spot for a casual, reasonably-priced drink. A
top contender for gourmet outdoor dining, with a view of the Gulf and the
flame-topped pier is Pier House Resort & Spa, where "New Calypso Harvest"
cuisine is served.
Luckily, new sunsets
are born every night. My quest continues.
IF YOU GO:
The Florida Keys Web
Key West Chamber of
Island City Strolls