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Sunset in Key West.

The touristy and the macabre in Key West

in History/Travel by

Key West looks like a city of doll houses. Many are white and wooden, with a little balcony in front and a low roof. Most are either inns, restaurants or shops.

James Merrill and David Jackson House, Key West, FL. Image originally published in Queer Places: Retracing the Steps of LGBTQ people around the World, authored by Elisa Rolle
James Merrill and David Jackson House, Key West, FL. Image originally published in Queer Places: Retracing the Steps of LGBTQ people around the World, authored by Elisa Rolle

Life-sized “dolls” frequent these houses, along with cowboys, Hawaiian shirts and bikers emulating (perhaps not on purpose) Ernest Hemingway in his middle age.

It’s been more than 70 years since Hemingway moved away from Key West, but he remains the city’s biggest star. I myself have been to his wildly popular house several times, met the dozens of cats living on the premises (descendants of Hemingway’s original cat), and taken the same guided tour over and over again.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway at the Hemingway's Key West home. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Ernest and Pauline Hemingway at the Hemingway’s Key West home. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

There’s even a contest to see who looks most like this legendary writer and adventurer.

I wonder what he would think of having been made into a huge tourist attraction in the Florida Keys and elsewhere. The Hemingway-propelled city economies.

In tiny Key West, it’s impossible to get away from tourists.

There are more tourists than residents in this town of about 25,000.

A romantic sunset walk turns into a show where street artists do anything to draw tourists’ attention, and often draw tourists themselves into the show, like they did with me and a friend. No matter how annoyingly touristy this can get, the sunset on the island is indeed spectacular, and I sort of understand why they celebrate it everyday.

I guess you can catch the less-than-amazing, man-made beaches relatively uncrowded early in the morning, having a choice between good sand and bad water or good water and bad sand (rocks). Don’t go to Key West looking for a tropical paradise.

On the upside, parasailing was fun, and the gay scene offers a lot for those into it (I didn’t try it out myself). And let’s not forget the mega “adult” party Fantasy Fest (which I also didn’t catch, but would have been intimidated by).

Sunset celebration in Key West.
Sunset celebration in Key West.

You must really search for meaning – if you want at all to find it – among the crowds, Hemingway memorabilia, loudly advertised slices of Key Lime Pie, cornucopia of plastic sippy cups, and centennial chairs whose history is canned into small placards in the many houses that are now museums (including, of course, Hemingway’s). After walking the length of the island and back, and getting a bit bored, I caved and consulted a palm reader.

What was wrong with me? I guess being unemployed after uni then had made me desperate for some illusory answers from the “universe” and unable to just have a bit of fun in a cup (or can).

I also asked Time.

Declared US property in 1822, Key West is old by American standards, but not one of the oldest cities in Florida.

The farthest out “key” in Monroe County – you have to take the Seven Mile Bridge to get there by car – has some fascinating history, but you have to be patient to find it. Comb through the touristiness while smack in the middle of it.

One way to do this is by paying attention during the walking tours. I think of them as an oasis in the interior of touristiness.

I still remember some of the macabre tales.

For instance, I learned that various hurricanes destroyed practically the entire city, killed hundreds of its inhabitants and tore caskets out of the ground. When the caskets went down Duval Street in the floods, body parts would fly and get stuck in the palm trees.

Millions of people also died of yellow fever in Key West between the 19th and 20th centuries, including the wife and all of the children of the man credited with building Hemingway’s one-time home on the island. The city also suffered through devastating fires, profound poverty and martial law in the past.

Robert the Doll in the Fort East Martello Museum. By Cayobo from Key West, The Conch Republic - Uploaded by LongLiveRock, CC BY 2.0 license, Wikimedia Commons.
Robert the Doll in the Fort East Martello Museum. By Cayobo – Uploaded by LongLiveRock, CC BY 2.0 license, Wikimedia Commons.

Romanticism meets the bizarre when the tourist guides tell the story of a man who stole the body of his loved one from a grave in a city cemetery and lived with her for seven years before being discovered.

And the bizarre gains a spiritual side when the guides recount the influence a doll named Robert had over his owner, a famous artist in the early 1900s. It was an influence so strong and mysterious that (we were told) it inspired the horror movie Child’s Play (Chucky). To this day, people say that the doll moves and curses visitors with bad luck when they fail to ask for permission to photograph him in the museum where he lives nowadays.

Key West is a city dubbed “magical” by a mystic we met. I couldn’t really feel it beneath the layers of commercialism, but I enjoyed hearing about it. And I asked Robert for permission to take his photo – just in case. I hope he doesn’t get upset about my publishing someone else’s photo of him (even worse, I think).

An aspiring social scientist and former newspaper reporter, an avid eater, a pseudo-philosopher and poet, an occasion-propelled singer, a semi-professional socializer, a movie addict, a Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, but with special attention to travel, entertainment and lifestyle.

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