We mourn the loss of Susan P. Mesker, an ardent supporter of the Key West Literary Seminar and other cultural nonprofits, who touched the lives of many. She died on Friday, June 8, at her William Street home. She was 75.
Susan was a longtime member of the board of directors of the Key West Literary Seminar, a founding board member of the Key West Film Society, and a strong supporter of the Tropic Cinema, where announcement of her passing hangs from the marquee this week. A major patron and board member of Sculpture Key West, she was also a driving force behind Save Our Pines, the advocacy group that fought successfully to preserve the shade canopy at Fort Zachary Taylor. Her support for these groups was a direct extension of her forty-year love affair with Key West, and her commitment to the living history that imbues our island.
Susan arrived in Key West for the first time in 1968. She stayed at the Pier House, where then-proprietor David Wolkowsky remembers her as a vivacious and beautiful young woman who quickly became popular among the circle of writers, politicos, and activists that formed the town’s nascent cultural center. Among this lively crowd were the playwright Tennessee Williams and Jessie Porter, who was at the forefront of Key West’s historical preservation movement. Jessie became the first of Susan’s many Key West friends.
“Susan was inspired by Jessie’s great love for Key West, its history and its architecture,” recalls Deems Webster, a carpenter and longtime friend, “and it was Jessie who showed Susan the first house she bought here.” Susan oversaw every detail of the restoration of this historic eyebrow house, built by John Roberts in the 1890s, and would do the same for a series of historic homes, some of which now appear on the National Register of Historic Places. “She always did a lot of research into the history of the houses she bought,” says Webster, whose friendship with Susan began during one such renovation, “and of the owners of the houses and the families who had lived there before. She liked to know what was underneath the surface, and she liked to share that history with others.”
As Susan became more engaged in the community, her instincts for historic preservation would grow to include the works of writers she befriended in Key West, including those of the Shakespeare scholar Philip Burton. Concerned that so few successful recordings of Burton existed, Susan took it upon herself to engineer a complete audio recording of “The Sole Voice,” his series of lectures on Shakespeare’s iconic characters. Over the course of dozens of visits to Burton’s home on Angela Street and the Private Ear recording studio, Susan eventually produced a complete version, running to nearly 18 hours. She made recordings of others in Key West as well, including the poet Richard Wilbur, and she often recalled the pleasure she found in the learned company of these distinguished men of letters, in whose work and thought the classical tradition lives on.
In the last 15 years of her life, Susan supported a number of organizations that she felt played an important role in the community she loved, both financially and as an indomitable behind-the-scenes organizer. With years of home restorations behind her, she was particularly motivated by structural projects that would provide a space for Key Westers to enjoy their natural and cultural treasures. When the Australian pines that shade the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor were threatened, it was Susan who worked hardest, recalls Helen Harrison, who spearheaded the efforts. “Susan was the savior of the park. She was willing to commit, to do the research, to hire lawyers, to do whatever it took. She relished so much in the history of the park, and she loved the people of this community.” When the expansion of the Tropic Cinema faltered due to lack of funds, Susan stepped in, ensuring that the Frank Taylor Cinematheque would be completed. “She was the one,” says Matthew Helmerich, executive director of the Tropic. “It wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Susan also had a keen sense of the role technology could play in historic preservation. In 2009 she founded philipburton.org, which preserves the recordings of Philip Burton, making them available for a new generation of actors and directors. She was a firm supporter as well of our own audio archive project and was perhaps our organization’s most ardent benefactor. Considering Susan’s magnanimous gift of two historic old town properties, KWLS executive director Miles Frieden says “Susan gave us a home. She gave us a future.”
Susan’s generosity extended beyond formal organizations to include dozens of individual artists, musicians, writers, and eccentrics who give the island city its character. To those who found themselves on the receiving end of her beneficence, Susan seemed to be a force of nature. When Tony Jonas’s “chicken preserve,” the Mickens Lane redoubt that has been home for decades to a group of itinerant sailors, guitar-pickers, and painters, went on the market, threatening Jonas with eviction, Susan knocked on the door. “I’ll never forget that day,” Jonas recalls. “I had lived here since 1975. I delivered my daughter in this house, right in this room. Susan came in and sat down on a milk crate and we talked about this place. I told her: basically this is for old artists and old friends, people that’d been here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and nobody knows where it is unless they’re old Key West people. She fell in love with this house, and said she never wanted it to change. ‘I’m gonna have to move,’ I told her. ‘You’re staying right here,’ she said. ‘You’re a part of this house. This is your house, Tony.’ Susan was a part of my family. My god, I’ll miss her.”
Susan is survived by her daughter, Elizabeth Mesker Vance and son-in-law Thomas G. Vance, of Richmond, VA; her son, David W. Mesker Jr., of St. Louis, MO; her grandchildren, Sallie C. Mesker and David W. Mesker III, of St. Louis; her sisters Sarah P. Breed, of Carefree, AZ; Margaret B. Priest, of Newport, VA; and her step-sister Olivia H. Huntington, of New York City. A memorial service will be held in Key West following the seminar in January 2013, at a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Susan and her gifts to this community may be made to any of the organizations she supported, including the Key West Literary Seminar, Save Our Pines, Sculpture Key West, and the Tropic Cinema.