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Florida Feature: A Brief Biography of Flagler

December 16, 2011 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler

American tycoons were once something we admired as a nation. They were the physical embodiment of the American Dream and represented the supremacy of the free market. Turn-of-the-century oilmen, factory owners and real estate magnates were the celebrities of their day, both beloved and envied for their success. In 2011, this is no longer true. The super-wealthy “1%” exists in the public consciousness today as a despicable, money hungry bunch, whose financial success is a testament to their ruthlessness and lack of empathy rather than the “classic” American ideals of hard work and faith.

Fortunately for him, Henry Flagler made his bones in an era when the tycoon was king. He grew up in Hopewell, New York during the 1830s, raised by his mother, Elizabeth and father, Isaac, an itinerant Presbyterian minister. Young Flagler only attended school until the eighth grade when he dropped out and moved to Bellevue, Ohio to work for his uncle. The future titan of industry began his working career at a meager salary of $5 a month plus room and board. However, as his later achievements would illustrate, Flagler was a man of formidable ambitions and by age 19, he was promoted to the company’s sales staff at an increased salary of $900 a month. Henry Flagler was on his way.

Late in his wildly successful career, Flagler was viewed by the American public as an exemplar of the “Horatio Alger myth;” a real “pulled up by his own bootstraps” story. However, as is often the case, the public’s perception of celebrity is slightly skewed: Flagler was born into a wealthy family. In fact, he was only able to found his first company in 1862 after borrowing nearly $100,000 from his mother’s side of the family and recruiting his brother-in-law, Barney York, as his business partner. Due to widespread salt shortages related to the Civil War, The Flagler and York Salt Company was initially profitable, but the recipe for success was not destined to last. In April 1865, the Civil War ended, provoking a freefall in demand for salt and the company collapsed.

After the failure of his first company, Flagler returned to Ohio and took a job with a grain company. Undeterred, and determined as ever, Flagler was also aided by an exceptionally serendipitous meeting. Through his business dealings with the grain company, Flagler became acquainted with John D. Rockefeller, a New Yorker, who was in Ohio to start an oil refinery in Cleveland, a city that was quickly becoming the center of the burgeoning oil industry. In 1866, when Rockefeller was searching for investors to get his refinery off the ground, he remembered the savvy young grain salesman he had met the previous year. The ensuing negotiation demonstrated Flagler’s impressive business acumen as he leveraged his $100,000 investment into a position as Rockefeller’s full partner. The refinery was a success and the business grew into the famous, turn-of-the-century American corporate behemoth, Standard Oil.

Although Henry Flagler’s substantial fortune would have made him a member of the 1%, were he alive today, he likely would have resented the image of selfish, unchecked excess associated with modern tycoons. He was renowned as a generous, avuncular fellow who eventually abandoned his executive duties at Standard Oil in order to focus his energy on construction and philanthropic efforts in Florida.

This biographical blog series on Henry Flagler will continue next week with posts on Henry’s first trip to Florida and the epic tale of the overseas railway and its financially bloated, hurricane battered construction!

The Key West Writers Guild: Writing Key West’s Literary Future

December 2, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Key West Travel, New Writers, Writing Advice

From Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Bishop, Key West is steeped in literary history.  You can see Bishop’s house on White Street, have a drink at the bar where Hemingway was a regular and attend a show at the theatre named in Tennessee Williams’ honor.  Key West has as much to offer literature aficionados as it does beach bums, but, you may ask, what can Key West offer the contemporary writer?  The literary scene in Key West is far from a thing of the past.  In fact, Key West has much to lend aspiring writers hoping to follow in the footsteps of their literary predecessors who once called Key West home.  In addition to the annual Key West Literary Seminar, The Key West Writers Guild, a non-profit organization founded in 1995, has been supporting local writers since its inception.  According to their website, the Guild “provides a friendly forum for authors to share their writings and receive encouraging and helpful feedback.”  They meet twice a month and provide an inclusive community for all writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, both published and unpublished.  In addition to providing a forum for discussing their work, the Guild also holds an annual short story contest.  The winning submissions have subsequently been compiled into anthologies, which are available for purchase locally in Key West. The latest edition, Voices from Key West, is available on  In conjunction with the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, they also honor one writer annually with an award for the best work in progress.

While it is not a requirement, many members of the Guild are published, and their works run the gamut from thrillers and children’s books to romance novels and literary fiction.  Although not a prerequisite, it is no surprise that many of the Guild’s members are creatively inspired by their surroundings.  Joanna Brady Schmida, a member since 1998 and the Guild secretary, won the annual award in 2009, and her self published novel, The Woman at the Light, is praised on as “a wonderful ‘trip’ to Key West’s past.”

The members of the Guild come from all walks of life, bonded together through their love of writing.  The Guild president, Diana Reif, is an attorney, and the members’ day jobs cover as wide a spectrum as the genres in which they write.  Dorothy Francis, music teacher and mystery writer extraordinaire, has written books for both children and adults, and her Key West mysteries include the aptly titled Conch Shell Murder and Pier Pressure Mike Dennis, musician and professional poker player, also found inspiration in his surroundings.  His second published work Setup on Front Street is the first of a trilogy of noir novels set in Key West.  Peg Gregory, a retired nurse turned romance writer, penned Starfish, a piece of romantic fiction inspired by the city’s past.

Whether historical fiction, romance novel or psychological journey through the region’s darker side, local writers cannot help but be fascinated by the rich culture and breathtaking beauty of Key West.  I think sometime-Key West-resident Hemingway would agree. After all, his only novel set in the United States, To Have and Have Not, is set in Key West, where he began writing it. Strangely enough, although Hemingway and Tennessee Williams resided in Key West simultaneously, they reportedly only met once.  Providing a community of intellectual nourishment and mutual admiration, it is safe to say that if Key West is to ever again see the likes of two such literary greats, they will have met more than once… perhaps even twice a month at Guild meetings?


Key West Friday: Visiting Florida with Elizabeth Bishop

November 18, 2011 in American literature, Key West Travel

Photo by Daniel Peckham

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass…

So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s famous ode to the state of Florida. Of course, in a traditional sense, this isn’t an ode, for while it speaks of Florida—almost sings of Florida—it doesn’t call to the region. Like many of Bishop’s poems, which are set apart by their precise descriptions and finely-observed detail, this poem describes Florida to an outsider. It captures a place filled with pelicans and rot and beauty and teenage flesh. Florida feels, to me, like an intimate portrayal drawn from a vast distance.

Yet Bishop didn’t experience Florida from a distance. After moving to Key West in the early 1930’s, Elizabeth decided to stay in the city, moving from apartment to house and enjoying the booming literary scene (as well as the lush surroundings).

Embarrassingly, this is new information for me. I have long admired Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry—I love her confessional style, her raw emotion, and her delicate balance of imagery and abstract—but I insisted on thinking of her as a Massachusetts girl, much like myself. However, the truth is that Bishop didn’t belong to Boston, and even her first book of poems bares testimony to that fact. Titled North and South, the collection jumps back and forth from Key West to Boston, moving from the cold brick and winter twilight of the North to the invading sun and carnival colors of America’s far south. It compares and contrasts the two, never really settling on either, playing to the strengths and terrible weaknesses of both.

But this is, in essence, what I admire so much about Bishop’s poetry. Before I began writing our Key West Friday series, I had never given much though to what I’m going to call her “landscape pieces.” I much preferred her descriptions of love, loss, and anger. But buried within these tantalizing images of a place I have never been (for I haven’t quite made it down to Florida quite yet) is something I can recognize. Reading her poems about Florida is a bit like looking at an old postcard. They provide a fragmented and slightly distorted and appealing picture of America.

Key West is, for Bishop, a place that is filled with growth and overrun with decay. She describes with equal the “enormous turtles, helpless and mild” that are doomed to “die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches and the fireflies, who come after dark and “map the heavens in the marsh / until the moon rises.” In another poem, titled Florida Deserta, she spends the first stanza discussing summer clouds that “shade the houses / soothe they eyes” and “banish the break-bone fever” before launching into a description of the summer stars. She captures them converging “invisibly on each tin roof,” turning light into color and the shine of hundreds of scales. For Bishop, Florida is alive and pulsing, constantly moving with heat and the glittery refracted light of water and ocean.

After a more thorough exploration, I realize I have to give up Bishop as a fellow Bostonian. She’s much too American to be limited to a single city—even a single state. I think it is her particular skill for imagery, for drawing dreamscapes out of words, but after reading Elizabeth’s lines on Key West, it’s hard not to wonder: what else is out there, waiting with half-closed eyes?

Bishop, in her usual cryptic way, has one answer:

The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.

Key West Friday: Having Dinner With Tennessee Williams

November 11, 2011 in American literature, Key West Travel

Last week, we talked about Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s greatest writers, most famous drinkers, and a sometimes resident of Key West. Today, we’re going to shift our focus (but only a little) to yet another classic American author known for his culinary quirks: Tennessee Williams.

While Williams is more often associated with New Orleans than with the great state of Florida, the playwright and author spent years commuting between Manhattan and his modest residence in Key West. A true literary traveler, Williams lived all over the world, establishing homes everywhere from London to Rome, only to move once more when the mood struck him. According to some, It was in his Key West home where Tennessee wrote the first draft of his most famous and arguably most widely-read play, A Street Car Named Desire. Visitors to the city can still see his small bungalow, located in the New Town neighborhood, though sadly, it is privately owned and no longer open to the public.

Despite his long-time affiliation with Key West, many of the recipes in Troy Gilbert’s cookbook, Dinner With Tennessee Williams: Recipes and Stories Inspired by America’s Southern Playwright, have a decidedly Louisisiana flavor. However, the off-beat little book—which features recipes created by Greg Picolo, a New Orleans native and chef at the Bistro Maison de Ville—can still be viewed as a surprisingly literary way to enjoy all types of Southern cuisine. The publisher describes the book thusly:

Like Hemingway to Cuba or Mark Twain to the Mississippi, certain writers are inextricably tied to their environments-the culture, the history, the people, the cuisine. The plays of Tennessee Williams evoke the ambiance and flavor of the South. Part food memoir and part cookbook, this fresh look at the world of this great American playwright-both in real life and in his plays-is the perfect book for literary lovers and food lovers alike.

Inside the conceptual cookbook, you can find recipes for dishes like Grilled Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Relish, Maw Maw Lola’s Fig Preserves, and Chop Suey Soup. All the dishes are inspired by Tennessee’s plays, and are accompanied with archived photographs from Williams’ life and quotes from his distinctive dialogue.

As holiday season fast approaches, we can’t help but think this would be the perfect gift for a budding chef, bookworm, or even world traveler. Food, literature, and a little bit of Southern charm? That’s pretty much all we need to escape this dreary New England winter.

Happy Key West Friday! Why Don't You Have A Drink?

November 4, 2011 in American literature, Classic Writers, Cocktails Inspired by Literature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Recipes, Travel Writers

Hemingway drinks in the Plaza Del Gastillo, July 1959.

Today’s edition of Key West Friday is going to focus on something very near and dear to my own heart: literary cocktails. More specifically, I want to talk about one of the greatest mixologists of the 20th century—I’m speaking of Ernest Hemingway, of course—and his personal creations.

Though some may think of Hemingway as just another author you had to read in high school, overlooking Hemingway’s massive influence on American culture, masculinity, and writing would be a sorry mistake. Even if we leave aside his incredible literary talents, Hemingway was far more than simply a writer. He was a celebrity before we truly had celebrities; he single-handedly defined a generation in a way that few authors have since. While his perpetually disillusioned anti-heroes certainly played a role in capturing and symbolically creating the post-war American, (Hemingway’s case is, I happen to believe, one of those chicken-or-the-egg issues. Did he simply record what he saw, and capture the disenchanted drifting of many young men, or did his novels contribute to a certain image of the American identity that was beginning to coalesce? I imagine it was a bit of both) his actual person was just as instrumental in the process. He was, according to those that knew him, a force of nature.

He let loose his forceful personality during his time in Key West, where he lived for several years before relocating to Cuba. During this time, Hemingway did little to reel in his natural vivaciousness, and found himself what PBS’s Michael Palin describes as “Hemingway’s wild adventures:”

In a rain-splattered Key West street, he duked it out with Wallace Stevens after the poet had insulted him. In his beloved boat, Pilar, he battled man-sized fish (managing to shoot himself in both legs while trying to gaff one shark). Hemingway belted back drinks at Sloppy Joe’s, a speakeasy that went legal after Prohibition ended. While at his favorite watering hole, he befriended a young journalist named Martha Gellhorn, who traveled with him to Spain to cover the civil war there. Eventually, she would become his third wife.

As Palin makes clear, these episodes were often fueled by alcohol. But what kind of alcohol?

Here we have to turn to another source. According to the wonderful site Codex 99, in 1937, Hemingway created a drink that Charles Barker later included in his book The Gentleman’s Companion. Hemingway called it a “picker-upper” but it went down in history as “Death in the Gulf Stream.” Despite the morose name, the actual mix sounds rather delicious. For those of you interested in celebrating Key West Friday at home, here’s the recipe for Hemingway’s scary little cocktail:

2 oz. Lucas Bols Oude Genever
4 dashes Angostura
1 lime
Add crushed ice to a thin tumbler. Lace the ice with 4 dashes of Angostura and add the juice and crushed peel of 1 lime. Nearly fill the tumbler with Genever.

Of course, you can always go the traditional route and make yourself a mojito, but we think this Death sounds much more impressive. Happy drinking.

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