Allen Rokach, Charles Walton IV
The written word in Key West is as revered as the descendants of Hemingway's six-toed cat.
"Papa" Hemingway and a host of other literary luminaries, including Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Shel Silverstein, once called the island home. Robert Frost spent 15 winters in Key West too. Today, this 2- x 4-mile paradise claims more writers per capita than any other U.S. city.
On this tiny dot of land, literary creation flows as freely as the ocean--and as readily as happy hour refreshments. Jimmy Buffett forever defined the island's "wasted away again" reputation with his anthem "Margaritaville." But more than a "frozen concoction" fuels the muse in this idyllic spot.
"Key West has this reputation of being a party town, but there is a whole other side to it," says Marshall Smith, owner of Key West Island Bookstore. "It's generally a literate town. If you just look at the number of authors who live or have lived here, it's quite impressive."
We asked some of them to riff on the island's mystique and mysterious hold.
An Ohio native, the novelist's introduction to Key West came from the Navy. After he concluded his service, he returned to the tiny town where real people are real characters and almost everyone prefers bikes over cars.
"There was a year in the 1970s that I didn't own a car," Tom recalls. His live-for-the-moment lifestyle included riding a bike around the island, selling tacos. Tennessee Williams, a customer, nicknamed him Taco Tom. Later, after Tom developed an eye and career as a photographer, he was hired to photograph Williams in the playwright's Key West studio.
Tom first met Jimmy Buffett while bartending at the island's Chart Room Bar. The friendship stuck. Tom shot seven of the singer's album covers and cowrote "Fins" and "Cuban Crime of Passion." He recently completed a book about his friend, Jimmy Buffett--The Key West Years (Buy this book on Amazon.com.)
When he began writing fiction, the novelist aimed to make the island one of his characters. "I wanted to bring the Key West that I know and revere onto the pages," he explains.
Although Tom lives in Lakeland now, he often visits Key West, soaking up the island's milieu.