Day Away

January 23, 2011

Key West delights the eye, the palette



We stopped at the home Ernest Hemingway once bought for $8,000 — and to which his wife added a swimming pool soon afterwards for another $20,000. Inside are lots of photographs, what's left of his personal book collection (much of which remains in Cuba), some rods and reels and a model of his fishing boat.

Furnishings were more elegant than I might have expected for his reputation. Then we learned his wife was a fashion editor for Vogue. Tall windows open onto lush gardens with hidden alcoves. Descendants of the writer's six-toed cats wander about; a cat cemetery preserves their forebears.

Another popular tourist haunt is the Little White House, built as Naval Commandant quarters in 1890. It welcomed Harry Truman for a much-needed rest after his intense first year as President, a stretch that included the decision to drop the first atomic bomb, the organization of the United Nations and the Potsdam Conference. The standing-room-only tour was quite informative.

Truman loved the place — he returned 11 times, spending a total of 175 days there — and the locals loved him. Furnishings are as unpretentious as at his home in Independence, Mo. His piano is here, plus his Victrola, on which he played the records he carried around in an official leather briefcase. There's also his custom-made mahogany poker table; a hollow cover hid it when wife, Bess, joined him in Key West.

Key West is where John Jay Audubon lived while drawing birds here in 1832; an aquarium that had been planned as the centerpiece of the 1935 economic revival; one museum about construction of the railroad across the Florida Keys, and another about shipwrecks; a butterfly house; and quite a bit more.


But if you have a chance to sample just one aspect of Key West, make it the evening sunset ritual on the pier adjacent to Mallory Square. The crowd must have surpassed 5,000 on this very ordinary Monday. Kids of all ages, grandparents, locals, tourists and others all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Vendors plied their wares. Fortune tellers predicted futures. One man drew portraits in 15 minutes. Another played guitar with one hand, held a harmonica in the other and activated various percussion devices with his feet. Buskers sang. Jugglers juggled. An escape artist worked his way out of a set of chains. The festivities even included a sword swallower.

But as the sun slowly dropped on the western horizon, all attention turned to its descent. We benefitted from just enough cloud cover to produce a rich range of reds and violets. Schooners and smaller sailboats glided along to add atmosphere. The yellow orb disappeared, and the crowd dispersed, knowing the occasion would repeat itself a mere 24 hours later. Next time we visit, we'll gather there again.

A few final notes: Expect to see chickens almost anywhere. Cuban immigrants brought them for cockfighting, a sport popular in their homeland. It's illegal in the United States, plus Key West is a bird sanctuary. So they thrive. On the other hand, there are absolutely no squirrels.

E-mail Richard Frost at:

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