Key West in the ’70s: writers, artists, drugs and Jimmy Buffett

On the theory that Key West is part of the Caribbean, I am posting this review of Mile Marker Zero by William McKeen (reviewed by Jeff Baker for The Oregonian. It all sounds more sad than fun, but here it is.

Key West is only four miles long and two miles wide, 90 miles from Cuba in John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase, and has a population of about 25,000.
For a little island at the end of the Florida Keys, it sure attracts a lot of literary attention. Much of that comes from Ernest Hemingway, the one-man travel industry who lived on Key West 1928-39, one of the most productive periods of his life. Tennessee Williams was there much longer, from the 1940s to his death in 1983.
In very different ways, Hemingway and Williams had a significant impact on the culture of Key West, but journalism professor William McKeen isn’t much interested in what they did in Key West. McKeen’s new book “Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West,” gives Hemingway and Williams a short chapter each before rushing to what he sees as the real story, the adventures of Tom McGuane and his friends in the 1970s.
McGuane, an author of abundant talent and an obsessive hunter and fisherman, grew up in Michigan under the shadow of Hemingway and first came to Key West on fishing trips with his father. He returned as an adult for the fishing and the literary culture, and his lifelong friend Jim Harrison soon followed. McGuane and Harrison, along with painter Russell Chatham and French sportsman Guy de la Valdene, formed a watery Rat Pack and spent their days fishing and their nights carousing in Key West’s notorious bar scene.
Along the way, some work got done. McGuane wrote a couple of novels and somehow ended up directing a movie based on his “92 in the Shade” despite having no experience in filmmaking. A weird, hey-it’s-the-’70s set of affairs ensued: McGuane had a steamy romance with Elizabeth Ashley and then married Margot Kidder, both actresses in the movie. McGuane’s wife, Becky, slept with Warren Oates and ended up marrying Peter Fonda, the co-stars of “92 in the Shade.” Everyone pretended everything was cool, man.
It wasn’t. The movie was a mess, though it’s now considered a cult classic and is hard to find on video. Most of the principals decamped to Montana, where they remain. McGuane quit drinking and kept writing fine novels and even better short stories while settling into a great life as a rancher and fisherman. Harrison is a brilliant poet and prose writer who’s gotten better in late middle age. Chatham’s paintings are often on the covers of Harrison’s books and are in museums and galleries around the world. Valdene published a taut memoir about hunting, “The Fragrance of Grass,” earlier this year. Each is an accomplished artist, and their time in Key West makes for an entertaining read.
It was not, despite McKeen’s best efforts, Paris in the 1920s. Kidder undercuts his thesis with a trenchant observation: “Key West was a rather forced show that the guys put on for each other,” she said. “It was all about Ernest Hemingway. … It was just the Seventies version of a jousting competition: who could take the most drugs and stay standing? They were all doing Ernest Hemingway the Second — on coke. But I don’t think Key West was that very inspiring to any of those guys.”
The party king who was inspired by Key West wasn’t McGuane (known as “Captain Berserko” in those days) or Hunter S. Thompson, who hid out there after fame and cocaine started taking their toll. It was Jimmy Buffett, a mediocre country singer from Alabama who washed out in Nashville and found himself singing in the bars along Duval Street. Buffett soaked up the ambience, wrote his best songs (“He Went to Paris,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty”) about infamous Key West characters, and before he knew it, everyone was cruising down A1A to Margaritaville. McGuane, who later married Buffett’s sister, wrote the liner notes to “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” and Valdene took the cover photo.
Back then, in the 1970s, no one imagined that Buffett was a marketing genius who would spend the ensuing decades selling tropical shirts and blenders and the idea of a good time to aging fans who call themselves Parrotheads. Buffett took the lazy marine vibe of Key West, slapped a label on it, trademarked it as Margaritaville, and took off for greener pastures. Key West lost much of its scruffiness and became an upscale tourist destination and a gay enclave. It’s been lucky with hurricanes, although Wilma did hit it hard in 2005.
For the original review go to

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