A white Buick, the blue marlin, and a pink submarine–the stars of my summer of 1958.

 

Hot pink is the color of tropical Key West, from the garish bougainvillea spilling over every fence and wall to the petunias and hibiscus in its lush gardens to the houses and buildings themselves, gaily painted in every shade of pink. Conch shells, flamingos, and pink fish motifs abound. Even the taxicabs are hot pink. Half Caribbean island, half New Orleans, Key West is not like anyplace else on earth. “Welcome to the Conch Republic” says its airport sign, and you’ll see their flags flying all over town, from the backs of bicycles to flagpoles, proclaiming personal freedom, happiness, individuality, fun, love, and romance.

But there was certainly none of that going on in the big white tail-finned Buick that my father drove grimly into Key West on my first and most memorable visit to the island in 1958. In fact, my parents were not speaking to each other, and they had not been talking much to me either for the endless trip down the Eastern seaboard, except for Mama saying things like “Lee, will you please tell your daddy to stop for some more cigarettes?” (which I would dutifully repeat, even though he was sitting right there) or me screaming “Can’t we stop at Weeki Wachee Springs? Please, please, please!” as the billboard flashed past (for I planned to be a mermaid when I grew up). Nothing doing. We pressed on south in the smoke-filled car. 

Mama and daddy back in their courting days, years before our family road trip to key west
Courtesy of Lee Smith

This was a far cry from the way they had acted all my life. In fact, as a child, I was horribly embarrassed by the Technicolor-movie style of my parents’ passionate marriage. My mother (Virginia Marshall Smith, nicknamed “Gig”) was a beauty whose flapper looks had exactly fit the ideal of her youth. My father was sometimes mistaken for F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age icon whom he resembled but whose life was the exact opposite, just as Key West was the exact opposite of Grundy, Virginia, the coal mining town where we lived. We traveled to Key West because Daddy had been stationed there in the Navy, and now he
was recovering from a “nervous breakdown,” as they called it then. He was much better, but his months in the hospital had somehow caused “trouble in the marriage,” as I was told, so his doctor prescribed this “geographical cure.”

So far, the cure wasn’t working. Each night in the series of little tourist cottages was gloomy, with Mama and me in one bed while Daddy took the other. Several times, I’d awakened to see his bent shadow outside the window, pacing back and forth. What if he had another nervous breakdown? What if the marriage couldn’t be cured?

But I loved that final part of the long drive, with the shimmering sea and sky surrounding us and the Florida Keys with their wonderful names: Key Largo, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch, Raccoon, Stock Island.

“We’re almost there,” Daddy said.

Mama reapplied her lipstick.

And finally we arrived in Key West—the scruffiest, wildest town I had ever seen, a bright buzz of noise and color! We turned left off Truman Avenue onto Duval Street, and I caught a glimpse of a glistening patch of ocean just ahead. Daddy pulled into a place named the Blue Marlin Motel, with a huge fish on its sign. Mama and I waited in the car while he headed for the office. The motel was made of blue concrete, two stories in a U-shape around a good-sized pool with a diving board and a slide—perfect for a mermaid. “Wow, this is nice, isn’t it?” I said to Mama, who didn’t answer. Still I was hopeful. The Blue Marlin Motel was nice. But was it nice enough to cure a marriage? Mama smoked a cigarette while I watched a green lizard zip up a wall.

Finally, Daddy got back in the car with a funny look on his face. “Girls, you’re not going to believe this,” he said slowly.

“What? What is it? Is it bad news from home?” Mama asked. Her pretty face was an instant mask of alarm.

“Oh no, nothing like that,” Daddy said, really smiling for the first time on the trip. “It appears that this entire motel has been taken over by the cast and crew of a movie that is shooting on location right now in Key West, over at the Navy yard. There are only four rooms here that they’re not occupying, and now we’ve got two of them. They asked me a lot of questions. I had to swear that we weren’t journalists or photographers in order to stay. And Lee,” he added in a no-nonsense voice, “I promised that you would not bother the stars. Do you hear me? Or the crew, or anybody else.”

“Which stars?” Mama asked, hardly breathing. She was already in heaven. 

“Well, there’s Dina Merrill,” Daddy said, “and Tony Curtis.”

“Tony Curtis!” Mama and I squealed together. We pored over the National Enquirer every week, also Photoplay and countless other movie magazines, which we read from cover to cover.

“And that’s not all,” Daddy said.

“Who?” we shrieked.

“Cary Grant.” Daddy was trying to sound offhand.

“Cary Grant!” We couldn’t believe it. The most gorgeous, the most elegant, the biggest star in Hollywood.

“The man at the desk says he’s a real gentleman,” Daddy said.

I was not so sure of that, thinking of his recent love affair with Sophia Loren. Mama and I knew everything.

We were on the second floor of the Blue Marlin, where I had the smaller adjoining room to myself. I put on my bathing suit first thing while Daddy fixed gin and tonics for himself and Mama and they went outside on the balcony together. I ran down the stairs two at a time and took a running dive into the pool.

The movie, which was named Operation Petticoat, featured a real pink submarine that was anchored in the ocean off Key West. Its flimsy plot involved a Navy lieutenant commander (Cary Grant) and his con man executive officer (Tony Curtis) who had to take a damaged submarine into a seedy dockyard for repair during WWII, picking up a crew of stranded Army nurses on the way. The only available paints were red and white (hence its pink color), and the only available bunks for the nurses were down in the submarine’s tight quarters.

The geographical cure worked. Mama and Daddy would go home to Virginia refreshed and stay married for the rest of their lives. He would run his dime store for 30 more years. Surrounded by the stars in Key West, Mama pepped right up and was soon wearing high-heeled sandals and a pink hibiscus flower in her hair. Daddy went deep-sea fishing with a guy named Captain Tony and played poker with the film crew. Every evening around 7, Mama and I seated ourselves on a rattan love seat in the lobby of the Blue Marlin, pretending to read newspapers while we eavesdropped on Tony Curtis’ daily call from the public telephone to Janet Leigh back in Hollywood. It always ended with Curtis’ words, “God bless you, my darling!” Mama and I rattled our newspapers emotionally. One day at the pool, Curtis offered me a package of cheese crackers; I saved it for decades. Toward the end of our second week there, one of the directors asked if we’d like to be in the movie. “You bet!” I cried out. “Oh, brother,” Daddy said. But there we were, and there we are in the film to this day, in the giant crowd on the Key West dock, cheering and waving hello when the pink submarine comes into port at the end of the movie.