Posts Tagged ‘Key West Characters’


Lawson Corbett Little shot Key West

08/12/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Shel Silverstein, A1A near East Martello, Key West, 1978. Photos by Lawson Corbett Little.
Lawson Corbett Little was born in Chicago in 1945 and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and the California Institute of the Arts. For much of the past 20 years, he has lived in Nashville, photographing country music stars like Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams III. In the 1970s and 1980s Little lived in Key West, where he helped establish the photography program at Florida Keys Community College and photographed notable authors and musicians including James Merrrill and Thomas McGuane (see earlier post), Jimmy Buffett, Philip Caputo, and David Allan Coe. The images above are among hundreds Little produced of Shel Silverstein, the inestimably talented writer, artist, and musician whose A Light in the Attic spent two years on the bestseller list of The New York Times, and who penned songs for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris. More than 40 of Little’s photographs of Silverstein, and dozens more of other 1970s Key West denizens, can be seen on this page of Little’s new website. A contemporary set of playwright Tennessee Williams, accepting cocktail below, can be found here.

Tennessee Williams, Key West, ca. 1979. Photo by Lawson Corbett Little.

Fresh Catch: from the Archives

05/30/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

We’ve been drifting over the archives this week and have hauled in a coolerful of keepers. The trophies are below, but make sure to visit our Flickr page for more of these unique images from the early years of the Key West Literary Seminar.

LFiedler.RustHills.Cpt.Tony.doylebush.jpgDoyle Bush

The 1989 Key West Literary Seminar examined the American short story and featured informal events at venues including Capt. Tony’s Saloon on Greene Street. Here, notorious barman and former Key West mayor Tony Tarracino (r) shares a laugh inside his establishment with longtime Esquire editor and KWLS board member Rust Hills, Sally Fiedler, and her husband, the influential literary critic Leslie Fiedler.

Kaufelt.WlkgTour.1986.cardenas.jpgJeffrey Cardenas

KWLS co-founder and novelist David Kaufelt’s literary walking tours offered a writer’s-eye view of unique Key West architecture. This 1986 photo captures the tour in front of the Richard Peacon house at 712 Eaton St., then owned by designer Calvin Klein.

BrinninJohnMalcolm.PazOctavio.jpgRichard Watherwax

The 1993 Seminar, "The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop," was organized by poet, critic, and essayist John Malcolm Brinnin. Brinnin, in white, began the Seminar by discussing Bishop with Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

Jeffrey Cardenas

Literary agent Dick Duane was having lunch in New York with David Kaufelt when the idea for the Key West Literary Seminar first came up. Here’s Duane at the 1986 Seminar.

Richard Watherwax

Outsider poet and publisher Kirby Congdon has been a Key West fixture for decades. Here, he makes his way through the lobby of the historic San Carlos Institute during a break in the 1993 Seminar.

photographer unknown

At a party during the 1992 Seminar, "Literature and Film," screenwriter, novelist, and sportswriter Bud Schulberg (center) joined former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur (l), author of Key West Writers and their Houses Lynn Kaufelt, fiction writer Joy Williams, and founder David Kaufelt.

Thomas McGuane & James Merrill, ca. 1987

05/20/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


These studio portraits of novelist Thomas McGuane (left) and poet James Merrill (right) were taken by photographer Lawson Corbett Little in January of 1987. According to Merrill’s wristwatch, his session took place at a quarter past one in the afternoon.


McGuane had lived in Key West in the 1970s and early 1980s on Love Lane, Ann Street, and Von Phister Street, while Merrill lived here in the 1980s and 1990s on Elizabeth Street at the top of Solares Hill. Both wrote of the island city, in novels like Panama and poems like "Clearing the Title," and each was an early supporter of the Key West Literary Seminar. At the time these photos were taken, they were participating in our fifth annual event, Writers and Key West.


Little lived in Key West during the 1970s and 1980s, where he photographed other notable authors including Shel Silverstein and Tennessee Williams. We hope to feature some of these images soon.

The trouble with Robert Frost & Wallace Stevens

04/14/2009  by Arlo Haskell  11 Comments
Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost in Key West, Florida, ca. 1940.

“Key West, unfortunately, is becoming rather literary and artistic.”—Wallace Stevens. Photo of Robert Frost and Stevens at the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West, ca. 1940, reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

“Robert Frost was on the beach this morning and is coming to dinner this evening.” So did Wallace Stevens write to his wife Elsie in February of 1935 from the Casa Marina, a hotel on the Atlantic Ocean where he spent part of each winter in Key West for nearly 20 years. Frost and Stevens today are broadly acknowledged as literary peers, but in 1935 the two poets’ reputations were leagues apart. Frost had won the Pulitzer Prize twice, while Stevens had published only a single volume, Harmonium, more than a decade earlier. While Stevens had earned the approval of influential readers including Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, Frost was not among them, once complaining that he didn’t like Stevens’s work “because it purports to make me think.”

While he craved the sort of literary acclaim that Frost routinely garnered, in Depression-era Key West Stevens would have seen his fellow Harvard alum as an equal. After all, Stevens was a highly successful businessman and a familiar semi-resident of the town where Frost was but a first-time tourist. Welcoming Frost to the neighborhood, Stevens presented him with a bag of sapodillas, the sweet tropical fruits of which he’d grown fond in Cuba and Key West, and planned to share conch chowder, another local staple, with Frost that night.

Before the dinner could take place, Stevens and his friend Judge Arthur Powell hosted a cocktail party. As he sometimes did in Key West, Stevens had too much to drink. He later wrote to Monroe, saying “the cocktail party, the dinner with Frost, and several other things became all mixed up, and I imagine that Frost has been purifying himself by various exorcisms ever since.” The two poets apparently argued, and Frost was so scandalized by the evening that he gossipped about Stevens’s drunken behavior to a lecture audience at the University of Miami.

When Frost’s gossip got back to Stevens later that summer, he apologized, insisting he was only being “playful,” and would “treasure the memory” of their meeting, which, he reminded Stevens, “I was in a better condition than you to appreciate.” Eager to smooth things over, Frost continues, “Take it from me there was no conflict at all but the prettiest kind of stand-off. You and I and the judge found we liked one another. And you and I really like each other’s works. At least down underneath I suspect we do. We should. We must. If I’m somewhat academic (I’m more agricultural) and you are somewhat executive, so much the better: it is so we are saved from being literary and deployers of words derived from words.”

Frost’s easy disdain for “words derived from words” and poetry that “purports to make me think” suggests how far apart were the sensibilities of the two poets. For Stevens, the author of poems like “The World as Meditation” and “Men Made out of Words,” Frost’s presence had begun to spoil the “paradise” where Stevens once relished a freedom to “do as one pleases.” “Key West is no longer quite the delightful affectation it once was,” he wrote to Philip May from the Casa Marina. “Who wants to share green cocoanut ice cream with these strange monsters who snooze in the porches of this once forlorn hotel.” To Monroe, he wrote “Key West, unfortunately, is becoming rather literary and artistic.”

Against his better judgement, Stevens was back at the Casa Marina five years later. The place had become “furiously literary,” with the comings and goings of literati so well known that a young Elizabeth Bishop went to “the ‘fancy’ hotel” one day looking for him, she wrote, “almost provided with opera glasses.” Frost was there again, too, traveling with his official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, who set down for posterity the argument between the poets. Echoing Frost’s letter to Stevens five years earlier, Thompson’s account further caricatures the divergent poetics of these incongruous masters:

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too executive.”

“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about– subjects.”

“The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about– bric-a-brac.”

Stevens never again returned to Key West. In 1954, not long before Stevens died, he rebuffed an invitation to attend Frost’s 80th birthday celebration at Amherst, saying coolly “I do not know his work well enough to be either impressed or unimpressed.” It is hard to imagine that Stevens had not read Frost, and Jay Parini suggests instead that the two “worked from such contradictory, even exclusive, aesthetics that neither could really read the other with much satisfaction.” And so Frost, who wanted “to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over,” and Stevens, for whom “Reality is the beginning not the end,” would share sapodillas and conch chowder but remain isolated from one another’s poetry, in which each was the other’s only peer.

Sources: Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens; Letter from Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens, July 28, 1935, from The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938, by Lawrance Thompson; Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963, by Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick; Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini; Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens and José Rodríguez Feo, edited by Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis; Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955, by Joan Richardson; and One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux.

Thomas Sanchez on Mile Zero: 1989
the George Murphy interview

04/03/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Thomas Sanchez photo by Rollie McKenna

Thomas Sanchez, Key West, 1980s. Photo by Rollie McKenna

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Sanchez’s Mile Zero. The epic novel unfolds in a richly imagined Key West where St. Cloud, Justo Tamarindo, Zobop, and El Finito are players in a late-twentieth century clash of generations, cultures, and beliefs. Hailed by The New York Times as “a comic masterpiece,” it is, together with Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Thomas McGuane’s Panama, a landmark in the literature of our island city.

In 1989, as Knopf was preparing the book for press, Sanchez agreed to an interview with George Murphy, a local former mayoral candidate and editor of the excellent anthology, The Key West Reader: The Best of Key West’s Writers, 1830-1990. Over the course of several late nights at the now-legendary Full Moon Saloon, the following conversation took shape. In the interview, originally published in Island Life, Sanchez discusses the origins and development of Mile Zero, the parallels between Key West and Cannery Row, and the concept of contrabandista.

Mile Zero cover image

George Murphy: Thomas, you left the enormous California landscape of your first two books to live in and write about this tiny island. Why?

Thomas Sanchez: I had no intention of writing a novel in Key West when I first arrived there. I was on my way to another island in the Caribbean at the time; stopping in Key West was fortuitous. I had not been able to write fiction for four years. I did have several hundred pages of notes and sketches for a novel set in California and Mexico, but while writing both in California and Mexico, I was unable to match voices to my ideas. I had themes but no language. I was like a singer who has lost his voice, standing alone on a stage, mouthing empty clouds over the heads of a phantom audience.
The first trip to Key West placed me at the confluence of several events, the first being the launching of the initial space shuttle, at the same time a boatload of Haitians fleeing the dictator Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) came ashore in the Florida Keys, and another of the ubiquitous loads of cocaine confiscated by the Coast Guard from a fast boat attempting to make landfall near Key West. These three events forged in my mind a new American metaphor, one in the process of birth. The themes of the novel I had been carrying for four years coalesced into hard voices spoken in soft tongues in a fresh language. The illumination was simply that I had physically transported myself 3,000 miles across the continent into a geopolitical context of a transforming world. The key to unlocking that world necessitated undoing the cultural prejudice of my personal history. By that I mean the kind of “educated” American I had become, which had cost me for a time the ability to divine what is most crucial to a novelist, the character of the future which is reflected in the past.

Space Shuttle Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo by NASA

GM:You have referred to Mile Zero as a cosmic Cannery Row. What do you mean by that?

US Coast Guard carrying Haitian refugees to shore

Coast Guard cutter off Key West after intercepting Haitian refugees, 1980. Photo by Dale McDonald.

TS: As a boy I lived at the edge of the real Cannery Row in California. It was still physically as Steinbeck had described it in his novel of the same name, as if his words had built a real place. But over time that place fell prey to the commerce of modernity. The old sardine packing houses were transformed into hotels and fancy boutiques, the ghostly quality disappeared beneath the thundering hordes searching for Steinbeck’s people amongst an impossible charade. If you want to go to the real Cannery Row, you must go to Steinbeck’s book; there is the life.

When I arrived in Key West I discovered haunting parallels with Cannery Row, the old wharves where men once set off to shark, turtle, and sponge were still there. So were many of the great stone cigar factories built by the Cubans, all deserted, strangely quiet, but filled with ghostly consequence, and if you knew where to look you could make contact with those distant times; if you kept your ears open you could discover the voices of those still living who were part of those enterprises now thought of as dead. Cannery Row died when the sardines mysteriously disappeared, never to rise again.

Key West has died a thousand deaths, going from the richest city in America to the poorest. Key West died when the sponge blight came; it died when the wrecking laws were changed; it died when the turtles were all slaughtered; it died when slave auctions were abolished after the Civil War; it died when the Navy abandoned its massive base; it died after Prohibition made rum smuggling less than profitable; but each cycle was a tide washing away the old, bearing seeds of the new, changing the status quo. The tide was ceaseless, (more…)

Remembering Rust Hills

10/14/2008  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

Rust Hills
Rust Hills in the lobby of the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center, 1988. Photo by Doyle Bush.

We note with sadness the death, earlier this summer, of Rust Hills, our friend and collaborator for more than 20 years. He was 83.

The importance of Rust Hills to the world of American letters, particularly as fiction editor at Esquire, is well conveyed by the obituaries which ran in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The enduring value of his own crisp, laugh-out-loud prose is plainly apparent in the idiosyncratic trio of books gathered together as How To Do Things Right. But Rust, who arrived in Key West in the early 1980s with his wife, the writer Joy Williams, was also a man who loved a day on the water; who played anagrams and poker, threw cocktail parties and chatted over the fence; and who will be remembered and missed by the many who knew him, first and finally, as a friend.

For this memorial, we turn to a handful of those who knew Rust in Key West. Recollections follow from writers Harry Mathews, Phyllis Rose, John Leslie, and William Wright, from former neighbor and barman John Vagnoni, and from sculptor and printmaker John Martini.

Joy Williams, Robert Richardson, William Wright, Rust Hills, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, Robert Stone
Joy Williams, Robert Richardson, Bill Wright, Rust, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, and Robert Stone on a seawall at cocktail hour in Andros Island, Bahamas, 1997. Photo by Laurent de Brunhoff.

No Change is Good Change

     “More than twenty-five years ago I met Rust Hills when he and Joy first came to Key West. For two or three winters they rented before eventually buying a place of their own on Pine Street. Cocktail parties galore ensued– once, twice, sometimes three times a week as they got acquainted with the denizens of Key West. All the literati were invited, along with a varying group of Key West roustabouts. Rust was about sixty then, a few years younger than I am now. I can still see him shuffling between the hibachi grill filled with fragrant kielbasa, and the bar. Liquor bottles bloomed, then wilted on the kitchen countertops– the Emerald Isle as it became known at Pine Street. In his trademark khakis and button-down Brooks Brothers’ shirt, a beloved Camel cigarette in one hand, a glass of Scotch in the other, Rust observed the unfolding parade. Never once did he waver in his identity. Re-inventing himself would have been unthinkable. With Rust, what you saw was what you got, as they say. And what he often said was, “No change is good change.” He was as resolute in his habits as he was steadfast in his friendships. The weekly games of poker and anagrams, the many lucid days on the water– for me, Key West will not be the same without him.”

—John Leslie
Rust Hills (r), Les Standiford (c), unknown man (l), 1989
Rust toasting Gerry Tinlin (left) and Les Standiford (center) at the Curry Mansion in January 1989. Photograph by Monica Haskell.

An Old Shoe

     “Rust was like an old shoe. He was just a great guy. He and Joy would come in to the Green Parrot when we used to have the poetry slams. They’d order margaritas and stand outside the doorway, listening. When we were neighbors on Olivia Street, we’d bullshit across the fence– this or that, whatever was going on, and I’d walk away and get goosebumps a little, thinking about who this guy was, what he’d been responsible for. I mean I grew up in awe of Mailer; Cheever and Carver and those guys; and Rust– he was the guy. He made it happen. That picture in the Times— boy, what a good-looking guy, drink in hand, laughing. The world was his.”

—John Vagnoni
oy Williams, Rust, Monica Haskell, and James Wilson Hall in front of Captain Tony's Saloon in January of 1988 or 1989
Joy Williams, Rust, Monica Haskell, and James Wilson Hall in front of Captain Tony’s Saloon in January of 1988 or 1989. Photograph by Doyle Bush.


Photography by Phyllis Rose

08/23/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Chaise, from "Ballast Key"

Phyllis Rose is a member of our honorary board of directors and, with her husband, Babar co-creator Laurent de Brunhoff, a longtime resident of Key West. She is the author of several books, including Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf (1978), Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983), and The Year of Reading Proust (1997). Her work as an essayist and literary critic has been published by The New York Times, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar among other publications; and she was a professor of English at Wesleyan University for more than 35 years. Rose is also a photographer whose work captures several Key West literati, as well as the private island known as Ballast Key, where writers from Tennessee Williams to Robert Stone have found respite from the relative clamor of Key West.

Ballast Key, owned by David Wolkowsky (also a member of our honorary board), is situated about 9 miles west-southwest of Key West, between Man and Woman Keys in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. As private islands go, it is a casual affair. The island’s opulence is drawn entirely from the severe natural beauty it is part of. The houses (there are two of them) are grand in their way, but it is their utter lack of ceremony which impresses. Rose’s photographs of the island excellently capture its casual elegance. You’ll see a few of them here, along with two portraits. For the complete Ballast Key series, as well as more portraits of Key West writers including Robert Stone, Annie Dillard, William Wright, and Joy Williams, go to


Books, from "Ballast Key"


Harry Mathews and Marie Chaix


Laurent de Brunhoff


By the Ocean (David Wolkowsky), from "Ballast Key"

Cause for Celebration

07/21/2008  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

In the foreground, that’s novelist Joy Williams, former Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills, past executive director Monica Haskell, and poet James Wilson Hall. They are gathered in front of Capt. Tony’s bar, on Greene Street, one evening during the 1988 or ’89 Seminar. Photograph by Doyle Bush.

That’s Monica Haskell again, circa 1988, with daughter Elena Rose, outside a party at the Hemingway House. Happy Birthday, Monica!

Nilo Lopez’s Key West Nicknames

07/21/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

I first heard of Nilo C. Lopez when the Key West Citizen ran his obituary a few years back. It described a simple life in Key West, where Lopez’s family raised dairy cows in a small field along Staples Avenue. The obituary also spoke of him as a well-loved story-teller and published author. Intrigued, I rode my bicycle to Key West Island Books, passing the site of what I guessed to be the Staples dairy farm on my way. Once I arrived at the Fleming Street bookstore, Marshall, its proprietor, uncovered the sole remaining copy of the book whose cover you see here, Nilo Remembers Key West Nicknames.

As books go, it is an exceedingly simple job: 26 sheets of plain white paper folded into a semi-gloss card-stock cover and held together by two now-rusted staples. The font appears to be a 12-point, extra-bold Helvetica; the cover is composed of the sort of stock images found in early versions of Microsoft Publisher. The responsible publishing house is Bay Jourdan, heretofore known as the publishers of the Diamondhead, Mississippi, Telephone Directory, whose tried-and-true typographical model is here unvaried. It is a fore-edge-justified, one column listing of the nicknames recalled by Lopez, first the English ones, then the Spanish. One enjoys the sensation that it is in fact a telephone directory of Nilo’s friends from bygone days; so bygone that phones did not exist, absolving the directory of the need to include them. Here are some of my favorites:

     Harry Bulldog Face
     Billy Pork
     Copper Lips
     Give Me Back My Hammer
     Cabbage Head
     Iron Baby
     Lil Slicer
     I Am A Sailor From The Warbler
     Aching Bungy
     Two By Four
     Big Head
     Cat Head
     Cheese and Jelly
     Charlie Rice
     Black Paul
     Sweet Pappy
     Open Your Legs, You Are Breaking My Glasses
     Quarter Lilly
     Bop Man
     Donkey Milk
     Jungle Rat
     Wrongy Smeller


Tennessee Williams on a Bicycle

07/07/2008  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

“I have been drinking too much coffee – about five times in week – will cut that out and will try to keep myself so active physically during the day that I will sleep from sheer exhaustion – Now I feel quieter – I hear the birds chirping and a rooster – I would like to get a bicycle – maybe that would help – I guess I’d better do everything I possibly can to snap out of it.”

Photographer unknown. The original appears to be a press photo issued in conjunction with the 1986 Seminar, which was dedicated to the work of Tennessee Williams. It is dated 1970. The quote, dated August 9, 1937, is from Williams’s notebooks, as edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton and published by Yale University Press.

1993: Elizabeth Bishop

07/03/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

The 1993 Seminar, our eleventh annual, was dedicated to the work of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). Among the panelists were many who had known her well, including John Malcolm Brinnin, Mexican poet Octavio Paz, Bishop’s editor Robert Giroux, and poets James Merrill and Richard Wilbur. In cooperation with the Seminar, the Key West Art & Historical Society put on the first-ever exhibition of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings. The show was held at the East Martello Museum and curated by William Benton, who at that time was working on Exchanging Hats (1996), his simply beautiful book devoted to Bishop’s paintings. The painting reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalog shown here depicts the Key West Armory building (home today to The Studios of Key West) two doors down from Bishop’s Key West home. The exhibition also featured the photographs of Rollie McKenna, including several portraits of Bishop.

In conjunction with the Seminar, Bishop’s former home at 624 White Street was added to the national register of Literary Landmarks on January 4. The photo below, taken by Richard Watherwax, shows James Merrill reading that day in front of the plaque which still adorns the gate at 624, inscribed with the concluding lines from Bishop’s "Questions of Travel:"

    Should we have stayed at home,
    wherever that may be?


Men of Letters

06/27/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Richard Wilbur, John Malcolm Brinnin, and Philip Burton, at the January 4 1993 dedication of Elizabeth Bishop’s former Key West home as a Literary Landmark.
Photograph © Richard Watherwax.

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