The Voices of Key West
Judy Garrison attends the annual Key West Literary Seminar and gets a rare look inside Tennessee Williams’ former home on the island.
The voices are here. They float along with the island breezes, shuffle alongside each traveler, lazily amble with the roosters crossing Duval Street. The words are spoken in Cuban sandwich shops, adult entertainment bars as well as the Irish pub that flanks Sloppy Joe’s. Murmurs of history dictate leisurely schedules, and yells of nightly celebrations make this world unlike any other. For it is in Key West that deadlines and schedules are as insignificant as the dress code, as unpretentious as an evening at the lighthouse, as routine as the bohemian in flip-flops.
Free spirits have long drifted to the edge of this world. Many seeking seclusion and serenity, their stimulus for their offerings to a world in need of clarity.
There are the old voices that have roamed these streets, the ones that have left enduring stories and intoxicating words.
At the corner of Whitehead and Olivia streets, Ernest Hemingway’s home, now a museum, lays claim to the first pool on the island, with a cemented “last penny” as a reminder of what the pool and his ex-wife Pauline cost him. He cavorted there through the 1930s, and in moments of genius, in his second-story studio, penned “A Farewell to Arms.”
Wallace Stevens (Auroras of Autumn), a corporate lawyer and 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, considered Key West his heaven, enabling him to leave what society expected of him behind in Connecticut. From 1922 to 1940, he vacationed at the Casa Marina Resort, often meeting other writers. It was there he met Robert Frost and voiced criticisms of Frost’s work, as he did with most writers he encountered. Stevens’ jealousy and critiques were often fueled by his inebriated state, which Frost spoke about at a University of Miami lecture according to The Florida Book Review.
Stevens also had Hemingway in his cross-hairs.
In Hemingway’s words from “Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961:”
He came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc … So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing [sic] just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’ Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly [sic] missed and I knocked all him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all …
Although Stevens healed and apologized, Hemingway still scorned him in print, stating that Stevens “practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters.”
And there are many more who understood the spell of Key West. Phillip Caputo (“A Rumor of War“) frequented the Full Moon Saloon; Elizabeth Bishop (“North & South“) lived on White St.; James Leo Herlihy (“Midnight Cowboy“) lived on Baker’s Lane; Richard Wilbur, John Hersey, John Ciardi and Ralph Ellison all shared houses in what is now called the Windsor Lane Compound.
And then, there is the one that found me at 1431 Duncan St. The home of Tennessee Williams from 1949 until his death in 1983.
Located on a secluded block closer to the Naval Air Station than the bars and haunts of Old Town, the quiet bungalow, now privately owned, does not shuffle tourists through, selling mementos of this storied writer. Today, it is overshadowed by palm trees and pink flowering vines and sits quietly from view.
This day I lingered at its white picket gate, waiting for inspiration, for a moment of muse.
The front door opened. My singular panic was erased by a kind woman who turned out to be the owner. I told her of my love for its past owner, my teaching “The Glass Menagerie” for what seemed like an eternity, and my attendance at the literary seminar in town. And in a moment I didn’t see coming, she invited me in. I caught my breath, and my husband quickly answered “yes” before she could change her mind or I could wake up.
She graciously escorted us through the home, pointing out what was different and what had remained the same.
According to Key West historical records, this typical “conch” cottage was built around 1880 on Bahama Street and Williams’ had it moved. The original portion of the house was constructed with wooden pegs instead of nails in a nod to shipbuilding, and the one-and-a-half story home held most of its living space downstairs, with a simple guest bedroom and bath upstairs.
The airy living room was illuminated by a multicolored stained glass window that peaked in the modern kitchen’s vaulted ceiling, an addition by Williams. When he lived there, paintings by Henry Lawrence Faulkner and Marcel Vertes adorned the walls, as well as a poster of Loie Fuller, an American dancer who was all the rage of Paris during the 1890s. There were ornate wicker chairs crafted in Cuba and a dragonfly lamp of Tiffany glass.
Considered America’s greatest playwright by many, Williams loved two things during his lifetime: his writing and his older sister, Rose. In her youth, she was one of the first people in the country to be treated for psychological problems with a lobotomy. Williams nurtured a shrine in her honor according to Island Life: “a small table covered with a pink cloth topped with statues of the Virgin, crucifixes and elaborate dripping candelabra, flowers, and on the wall above, a painting of the rose.” Beside the rose was a painting of Frank Merlo,” Williams’ lover who died in 1961 of cancer.
Glass doors led to a patio and to Williams’ study. According to records at the Monroe County Library, he began working “around four or five o’clock in the morning when he wakes up. He writes steadily until half past ten or eleven, so that he has put in a good day’s work before breakfast. Usually, he does not write in the afternoons or evenings.”
The owners kept the writing bungalow very similar to the way Williams did. Minimal furniture with a writing desk against the long wall, a skylight and a small bathroom.
Steps from the study is the pool with a mosaic rose, built in 1966, itself an altar to Rose, and beside it, a gazebo designed as a memorial to departed friends. It is believed “Tom” is Tennessee, yet no records confirm the identity of “PB.”
Williams died in 1983 in the Elysee Hotel in New York after choking on a medicine bottle top, only four years after he had moved Rose to her Van Phister home in Key West. His tumultuous, yet accomplished, life was eulogized by Marlon Brando, who portrayed Stanley Kowalski in Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire:” “By the time his death came, he had been so close to it so many times psychologically, emotionally and physically that it was probably just a shave and a haircut to him.”
And now, there are new voices, fresh voices on this island, a changing of the guard.
Recognizing the merging of the old and new, the Key West Literary Seminar (KWLS) welcomes more than 25 biographers, memoirists, journalists, poets and others each January. “Writers on Writers 2013” assembled contemporary writers offering insights into the lives and work of literary icons like Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and more.
“This is not just biography,” says President Lynn Kaufelt. “This is one artist exploring another, the case when both the subject and the investigator share a passion and an art.”
Associate Director Arlo Haskell adds, “Our mission is to advance the cause of literature, which means we want people to have good experiences with good work that inspires them to do good things.”
The seminars and workshops are about discovery. Personal and professional. Emotional, physical and psychological revelations.
For the writer, Miles Frieden, executive director, puts the need to know in perspective. “How do they do it? What is their magic potion, the source of their alchemy? And our almost voyeuristic curiosity about writers – this desire to discover what makes their words tick. Isn’t that what we’re searching for when we look at writers’ lives – the keys to the kingdom?”
Novelist Alexandra Styron (“Reading My Father“) spoke about her father, William Styron (“Sophie’s Choice“). She told the story of tumbling down the basement steps as a child while her father slept upstairs. More afraid of their father’s wrath than the fate of their injured sister, her siblings waited for their mother to return home instead of waking him.
William Styron suffered a lifetime of depression, mood disorders and lulls in creative productivity, which resulted in his daughter’s characterization of her father as “an ass.” However, it was during the research of her own novel that her father came back to her and helped her understand his life. “When you layer a daily dose of self-doubt on that loneliness, you can find yourself slipping through the hatchway to a very dark place,” she says.
Ann Napolitano (“A Good Hard Look“) shares how she ran away from Flannery O’Connor, a character in her novel.
“I was about a year into the novel when Flannery O’Connor showed up as a guest at Melvin’s (main character’s) wedding,” she says. “I didn’t see her coming. She was there, her gaze sharp and piercing.”
It wasn’t until Napolitano (pictured on the right) gave in, read everything she could by and about O’Connor that “she came up with a historical/fictional divide that I was comfortable with. My great responsibility was to imagine a private life for Flannery that felt as true as the documented facts.” Flannery was not a woman, Napolitano concludes, but a force of nature.
Kate Moses (“Wintering“) spent seven years with the self-destructive Sylvia Plath. She had never expected to write on Plath, but upon reading “Ariel,” Plath’s posthumously published collection of poetry, she let the poems lead the story and it “unfurled in one piece, like a bolt of cloth. As a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife and an artist, I wanted to recapture for Sylvia Plath that moment, however brief, of fragile hope.”
Colm Toibin (“New Ways to Kill Your Mother“) (pictured above) thinks of the “uncontainable, unboxable experiences” as “a writer’s fuel.” Jennie Fields (“The Age of Desire“) recognizes the “incredible serendipity” that happens when a writer spend years with a subject.
Scores of readers and writers sat in the San Carlos Institute of Key West and listened as the lives and narratives of their mentors came to life in the biographical fiction of today’s newest voices. Although most concur that there is a certain responsibility to the facts, writers take the reader on a journey of undocumented situations. But, as Kate Moses reminded, “we take good care of them.”
These new voices are vibrant, and much of the mission of KWLS is to discover and promote them. Through awards to emerging writers and scholarship support to teachers, librarians and students, a forum is provided for learning and exhibition.
“We are watching the old fade away,” states Frieden. “A new order is rising up.” KWLS will continue to showcase contemporary writers while the legacy and voices from the past, like Hemingway, Williams, Plath and others, continue to haunt and shape and direct the words that are to come.
The 32nd annual Key West Literary Seminar with the theme “The Dark Side – Mystery, Crime and The Literary Thriller,” is set for January 9-19, 2014. For more information, to make reservations or for a list of seminar writers, visit www.kwls.org.
Photo Credits: Tennessee Williams at his home on Duncan Street from the Ida Woodward Barron Collection; Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens from The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Duncan Street home today by Full Circle Photography; newspaper clipping of Rose Williams after the death of Tennessee from the Key West Historical Archives; Williams’ writing area, pool and “TOM” carved into the fence by Full Circle Photography; and Colm Toibin and Ann Napolitano at the Key West Literary Seminar by Nick Doll.
Judy Garrison is a travel writer based out of Athens, Georgia. Visit her website to find out more about her and the Seeing Southern project, stories about Southern people, celebrations and family gatherings.