Authors and Artists Make Key West a Creative Cultural Mecca
Authors and artists, playwrights and poets have long been lured to the romantic 2-by-4-mile island of Key West. Closer to Havana than to Miami, this seductive haven is richly endowed with creativity as one of America’s most fascinating literary and artistic playgrounds.
Key West’s laid-back atmosphere, brilliant colors of nature, year-round subtropical climate and often eccentric characters provide writers and artists a one-of-a-kind inspiration for their crafts. Whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight, creatives are irrestibly drawn to this island mecca.
Key West is home to many notable writers who currently live in the subtropical island city. Those include Ann Beattie, who wrote “Chilly Scenes of Winter”; Judy Blume, author of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”; Annie Dillard, who penned “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”; James Gleick, writer of “Isaac Newton”; and Edmund White, winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction, who wrote, “A Boy’s Own Story: A Novel.”
Key West sheltered the renowned gay poet James Merrill, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, who composed the 17,000-line “The Changing Light at Sandover” and lived on Elizabeth Street until his death in 1993. Other past residents were poet-scholar John Malcolm Brinnin, who wrote “Dylan Thomas in America” and James Kirkwood, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “A Chorus Line.”
Kirkwood once reportedly said Key West “is a place for lost people who are a little tilted.”
The island’s history provides fascinating background for writers and artists. Key West was America’s wealthiest city per capita for a time in the 1800s, drawing riches from shipwreck salvaging, sponge harvesting and cigar making. In 1934, hit by America’s Great Depression, the city declared bankruptcy.
To revitalize Key West and attract tourism, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and Works Progress Administration lured writers and artists down to write guidebooks and create art. Paintings and artworks were displayed around town. Brochures, postcards and posters were sent across the country to entice visitors.
Ernest Hemingway lived on the island throughout the 1930s and is perhaps its most famous writer. He wrote classics including “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” at his Whitehead Street home, now a museum and National Historic Landmark. Hemingway used Depression-era Key West as the locale for “To Have and Have Not,” his only novel set in the United States.
Each July, a Hemingway Days festival celebrates his literary prowess and exuberant Key West lifestyle.
During that era, the work of poet Wallace Stevens was influenced by long stays at Casa Marina hotel, where he strolled on the beach with poet Robert Frost and brawled with Hemingway.
Key West also welcomed lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop in the late 1930s, who wrote, painted, gardened and fished. Known for the work, “Poems: North and South — A Cold Spring,” she lived on White Street, was a U.S. Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Playwright Tennessee Williams arrived in 1941 and bought a house on Duncan Street eight years later. He swam, painted primitives and wrote plays including “Night of the Iguana,” “The Rose Tattoo” and “Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?”
Williams frequently entertained flamboyant friends such as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Carson McCullers, who brought national attention to the town as a mecca for gays and lesbians. Today the Key West life of the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright is showcased in a small museum at 513 Truman Ave. Williams also is remembered with a cultural celebration each spring.
Shakespearean scholar and playwright Philip Burton, a mentor and adoptive father to actor Richard Burton, lived on Angela Street. The actor’s wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, visited often, thus inspiring longtime residents to dub the popular local beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park “Fort Liz Taylor Beach.”
Also among Key West’s past or present resident writers are Tony Award winner Terrance McNally, known for the play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” and William Wright, who wrote biographies of Christina Onassis, Klaus Von Bulow and others in a tiny house on Love Lane.
Broadway’s Jerry Herman, who produced “Hello Dolly!” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” bought two identical homes on Fleming Street in the early ‘80s. His lover Marty Finkelstein lived in one.
Key West’s artistic heritage is as rich as its literary legacy. Visual artists have flocked to the island since John James Audubon visited in 1832, entranced and inspired by the ever-changing subtropical light.
Notable artistic residents or frequent visitors have included Mario Sanchez, known for hand-carved and painted wooden street scenes; Peter Vey, an abstract expressionist who used thick palette strokes; Ferron Bell, called Key West’s Salvador Dali; Jim Salem, known for tropical landscapes; Sal Salinero, a master of trompe l’oeil; Rick Worth, painter of public murals and colorful “art cars” as well as smaller works; Steve Walker, portrayer of relationships within the gay culture; and Craig Biondi, known for tropical still lifes.
Today Key West’s reputation as an arts destination continues to grow because of fine galleries, many located in the upper and middle blocks of Duval Street, the town’s main shopping thoroughfare. They include the renowned Gingerbread Square Gallery, opened in the early 1970s by the nation’s first openly gay mayor, Richard Heyman.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/gay, fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Gay Key West Visitor Center: gaykeywestfl.com, 305-294-4603 or 1-800-535-7797
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