For those wanting to escape from America without ever actually leaving it there was never a better bolt hole than Key West.
People in a certain condition succumbed to a gravitational force that drew them to what was literally the end of the road—US Route 1 that runs more than 2,360 miles from the Canadian border in Maine to the town that sits at the base of the Florida Keys, barely above sea level, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.
Now, once more, as Key West stitches itself slowly back together after being whacked by another killer hurricane, you might wonder, why did people love such a place so much?
All I can do in reply is offer my own personal testimonial. This puts me in an uncomfortable conflict between nostalgia and reality. Key West is one of those places that feeds a legend far bigger than it physically seems able to support— to be precise, it is only three and a half miles long and barely a mile wide, mean elevation eight feet, highest point 18 feet.
For about a century and a half an awful lot of drama has been visited on that space. Some of it was beyond human design, like the hurricanes. Most of it was man-made, including every shade of malfeasance, a wide range of creative talents including one or two approaching genius, and successive waves of mere mortals who sought, and found, the haven from America’s many conformities that they craved.
The lure for me was Hemingway. Few writers have so effectively served as boosters for a place as Hemingway has for Key West. To be sure, there isn’t a strong connection between the place and Hemingway’s work as there is, for example, between Dickens and London or Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence. To Have and Have Not is located there but Spain, Africa and Cuba were far richer territory for his muse.
The real importance of Key West for Hemingway is that between 1928 and 1939 it grounded an incessantly restless man firmly enough for him to turn out his best work in an astonishing run that included A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa and a large part of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
In Key West Hemingway was a very large fish in a small pond where he could also literally chase after very large fish. Pilar, the boat he built for deep sea fishing, became his base for frequent living enactments of the contest, so central to his nature, between macho man and the giant marlin spewing a torrent of its blood as the hook landed and took its hold. By then Hemingway’s standing was big enough that his peers (and his editor) would come down to the Keys to pay homage, staying at the La Concha Hotel on the main drag, Duval, and walking the few blocks to the house Hemingway built at 907 Whitehead Street.
Following in their steps, I didn’t expect Key West to give me any revelation about Hemingway or his art or his demons. It was 1972. I had been covering the Democratic convention at Miami Beach. As all the pols and delegates headed back north I drove the 150 or so miles south, leaving the mainland for the archipelago of 29 islands linked by bridges, the most spectacular of them being seven miles long. The sheer hubris of occupying such a tenuous location was as breathtaking as the beauty of it: the rolling blue-green Atlantic on one side, the mangrove-filtered Gulf on the other.
Key West and the Keys have bounced through a wild succession of booms and busts since the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1972 Key West was a study in carefully sustained lassitude. I drove deliberately to the end of the road, to the old Havana Dock, where there happened to be a motel, the Pier House, I had heard of as a lively scene.
Indeed, in the motel’s bar, the Chart Room, there was a guy playing his own music, being paid for in drinks, who seemed really good. It was Jimmy Buffet, already dreaming up a hallucinatory universe called Margaritaville. But then it was still a dream, in a town that seemed full of them even if most would never make it out of a bar. Even the sunset was like a shot of weed. The great molten ball sank as though seeking a slow, cooling immersion in the torpid Gulf waters.
I saw that sunset from Mallory Square, a grand name for a seriously under-used dock. One tramp steamer was tied up, so tired looking that it didn’t seem likely ever to raise anchor again. A hippie snake charmer, who had his own regular crowd joshing him, played as the light went. Given the simple physical asset of its location, Key West, even down on its luck, cast an inimitable spell.
Mallory Square, it turned out, had been part of a restoration plan carried out in the 1960s. Before that, the surrounding docks were ridden with rats and rot and signs warned “Fish at your own risk.” That was the final sad lingering of a golden age. In the 1880s this had been the largest and most secure deepwater dock in the Gulf of Mexico and Key West the largest city in Florida. A shipping line provided passages to major ports on the east coast and to Cuba.
The town that grew from this wealth looked more Caribbean than American. At its heart were 90 square blocks of houses built in the Bahamian vernacular, many by ship’s carpenters with lower and upper level porches, gingerbread detailing and tin roofs to collect rainwater, since fresh water was in short supply.
The first wave of money to build the town was from the salvaging of the many shipwrecks. This was followed by two industries that provided America with indigenous products: Cuban-style cigars, as many as 100 million a year rolled by Cuban artisans in scores of factories, and 90 per cent of the nation’s market for natural sponges. The town’s ethnic diversity, including many Cuban and Caribbean immigrants, was unique in America before the twentieth century development of the Florida mainland.
A naval base, an army base and a coast guard station represented the interests of a government that still seemed far distant, creating more the feeling of an exotic colony than part of a state of the union. But the twentieth century ended that isolation and the consequences were troublesome.
In 1912 the railroad driven through Florida by the New York oil magnate and entrepreneur, Henry Flagler, finally reached Key West. The railroad linked the islands through a series of trestles, bridges and viaducts. Construction had been halted several times by hurricanes. In one of them 70 men were swept away and never seen again
The extension from Miami to Key West never made money. By the time Hemingway arrived in 1928 the service was reduced to one train a day in each direction and the company was in receivership. The Depression hit hard. By 1934 80 per cent of Key West’s population of 11,000 were either destitute or on relief.
In the age of the automobile what the Keys needed was a continuous highway from Miami instead of a poorly-maintained road that involved frequent ferry crossings. Mother Nature obliged. On Labor Day, 1935 Flagler’s creation became The Railroad That Went to Sea. A hurricane with the same power as this month’s Irma basically blew away the whole thing. It was replaced in 1938 by a new two-lane highway, grandly named the Overseas Highway, some of it using the old rail bed. It was built by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a forerunner of FEMA.
Through this economic death spiral Hemingway only once engaged in political or social action. The 1935 hurricane generated a 20-foot high wave of water that swept away a camp of World War vets who had not been warned or evacuated. Hundreds drowned. Hemingway railed against the negligence in a piece headlined Who Murdered the Vets? for the Marxist paper New Masses.
Hemingway’s most direct contribution to Key West’s economy was and remains the publicity he gave to a bar. It began as a ramshackle joint kept by one of his drinking buddies, Joe Russell, and named Sloppy Joe’s. In To Have and Have Not it appears as Freddy’s. Thanks to Hemingway’s boost it moved from a back street to larger premises on Duval Street in 1937. One day a striking leggy reporter named Martha Gellhorn met Hemingway there and, years later, became the most independently accomplished of his wives.
In 1972 I drank daiquiris at the bar—allegedly it was Hemingway’s recipe, the papa doble, two and a half jiggers of white rum, juice of two limes and half a grapefruit, six drops of maraschino liqueur, no sugar. (Every bar in town had its own variations, some employing coconut.) And, of course, I bought the T-shirt, even though I realized that this disqualified me from taking the aloof position that the whole thing was by then part of a tourist trap in which all connection with the 1930s original was impossible.
But there was still an off-planet quality to the place at that moment. The Democratic convention site at Miami Beach had been patrolled by Huey choppers, the black bats in the skies of Vietnam, looking for protesters. Here at the end of road that drumbeat was easily forgotten. Walking around the old town there was evidence of a quiet wealth at work renovating the Bahamian houses. Someone said it was getting to be Nantucket with palm trees.
In fact, an unplanned gentrification was taking place, thanks in part to the gay community. Key West had been relaxed about its gay community for decades. Tennessee Williams had replaced Hemingway as the most eminent writer in residence; Truman Capote and Gore Vidal were frequent visitors. For many gays it was like living amid the antebellum elegance of the South without the prejudice plus the intellectual life of a cosmopolis, with a touch of the decadence of Weimar Berlin—all playing out discreetly in what superficially looked like a backwater.
I liked Key West so much that during the 1970s I returned for several long vacations with my family. The first time we arrived in a style that felt like a glorious time warp—we flew from Miami in a 40-year-old DC-3, no higher than 1,500 feet all the way, slowly and with a view of every island between the two seas.
We got to know a number of those who qualified to be called Conchs—the authentic natives named for the shell that once provided a food staple for the poor. We discovered some of the more affably picaresque characters, including a former bank robber from Boston who, having served his time, decided that the tropics was a more congenial opportunity for a new line of business that didn’t involve being the getaway driver. The Conchs were worried that a combination of gentrification and tourism would slowly eradicate their wayward approach to life.
The threat was real and an increasingly common one: discovery. There is a delicate equipoise in the lives of special places like Key West that depends on casual rather than commercially promoted discovery. For a century or more the cycles of boom and bust had managed to control Key West’s appeal; each time it reached the apotheosis of its basic character its growth was checked by some cruel blow, economic or natural. This may seem too Darwinian, too much of a caprice. But it worked. Will Irma do the same?
The last time I saw Key West cruise ships were docked in Mallory Square and Duval Street had 20 T-shirt outlets for every bar. An island just offshore from the old Havana Dock that the Navy, with its love of poetry, had named Oil Tank Island, was now transformed into a luxury resort. The Mile Zero sign on Route 1 felt like an invitation to go north rather than the threshold of a sanctuary.