Key West's People: Beyond Hemingway and Truman

Key West is well-known as a favorite spot for the writer Ernest Hemingway and President Harry Truman. Yet, the city has been shaped by other great residents, some famous and some not-so-famous.

Visitors with stout walking shoes or a car—and the patience and curiosity of any person on vacation—can find a mixed bag of people who have had an impact on the town. One who still has clout, certainly on local lost parrots (as if she were Key West’s own version of St. Francis of Assissi), is a woman called Nancy Forrester. There’s not a lot written about the 3 we now mention. They are not top of mind for those buying T-Shirts and beer on upper Duval. In fact learning about the first, Tennessee Williams. in Key West is like swimming against the tide.

We don’t know why Key West is so cavalier about telling his fans and those who have loved his plays about this gifted playwright. The exhibit at 513 Truman Street has been a one-man show since 2008 set up by a dedicated curator, Dennis Beaver. The hope now is that Beaver may get some tourism funding to spread the word. Williams had lived in Key West longer by far than the town’s favorite son Ernest Hemingway (34 years versus Hemingway’s 10 year-love affair). Williams discovered Key West in 1941 and came many times before he bought a house at 1431 Duncan Street where he lived until he died in1983. He was found by his secretary in his suite in the Elysee Hotel in New York City under confusing conditions. His post mortem showed that alcohol and sodium seconal were factors but the pathologist declared the cause of death was a plastic bottle top from a nasal or ocular bottle lodged in William’s larynx. The truth of it all is murky. Who knows exactly what happened? The press, of course, as with Marilyn Munroe’s death, had a field day.

Tennessee Williams never regained the impact of his first work. His death depressed his fans and the theater world. His sister Rose, a schizophrenic, was a recipient of his kindness and, in his will, he was able to leave her well provided.

Williams had a tortured life; even as a child ill with diphtheria his father called him “a Nancy boy”—at a time when the world was more than unkind to homosexuals. His family was dysfunctional and the sister Rose, whom he loved dearly, was institutionalized for the rest of her life after the failure of a prefrontal lobotomy and ECT.

A woman once helped him move house. His unpredictable expression of thanks was to give her one of his 2 typewriters!

Critics wonder if, perhaps, Tennessee Williams earned his playwright success too early. He felt his first play The Glass Menagerie (based on his own family) was his best writing and some critics say he never recovered from winning the Pulitzer Prize twice when he was relatively young.

The average movie goer may not have read many of Tennessee Williams’ plays but all the top Hollywood and foreign actors and actresses had and competed for roles in them.

He had insight and was aware how fleeting success can be. He struggled with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. And, of course, with his family history.

Williams was an inspiring playwright and an indifferent artist. He wondered if people would buy his art if he were not a known writer. And he got that right! However, his art was often a gift he gave when he was invited to a party.

Another famous name in Key West and a much better artist was that of John James Audubon, the American ornithologist who was born on his father’s sugar plantation on Haiti. His father had been a French naval officer. Audubon developed an early love of the outdoors and an interest in birds. His mammoth lifetime opus Birds of America had engaged him for 14 years: 435 hand-colored life sized prints of 497 bird species printed on huge sheets measuring 39 by 26 inches. The project cost so much in 1827 ($115,640) that Audubon had to fund the project with a pay-as-you-go subscription. His finances were at times so perilous he was even thrown in jail once in 1819 for bankruptcy. In 1839 you could have bought all 4 books in Birds of America for $1,000; in December 2010 Sotheby’s sold a complete copy of all 4 books in the first edition for $11.5 million making it the most expensive book ever sold. The Economist magazine estimates that, “adjusted for inflation, five of the highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of Birds of America.” At the Lauren Bacall auction this year the single page engraving of the white pelican sold for $173,000.

Audubon House was built in the 1840s. The portrait of America’s famous ornithologist was painted by John Syme in 1826 when Audubon was aged 41. He died in 1851 of what is now thought to have been Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1832 for 6 weeks Audubon visited one of the wealthiest men on the Florida Keys, Captain John Hulin Geiger, the Key West harbor pilot who had made a fortune in the ship wrecking industry. Audubon enjoyed the garden and the array of plants Geiger had on his estate and when Geiger built his elegant house in the 1840s, 14 years after Audubon’s visit, somehow the house was named after the famous ornithologist. When the house was enthusiastically repaired it was the first of all the large scale renovations in town and “and sparked Key West’s restoration movement.”

Says a guide, “Audubon’s name saved this house.”

Here’s a cockatoo that plays with its iPad and a woman who rescues parrots, birds that can live for 100 years.

Visitors who want to do more than look at pictures of birds can see the real thing if they discover “Nancy’s Secret Garden,” a parrot sanctuary run by a gentle artist, animal lover, and environmental activist called Nancy Forrester. Nancy has been rescuing abused and orphaned parrots for more than 25 years.

Nancy introduces us to “Mr. Peaches,” her cockatoo who is more interested in his iPad than his visitors. He had never seen an iPad before until he got it as a gift from a little girl visitor in 2014. It makes a noise when he taps on its screen with his tongue. He is clearly fascinated, “totally enraptured,” says Nancy adding, “He is highly intelligent with problem solving. He enjoys kids’ games online but he gets easily bored!”

Cockatoos are capable of learning thousands of words once a “bridge word” is used to identify an object. All have likes and dislikes. They eat communally and share their food willingly. Says Nancy, “They live for 100 years. And are smarter than dogs. My birds are all potty trained!”

Nancy Forrester, the environmental activist, has some advice for the public:

• Never buy a parrot from a bird breeder because you may get a bird with a disease. There has been overbreeding in the United States. Don’t support the breeders.

• If you want a bird you need to go to bird school. You can study online. There’s a lot of useful information on the internet.

• Go to a good nonprofit bird rescue sanctuary for your bird. Know you are taking on a responsibility for life. Your bird will be like a 5-year-old child who never grows up. Parrots are highly social and sometimes scream for attention. They mate for life. To find their gender you have to do the DNA, it’s the only way to tell.

• Certain truths hold. Chemicals can be deadly: perfume, furniture cleaners, insecticides. Even cooking with overheated non-stick Teflon pans and offering non-organic food can kill them. “It’s as if they are more sensitive to what’s going on than humans are,” says a woman who is visiting, “As if they are the canaries in the coal mine!”

The Secret Garden gets no funding from the city, or government or other organizations. It is supported by visitors’ donations and money is tight. Some months ago Nancy found a bird cage dumped at her gate. It contained a sick bird. She took it at her expense to a bird vet. The bird had psittacosis and the vet’s bill was $1,000. The cleaning up of her home and garden was laborious and worrying. And expensive.

But, like St. Francis, she doesn’t do it for the money.

Want to know a secret? Her Secret Garden is at 518 Elizabeth Street. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children.

Photographs by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life