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Key West - America's Literary Winter Paradise

by Larry Bridwell

Key West first caught my eye in a 1984 Wall Street Journal article about the annual Literary Seminar. The story described the event's exquisite intellectual stimulation in a setting of outdoor cocktails and glorious island sunsets. I started going to the seminars in 1985.

Garden party at the Key West Literary Seminar (Jan 03)

The annual Key West Literary Seminar, which started small, has now become a major event. When the Seminar on humor scheduled for January 6 to 9, 2005, sold out, a second session with different speakers was added for January 13-16. Playwrights who will appear at the first session include Christopher Durang, Terrence McNally and Wendy Wasserstein. The second will feature Nora Ephron, Bruce Jay Friedman and Jules Feiffer. For the full list and for more information and registration, call 1-888-293-9291 or email Web page at

The literary soil of Key West stems from pirates, military adventures beginning with the Civil War, and its strategic location ninety miles from Cuba. Its culture has been strongly influenced by centuries of immigration from Caribbean islands and over a hundred years of intense political interaction with Cuba.

The island's literary heritage is dominated by three major writers: novelist Ernest Hemingway, playwright Tennessee Williams, and poet Elizabeth Bishop. Hemingway loved the deep-sea fishing, the inspiration for his "The Old Man and the Sea." A famous photo of him standing next to a huge catch is in the Museum of Art & History and in his old house, a villa with magnificent gardens. The house is open daily for tours, and dozens of descendents of his cats roam the grounds.

Williams' now-classic works include "Cat on the Hot Tin Roof," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "The Glass Menagerie." The eccentric nature of his plays is mirrored in the quirky aspects of this island, for example, Nancy's Secret Garden, developed and maintained by environmentalist Nancy Forrester. Garden pathways meander through an acre of dense palms and caged parrots.

Elizabeth Bishop was described by novelist Octavio Paz, a Nobel Laureate and Mexican ambassador, as the finest English-language poet of the 20th century. Out of deep admiration, he agreed to keynote the 1993 Literary Seminar devoted to her work. Reflecting Key West's varied culture, the four-day event was held in the historic San Carlos Theater, a meeting place for Cuban exiles since the 19th century.

One benefit of the seminar is its casual, informal setting. In island tradition, there are numerous parties with great food and the opportunity to interact with writers. At the Elizabeth Bishop event, I talked with Octavio Paz, mostly about NAFTA (the North America Free Trade Agreement), which was just getting started.

Judy Blume and husband George Cooper at seminar party (jan 03)
Judy Blume, perhaps America's best known writer for young people, spoke at a seminar on the literature of children. She and her husband now live in Key West and are actively involved in the island community.

At another seminar, Joseph Heller, author of "Catch 22," talked at a panel on war and literature. He had served on a bomber during World War II, and I asked him about the atomic weapons dropped in Japan. He quickly replied that dropping the bomb was wrong, but said that President Truman had no choice. Then Heller went to the bar at the top of the La Concha Hotel, the tallest building in Key West, with magnificent views, and spent hours talking to conference participants.

Truman Little White House at Key West Navy Base

Truman, by the way, made many visits to Key West while he was President. He stayed at the beautiful Little White House on the Key West Navy base. That military property was sold in 1984 to a developer, and the house was subsequently restored and is open to the public. The tour of the Little White House includes the room where he played poker and relaxed from the pressures of his stressful presidency.

Key West's political and literary history is described by well-trained guides in the colorful, open-air Conch Tour Train. The island has one of the largest historic districts in the country with an exotic combination of lush Caribbean flora and Victorian-style architecture. There are also three theaters and several cabarets. I go to plays or readings at the intimate Red Barn Theater a few blocks from the San Carlos.

Each January while the North freezes, the Caribbean Key West is often the warmest location in the United States, with temperatures from the sixties to the eighties. But besides having wonderful winter weather, this tropical paradise is an intellectual, visual, and culinary delight.

Someone once asked me to summarize the Key West experience. I replied that Key West is like the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. It nourishes body and soul and makes absolutely no demands.

Where to stay

The three highest hotel-occupancy rates in the United States are Las Vegas on the week-end, New York City, and Key West in winter. A wide range of accommodations is available, including bed and breakfasts and full-service hotels.

My favorites because of their uniqueness:
The Banyan Resort centrally located at 323 Whitehead Street has gardens, two swimming pools and a Jacuzzi in an unbelievably beautiful setting. Available on a daily basis are studios and one-bedroom time-share apartments. Web page at

The Island City House Hotel at 411 William Street has studios and one-bedroom apartments; you can take breakfast on the patio. Web page at

L'Habitation, a bed and breakfast at 408 Easton Street, may be the best accommodation value in Key West. It is owned by a French woman and her husband who are friendly and helpful, especially in arranging parking which can be difficult in Key West. Web page at


If you fly to Key West, you do not need a car, because most everything is within walking distance. From the airport or the outskirts, you can take a bus or taxi into town. A taxi from the airport costs about $10. Bicycles can be rented for transport to the beaches and around town.


My Blue Heaven, in the Bahamian part of town at 729 Thomas Street, is probably the most interesting eatery in town, not only for its food, but for its outdoor setting where roosters walk the grounds. It evokes a sixties San Francisco hippie restaurant with a funky menu. For families with children, it's a must-go place: prices are moderate, with an excellent kid's menu.

Fish at Kelly's Caribbean Bar and Grill

Kelly's Caribbean Bar and Grill at 301Whitehead Street is located at the original headquarters of Pan American Airways, which made aviation history when its Key West-to-Havana flight became the world's first international flight. The restaurant has indoor and outdoor dining with food that has great visual flair. 305-293-8484.

Antonia's at 615 Duval Street has delicious Italian food served in a romantic atmosphere. Appetizers cost $7 to $19, and entrees from $23 to $36. Because of its quality and popularity, reservations are recommended. 305-294-6565.

The Half Shell Raw Bar on Margaret Street at the Seaport offers nicely broiled fish and French fries at reasonable prices in a charming port-side atmosphere. (You can book cruises on the boats anchored there.)

Croissants de France at 816 Duval Street is wonderful for breakfast, with exquisite croissants prepared on the premises daily.

"Miami and the Keys," Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, $10. A quick guide to the best beaches, bars, restaurants, and sea sport venues. Web page at [Bridwell]



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