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Ernest Hemingway museum, Key West, Florida

Florida Postcard, November 1996

Travel Reflections by Jonathan Young

So this time, I've been to sunny Florida to bask in the rays while California gets rained out. My first impression of Fort Lauderdale was of canals, inland waterways, harbors, and boats everywhere. Even detective Travis McGee, hero of crime novels, has an actual slip at a marina for his fictional boat. It's near the giant pool where films of swimming extravaganzas with Esther Williams were shot. Her husband, Ricardo Montalban is convinced she'll be well-preserved way past 100 (because she is so well-chlorinated).

Ernest Hemingway House. The descendants of the original cats still run the place

Enjoyed the history of comics at the International Cartoon Hall of Fame in Boca Raton (the name derives from "rat's mouth" -- delightful, no?). Displays included everything from The Yellow Kid, through Mutt & Jeff, Andy Gump, and Gasoline Alley, to recent darkly-lit illustrated novels for big kids.

The big treat of the trip was a drive southward for a couple of days exploring the Florida Keys. My generous hostess, Danielle, volunteered to come along (which was helpful, since men can't ask for directions).

From the highway, you can see surviving sections of the original 1912 railroad viaduct with graceful arches. It looks like something the Romans would have built. Before the train line came through, the Keys were all remote islands.

Horizons on both sides are punctuated by islands of green. Many have no land to them -- just great clusters of Mangrove bushes that grow down to the underlying reef with long spidery roots. The sea is bright variations of aquamarine that glow like Capri's Blue Grotto.

Driving through the series of island villages is being witness to various degrees of dilapidation mixed with fancy holiday homes -- each with a private dock. Finally, the road trails off into Key West which, again, is a blend of disrepair and elegance. People come down here to be lazy and tend to do it well.

Ernest Hemingway House, cats

The main goal was to visit Ernest Hemingway's home. This is where he lived during some very productive years from 1931 to 1940. In the midst of a lush tropical garden is the grand house -- with broad, covered verandas all the way around both floors. Lounging about (most graciously) are dozens of cats, most with six and seven toes -- named for authors and movie stars that were friends of the great man. In the bedroom, there's a statue of a cat (looking quite abstract) -- a gift from Picasso.

Papa's writing studio is upstairs over the guest house out back. In his day, it was reached by a catwalk so narrow and rickety that others were discouraged from visiting. His writing was done under the watchful glass eyes of a large mounted gazelle's head. Photos of his frequent safaris prominently authenticate many other trophies.

Danielle was a good scout as we tracked down both of Hemingway's favorite saloons. The main drag has too many touristy shops with day-glow pink flamingos, but most of the buildings are stately old tropical classics that could be somewhere in Hawaii like Lahaina or Hilo. We passed quickly by the bondage and discipline erotica store - to check out Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville emporium - and be further lulled into the laid-back haze that was setting in by the minute.

Breakfast was banana pancakes outdoors amidst many roaming chickens - at a place where serious boxing matches were held in the old days - refereed by Hemingway. We paid our respects to the Little White House, where Truman played lots of poker and ran much of the Korean War. Later, Ike and JFK came there to mellow out. The presidential retreat is at a Naval station that started out life as the prime U.S. base for chasing pirates throughout the Caribbean.

Careful sleuthing turned up further haunts of the muses. We found Robert Frost's cottage (where he wrote some of his finest verses, including the poem he read at JFK's inauguration). Further searching led to Tennessee William's modest house -- current residents have added a swimming pool, complete with a large rose in tile at the bottom. A sign labels the adjacent cottage, "The Rose Tatoo." No evidence of streetcars or glass menageries.

We cruised back up the long highway listening to a tape of rare recordings by Hemingway. The Noble Prize speech was clear and beautifully written -- but some of the other readings were apparently done under the inspiration of rum. His rather high and surprisingly youthful voice got increasingly drifty as he went along.

On the return pass, we stopped at the saloon where the movie Key Largo with Bogie and Bacall was shot. The place is sleazy and looks like film noir even by daylight. The movie has one of the great scenes of all time, where Bogart asks gangster Edward G. Robinson what it is that he wants. The mobster thinks about it, and says, "More -- that's it, more, that's what I want -- more." The answer briskly captures the last fifty years of American frenzy.

More about my own frenzy in the next show.