by Eric Newill, Orbmagazine National Editor
Forty years after its disco inferno heyday, Key West remains a place devoid of reality, suspended geographically at the end of a string of small islands in the Florida Straits. Only 90 miles from Havana, it resembles that city insofar as time seems to have stood still, although, unlike the 1959 of Cuba, Key West remains ossified in the 1970s, all country-fried rock, brass-railed bars and chocolate mousse.
Indeed, the venerable Italian eatery Antonia’s has used the same recipes since its 1979 opening, as we are informed by our waiter, Rock (“not Rocky,” he warns). His nickname was coined by the actor John Cusack in 1985, when the two starred in the ski comedy Better Off Dead, and Rock still enjoys a countenance carved of granite. He has, however, quit show business, a world he was born into as Aaron Dozier, son of the producer William Dozier, known for such projects as Letter From an Unknown Woman and the ’60s camp sensation Batman. Dozier père was equally renowned for his wives, who included Joan Fontaine and Ann Rutherford. His son, a Beverly Hills High alum, is realistic about the movie world—“If you haven’t made it by 40, forget it”—and today shuttles between Martha’s Vineyard and Key West to work for tony establishments.
Meanwhile, in the Bahamian Village, cocks jump with abandon onto the tables at the luscious al fresco eatery Blue Heaven, terrifying patrons and amusing locals, who know the island’s bird population stems from their association with Santería and Voodoo. No such magic, however, is needed to summon the ghost of longtime resident Tennessee Williams, whose cutout stands proudly but bizarrely on Truman Street, inviting guests to step inside a community center for a peek at his career.
There, one encounters mountains of Playbills, posters and photos, but true devotees decamp a few blocks north, to find the playwright’s Duncan Street residence, where he lived and wrote for 30 years. Unlike the grandiose Hemingway House on Whitehead, where corpulent tourists line up around the block to peer at the bearded author’s typewriter and six-toed cats, the Williams abode is discreet and modest, bordered by a white picket fence and adorned with flaming red shutters. No one seems to know of its existence, save for a savvy local in a truck who volunteers, “Yep, that’s the Williams place.”
Before he bought his cottage in the late ’40s (an adjoining house cheerily features the words “The Rose Tattoo”), Tom—as friends knew him—stayed at the venerable La Concha on bustling Duval Street, where he penned A Streetcar Named Desire. Today, owners have “upgraded” the hotel to look like a slick resort on South Beach, replacing the open-air roof—where smart visitors and residents alike gathered to toast the legendary sunset with a cocktail—with a generic glassed-in spa, ruining the building’s Spanish lines to provide a spot for private massages, flat-screen TVs and uninspired luxury.
Happily, some of Key West’s unique quirkiness endures: In addition to the evocative Margaret Truman Launderette (her father, President Harry, kept his Winter White House on the island), there’s the iconic Monkey Bar, adorned from floor to ceiling with grinning primates. Dogs sit next to their owners on bar stools, both species lapping up cool drinks to avoid the blistering heat outside. One couple, a man and a man, have left their wives and children behind to enjoy a sojourn in the sun; they do this periodically, having met in Jamaica, and their families do not seem to mind. As one is an Adonis married to a Russ Meyer-breasted wife and the other a salesman from Erie, Pennsylvania, with a ponderous belly, they attract all types.
On Sundays, the only place to dine is Sarabeth’s. The owner, David Case, is a veteran of the original on New York’s Upper East Side, and brought the concept south with the blessing of Sarabeth herself. While tucking into Sunday fried chicken and velvety tomato soup, one overhears an obsessive-compulsive patron who is the spitting image and temperament of Brigid Berlin (it isn’t, ultimately). Her exhaustive description of Thanksgiving dinner, breathlessly narrated between bites, puts us in the mood for the holiday: “We’ll have pecan pie and pumpkin pie and acorn pie and chocolate whipped pie, and Aunt Mercy will bring her golden Tupperware dish and take away half of it. I’m making my usual chestnut stuffing, so first I’ll braise the turkey and prepare the cream sauce, and then I’ll take a breather to look in the larder for legumes. Willie will bring the oyster hash, and Harry the cranapple butter. Of course I shouldn’t be eating all this, but it is the holiday….” At that, a mysterious bird sounds its call, sweeping us back into the tropical dusk.