Key West Isn't a City, It's a State of Mind
By Christina Tourigny
Being a "Conch" is a state of mind, a condition of the heart and a foreclosure on the soul. Many Key Westers wear that epitaph proudly.
This is a city that three times has threatened to secede from the Union and establish its own republic. It's a city whose former mayor water-skied all the way to Cuba to emphasize the importance of the U.S. Navy's presence. (And whose current one faces a federal charge of corruption.) It's a city whose melting-pot character permits a large, liberal base to mingle with crusty natives (called Conchs) to mingle with Miami wheeler-dealers, out-of-work smugglers, and assorted other scallywags.
Key Westers take all of this in stride. They thrive on eccentricity as much as diversity. This is a city that is or has been a haven to poets and novelists, Anglos and Cubanos, rum-runners and treasure hunters, pirates and preachers; all of whom manage to live more or less peacefully on a 3.5-mile long sandbar the chamber of commerce types call "Paradise."
This is the southern-most city in the continental United States (Cuba is 90 miles off its bow; the Tropic of Cancer is half that). Its history can be traced to the Spanish sailors who, for no currently known reason, called it "the island of bones." It can be traced to pirates and "wreckers" who preyed upon foundering merchant ships and for a while made this the richest city in America. And more recently, it can be traced to the spirited Conchs (pronounced "konks") who in 1982 fired a cannon, declared their independence, then immediately asked President Reagan for $1 billion in foreign aid. The President politely turned down their request.
For the hurried or inexperienced, Key West can be little more than the Holiday Inn and a stroll down Duval Street. But those who bite that bait miss the real Conchville. The Gardens Hotel is a shade-drenched treasure on Angela Street, off Duval. Dating to the 1870s, the estate was bought 65 years ago by Peggy Mills, who bought neighboring tracts as they came available and eventually had more than one-third of a city block in the historic Old Town district. Mills planted orchids, bougainvillea's and crotons; pony tails, gumbo-limbos and black bamboo - dozens of species in a fertile patch that became her life's passion. Mills used century-old red bricks to build walks, added fountains and brought tinajones, 2,000- pound earthen cisterns, from Cuba just before Castro's rise.
Eventually opened for public tours, Mills' estate became a flagship of the less commercial side of Key West. But after her death in 1979, it changed owners twice and frequently was left vacant for vandals. Bill and Corinna Hettinger bought the estate in 1992 and restored it to its birthright: a showplace of historic rooms, courtyard suites and gardens that would make Mills proud.
The Pelican Path tour is another less commercial side of the city. Go by car, by trolley, or, if you're hearty enough, by foot on a sightseeing tour of some of the more than 3,000 historic buildings in Key West. A guidebook that's available throughout the city and tour markers - A Pelican's Profile - lead the way to a celebration of the past. The Donkey Milk House is one of the tour's stops. It was owned by U.S. Marshal "Dynamite" Williams, who saved his home and several others from the "Great Fire of 1886" literally by blowing up Eaton Street. Today it has a delightful, two-story collection of antiques and period furnishings.
The Harry S Truman Little White House Museum is another. It includes original furniture, a narrated tour of Florida's only presidential vacation home and a video of Truman's years in the White House. A few blocks away, on Whitebread Street, the Ernest Hemingway House remembers the life, times and work of one of the city's most notable characters.
The cultural side of Key West grew out of the influences of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John James Audubon and many other writers and artists who spent part of their lives here. It's a culture that's enriched by literary seminars, theaters such as the Red Barn and the Waterfront Playhouse, galleries such as The Guild Hall and Haitian Art Company and dozens of museums. The Wreckers Museum, located in the oldest house on the island (1829), is rich in lore about the men who rescued passengers and salvaged cargo from ships that wrecked on the offshore reefs.
The Maritime Heritage Society exhibits some of the riches Mel Fisher's company, Treasure Salvors, Inc., brought up from wrecks such as the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, one of a fleet of Spanish galleons lost in a 1622 hurricane. The Lighthouse Museum on Whitehead Street is a history book about the people and events at Key West's lone lighthouse, which has been a sentinel for passing ships since 1848. Another side of the city is the glitter of Duval Street, the tourist Mecca that on Saturday nights bears a resemblance to Mardi Gras. This is the heart of the party culture - sun, sea, showmen and saloons like Durty Harry's, Hog's Breath and Capt. Tony's. The latter, the original Sloppy Joe's, is where Hemingway honed his two-fisted drinking skills as well as his vision of life around him.
Mallory Square, at the north end of Duval Street, is the island's most unusual theater, an improvisational stage where cruise ships dock and the asphalt begins to sink into Turning Basin. It's a place where dwarfs juggle fruit, aging hippies sing Janis Joplin and a young woman swallows flaming swords. But the headliner is a gentle Frenchman named Dominique. He begins each act with a warning: "Go to your seats! We are sending out the felines!!" And out they come - house cats, jumping through rings of fire, walking tight ropes and performing other flawless feats of daring that only highly trained felines can perform.
Some say once you've tasted Key West you may never want to go elsewhere, a point emphasized by the island's cemetery. It's as strange as it is crowded, lending credibility to the notion that Key Westers keep their senses of humor - even in death. The epitaphs on the headstones include: "His beautiful little spirit was a challenge to love."(For a Yorkshire terrier buried alongside his mistress.) "Now I know where he's sleeping at night." (For a wayward husband deserving a proper send-off from his wife. "I told you I was sick." (For a woman who apparently had a trouble getting her friends and physician to listen.)
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