David A. Kaufelt, a novelist who founded the Key West Literary Seminar and did more to establish the island city as a fixture in the national literary consciousness than anyone since Ernest Hemingway, died this weekend at his Flagler Street home. He was 74.
He arrived in Key West from New York in 1974, fresh off the success of his debut novel, Six Months with an Older Woman, which was soon adapted into a made-for-TV movie starring John Ritter. Here, Kaufelt and his wife Lynn fell in with a community of distinguished writers that included poet James Merrill, journalist John Hersey, novelist Thomas McGuane, and playwright Tennessee Williams.
Kaufelt’s idea for the Key West Literary Seminar grew out of a disappointing meeting in New York, where he and literary agent Dick Duane had failed to persuade a group of publishers to send top writers south for a lecture series organized by the Council for Florida Libraries. New York publishers were convinced, said Kaufelt, that no one in Florida cared about books.
“I said we have so many writers of so many persuasions in Key West, we could have our own literary festival,” Kaufelt later recalled. And within a few years, that’s what he did, creating the event that, more than thirty years later, continues to present some of the most acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world to standing-room-only audiences.
While serving as president of the KWLS board of directors, Kaufelt continued to work as a novelist, producing books including American Tropic (1986), a historical-fiction account of Florida’s development, and the series of murder mysteries featuring lawyer-cum-detective Wyn Lewis, among them The Fat Boy Murders (1993).
Kaufelt also created and led a beloved literary walking tour, whose popularity owed as much to the intimate view it provided of the homes of Key West writers as it did to the dapper enthusiasm and infectious charm of its guide. “A lot of tourists come to Key West and they only see Duval Street or the Pier House,” Kaufelt said of his inspiration for the guided tour. “I wanted them to see what Key West really looks like.”
National Public Radio sent a reporter to Key West in 1990 to profile the walking tour. On the recording, which is available in its entirety in our audio archives, Kaufelt explains what attracted him and other writers to the island where he had made his home:
“I have a theory why we all live here—it’s called the Peter Pan theory. Freud said that we are at our most creative when we are in our very early youth, before we’re five years old. That’s where we are here. We wear shorts, we ride bicycles, we have the water, a great symbol of the unconscious, and we’re free to be children here and let our spirits go. There’s nobody in suits and ties telling us what we have to do.”
Kaufelt is survived by his wife, Lynn Kaufelt, and by their son, Jackson Kaufelt. A memorial service will be announced.