Follow in the footsteps of literary legends on a visit to Key West
For more than three-quarters of a century, Key West has been a haven and an inspiration for some of the America’s most influential writers. In honour of World Book Day (3 March), here’s how to retrace the footsteps of legendary literary figures who have made the Florida Keys their home.
While the late Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost no longer stroll the streets of Key West, visitors can view a wealth of literary landmarks and sites. Many recall their presence and showcase the island’s importance in the literary world, and a self-guided ‘book tour’ can include stops at Hemingway’s former home and the Tennessee Williams Key West Exhibit.
In the 1930s Pulitzer-prize winning Hemingway was the first popular author to make Key West his home and it was here that he penned classics such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and the Key West-set To Have and Have Not. Discover The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum on Whitehead Street to see where the author lived until December 1939 and meet a colony of six-toed cats supposedly descended from a sea captain’s feline given to the author. Entry costs $13 (£9) for adults and $6 (£4) for children.
Another site firmly associated with Hemingway is Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street. A Key West ‘institution,’ the bar was once owned by Hemingway’s good friend Joe Russell. Following the author’s death, a selection of his belongings were found here, including sections of the original manuscript of To Have and Have Not.
Hemingway aficionados will also want to visit the onetime Key West Arena in Bahama Village, which was once the site of open-air neighbourhood boxing matches that Hemingway often refereed. Today, fans will discover the popular Blue Heaven Restaurant at the former arena site.
Undoubtedly the most exciting opportunity for Hemingway fans right now is the ‘Florida Keys Flash Fiction Contest’ that runs until 31 March. The competition offers one winner the chance to spend up to 10 days writing in Hemingway’s former Key West studio. Limited to 500 words or less, entries must be submitted at www.fla-keys.com/flashfiction. The prize includes a $1,500 air travel card and accommodation in a residency cottage at The Studios of Key West for 21 nights between 5 July and 31 July 2016.
Internationally renowned playwright Tennessee Williams discovered Key West in 1941 and purchased a home in the city at 1431 Duncan Street in 1949, where he would reside for the rest of his life. Today, the privately owned red-shuttered house stands on a quiet, tree-lined street and literary buffs pass by the site in homage to Williams, who wrote Night of the Iguana and completed Summer and Smoke in Key West. The Academy Award-winning film version of his The Rose Tattoo was also shot on the island in 1956.
In 2013, a unique free exhibit debuted honouring Williams’ literary prowess and love of the Key West lifestyle. Highlights include personal photographs, original posters of local productions of his plays, books of poetry and drama, playbills and a typewriter he used in Key West. The exhibit is open daily at 513 Truman Avenue. Fans of Williams’ plays should also visit the Tennessee Williams Theatre (5901 College Road, Key West) which has borne his name since it opened in 1980 with the world premiere of his play Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis?
A Poet’s Path
U.S. poet laureate (1958-59) Robert Frost first visited Key West in 1934 and it was here that he wrote one of his best-known poems, The Gift Outright. During winter visits to Key West from 1945 to 1960, he stayed in a small cottage at 410 Caroline Street. Another of his favourite haunts was The Casa Marina Resort at 1500 Reynolds Street, which has been one of Key West’s most glamorous destinations since the 1920s.
Forthcoming annual literary events in Key West
March: The month-long Tennessee Williams Birthday Celebration will return to pay tribute to his life and work. Festivities will include film screenings, poetry and short story competitions and ‘Tennessee Williams Letters, Live!’ The latter airs his correspondence with some of the most famous people of the day together with his more intimate letters, offering insight into the emotional artistic rollercoaster that plagued Williams for most of his life.
19-24 July: The Hemingway Days celebration of the author’s life, work and love for Key West features literary readings, a popular look-alike contest and a short story competition directed by Hemingway’s granddaughter, eminent author Lorian Hemingway.
12-15 January 2017: Key West’s literary heritage, and continued role as home to world-renowned writers, will be celebrated with the 35th annual Key West Literary Seminar, a four-day readers’ event that explores a unique literary theme each year.
Travel to the Florida Keys
North America Travel Service (0113 398 3013, www.northamericatravelservice.co.uk) has seven nights room only in the Florida Keys from £1,979 per person, including seven nights at The Reach, A Waldorf Astoria Resort in Key West, with British Airways economy flights from London Heathrow to Miami and car hire for the duration. Based on a departure on 18 July 2016.
For further information on the Florida Keys & Key West, visit www.fla-keys.co.uk.