Elizabeth Bishop in Key West, Island of Her Dreams

On a 20th-Century Writers' Paradise

When they made their initial journey south to Key West from mainland Florida by water in early 1937, Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Crane, both avid fishermen, were lured by tales of the spectacular fishing. Bishop promptly wrote to Frani Blough describing Key West in glowing terms, adding, “I hope [it] will be my permanent home someday.” As Bishop later told an interviewer, “I liked living there. The light and blaze of colors made a good impression on me, and I loved the swimming.”

She noted, “The town was absolutely broke then. Everybody lived on the W.P.A. I seemed to have a taste for impoverished places in those days.” Along with cheap rents, Key West, with its warm and comparatively dry climate, offered Bishop a possible release from the struggle for breath she experienced due to chronic asthma. 

The island of Key West is the largest and southernmost extremity of a long chain of small, elongated islands (or keys) arching gracefully southward and westward for 100 miles off the lower tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. Though incorporated as a city in the early 19th century, Key West even now retains something of the character of a distinct and individualistic village. It is easy to feel uncertain about what sort of civic entity Key West actually is, for when Franklin Roosevelt visited the island in 1939, he made what Bishop facetiously termed “the awful mistake” of praising Key West as “this pleasant village.” Bishop was amused as well when the Key West Citizen diplomatically but firmly altered FDR’s reference so that it read “this pleasant city.” If one stands at the center of this city or village and walks briskly in any direction for 15 minutes, one will find oneself facing the sea. 

Far from Manhattan’s madding crowd, Bishop found a quiet setting where she might concentrate productively. Here, too, almost uniquely in America, she found a place where authorship tended to be recognized as a genuine profession. Ernest Hemingway was then and still remains Key West’s most famous citizen. An author’s non‑writing hours might be filled with outdoor activities or domestic observations that might lead, in Bishop’s case at least, to notable poems. And for writers such as she, who shared a taste for funky nightlife, that too might be readily discovered in Key West.

Lynn Mitsuko Kaufelt, author of Key West Writers and Their Houses, has observed that the island draws writers who find it “reminiscent of some ideal childhood world where one can wear short pants, polo shirts, and sneakers all of the time and stay home from school.” The island also offered attractions for a woman writer with a preference for other women. According to lifelong resident Dave Gonzales, executive director of the Hemingway Home and Museum, there is an old saying on the island that “in Key West, even the one‑way streets go both ways.”

For Bishop, life in Key West offered a more relaxed, sunnier, and more tropical return to her cherished childhood world of Nova Scotia—a warmer and more bohemian Great Village, without the looming Presbyterian church steeple across the village common and almost free, perhaps, from the haunting echoes of her mother’s scream. 

When Bishop and Louise Crane made their first brief visit to Key West, they arrived after sailing southward from the Keewaydin Fishing Camp in Naples, Florida, where Bishop had formed a close friendship with the camp’s 

owners, Red and Charlotte Russell. After their arrival, she and Crane enlisted the services of the now‑legendary Captain Eddie “Bra” Saunders. Bishop fairly gushed to Frani Blough, “By good luck we happened to get the best Captain to take us fishing that there is.” She added, “He has been Ernest Hemingway’s, my dear, for years and years (Ernest lives here now) and Dos Passos (the BIG MONEY was written there).”

Bishop added further, “Captain Bra (his rather odd name) told us a story that we recognized as having been taken down verbatim by Ernest in his last book of stories.” Key West had been devastated by the Great Depression, and Julius Stone, Franklin Roosevelt’s chosen director of Federal Emergency Relief Administration on the island, had orchestrated what would prove to be a highly successful effort to rebuild the island’s faltering economy based on an increase in tourism. 

Given its density of authors per capita, what happened in Key West did not always stay in Key West.

Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens had independently arrived on the island in the winter of 1935 and were surprised to find themselves next‑door neighbors. This famous pair of modernist masters spent many afternoons in a give‑and‑take regarding their very different notions of the theory and practice of poetry. Stevens, unlike Frost, would soon find ways to turn the island into a source of inspiration for such major poems as “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which appeared within a year of his first arrival.

In 1936, during his second winter there, the 57‑year‑old Stevens and the 37‑year‑old Hemingway, each having had a few too many, engaged in a now‑legendary fistfight that temporarily bruised the dignity of both authors. Following a morning‑after apology session during which they swore one another to secrecy, each boasted about the event to their astonished friends just as soon as they got the chance. Given its density of authors per capita, what happened in Key West did not always stay in Key West. 

In a contemporaneous essay, Harper’s writer Elmer Davis compared Key West to Greenwich Village or Montparnasse because on adjacent barstools in its most popular nightspots one might find “a duke, an anarchist, and a fan dancer.” Still, Bishop insisted that from her point of view, “Key West is nice, not because of all this sport and these he‑men litterateurs, but just because it is so pretty, so inexpensive and full of such nice little old houses.”

The surrounding water she described as “the most beautiful clear pistachio color,” adding that “it is so pretty when you have actually caught one of these monster fish and have him all the way up to the side—to see him all silver and iridescent colors in that blue water.” Bishop concluded decisively of Key West, “It is NOT like Provincetown.”

Twelve months after her first arrival with Crane, Bishop returned and was declaring herself ready and willing to make the island her home. After returning to New York from France at the end of 1937, Bishop stopped briefly in Manhattan, then spent Christmas in Cliftondale with her aunt Maud and uncle George Shepherdson. When she arrived in Key West in January 1938, Bishop began a period of residence that, while never quite year‑round, would keep her coming back, season after season, over the course of the next decade.

Crane, who had been hospitalized for an illness after her return to New York from France, planned to return to Key West as soon as she was well. Upon her arrival, Bishop found a room in a boardinghouse at 528 Whitehead Street, run by a Mrs. Pindar, that cost her, as she boasted to her friend Frani, just four dollars a week. 

One of the side benefits of her current rooming house, she told Frani, was the amusing view it offered from its upstairs veranda of her elderly landlady Mrs. Pindar’s “pink bloomers, which she hangs on the tree every morning.” She added, “I am doing absolutely nothing but work, scarcely even read, and the results, for quantity, anyway, have been quite satisfactory so far.” Bishop was using these early days in Key West to complete and prepare for publication a sequence of poems and prose pieces she had drafted during her European travels. She worked to such effect that 1938 would prove, along with 1937, a banner year in Bishop’s publication history.

Bishop had been preceded on the island by her aunt Maud and uncle George, who came on their niece’s recommendation to enjoy the sun and the low prices, and no doubt also because they already liked and felt comfortable with Bishop’s partner, Louise Crane. Bishop added in her early letter to Blough that she ate dinner with her aunt and uncle every night, and that they liked the island very much. Just how far her reconciliation with her uncle George extended remains uncertain, given the undiminished intensity of the resentment she would express toward him a few years later in her letters to Ruth Foster. 

One product of Bishop’s intensive spate of writing during her early months on the island was “Late Air,” Bishop’s first Key West poem, which was published by Partisan Review, along with two important Paris poems, in the fall of 1938. “Late Air” reveals the poet musing on the nature of love as she sits on a Key West veranda late on a humid summer night, hearing the intermingled strains of recorded music wafting toward her from the wireless sets playing loudly through the open windows of her neighbors’ houses, as if “from a magician’s midnight sleeve,” so that the singers on the radio sets surrounding her “distribute all their love‑songs / over the dew‑wet lawns.”

These randomly dispersed and interwoven songs of love touch a raw nerve since “like a fortune‑teller’s / their marrow‑piercing guesses are whatever you believe.” Her title, “Late Air,” plays on multiple meanings. While “air” could refer to a song, it might also refer to the humidity of the warm night sky, laying a semierotic glaze of dampness over neighboring lawns. Bishop’s experience of love known or unknown, returned or unrequited, included moments reaching back to her childhood—and also her romantic friendship with Louise Bradley and her never‑quite‑reciprocated passions for Judy Flynn and Margaret Miller.

The experience of, or search for, love had often proved marrow‑piercing in her own life, as the love songs wafting out from the radio sets had almost seemed to guess. Even in these prewar years, the United States military maintained a significant presence at Key West, where its naval airfield was used, among other things, as a training base for pilots. The navy had positioned brightly lit warning lights at key points on the island, offering nocturnal alerts to low‑flying planes. And Bishop’s poem, likely written from a veranda looking out over an adjacent naval installation, declares, “On the Navy Yard aerial I find / better witnesses / for love on summer nights.”

These witnesses comprise “five remote red lights” that “keep their nests there; Phoenixes / burning quietly, where the dew cannot climb.” The fictive phoenix of Greek legend, clad in bright red feathers, was believed to nest on a remote and lofty peak for centuries before consuming itself in fire in order to be reborn. This poem’s five electrified phoenixes, nesting on the navy’s aerials, seem to promise a remote and cool yet passionate and lasting love—a love more lofty, pure, and permanent than any Bishop herself had ever known. 

One product of Bishop’s intensive spate of writing during her early months on the island was “Late Air,” Bishop’s first Key West poem, which was published by Partisan Review.

Bishop attempted to lure Marianne Moore to join her in Key West, touting the island’s natural beauty as well as its quirky detail and its frugality. But Moore, never one to journey very far beyond the confines of her Brooklyn apartment, demurred. And so Bishop kept writing away busily and, for the moment at least, living almost alone. In a January 31st letter to Moore, Bishop apologized for submitting a story, “In Prison,” to Partisan Review before it had received her mentor’s vetting. Bishop had received an urgent request from Partisan to send in a short story to meet a February 1st prize deadline, and she had sent the only piece she had on hand.

Moore greeted Bishop’s apology with the tart reply, “If it is returned with a printed slip [of rejection], that will be why.” Bishop lamented to Frani Blough that Partisan Review, which was in the process of establishing itself as a favored venue, had “almost forced a story from me . . . and now I wish I had it back.” Far from being returned with a printed slip, however, Bishop’s “In Prison” won Partisan’s $100 prize—enough to cover a half year’s residence at her Whitehead Street boardinghouse.

The first‑person narrator of Bishop’s Kafkaesque “In Prison” can’t wait for the day when his self‑imposed imprisonment, and with it “my life, my real life, will begin.” At the time that this story appeared, Partisan was offering in its pages some of the earliest translations of Kafka’s stories into English. The story appeared promptly in Partisan’s March 1938 issue. From submission to award to publication, it had been only two months. Still, even as late as May 1938, Bishop continued to apologize to Moore over having submitted it without her mentor’s approval.

Even so, and perhaps in part due to her growing appreciation of Bishop’s maturity as a writer, Moore at last—four years after their first meeting—invited her protégé to begin addressing her by her Christian name. Bishop replied in a July 12th, 1938, handwritten missive with the salutation “DEAR MARIANNE,” showing her mentor’s capitalized first name surrounded by sparklers, as if illuminated by the lights of a theater marquee. 

Perhaps Bishop could focus so intently on her work during her first months on the island because Louise Crane, described by Bishop as “a magnet for all odd people, animals, and incidents,” had not yet appeared. When Louise at last arrived in Florida in early March, Bishop met her in Miami. As Crane detailed in a chatty letter to her mother, the pair rented a car and drove to Keewaydin for a few days, where they went tarpon fishing under the light of a full moon. Then they journeyed by ferry to Key West, and Crane took up residence with Bishop at the Whitehead Street boardinghouse, sharing what she described as “nice big rooms in a nice big house.”

Crane described Key West as a wonderful place, extolling its “row on row of the most fascinating old houses, mostly very dilapidated, & all in a very particular local style.” She also mentioned that Mrs. Pindar, Bishop’s original landlady, had moved on, and the house was now in the hands of a rotund, stone‑deaf, older white woman named Miss Lula, who relied heavily on a black servant named Coochie, “who bossed her all the time; it’s really a scream.”

In 1941, Bishop would turn the relationship between Miss Lula and her servant into the poem “Coochie.” By then, Coochie had died, and in her poem Bishop sadly notes that the deaf mistress failed to appear for her servant’s burial ceremony, despite the fact that Coochie had spent her life “in caring for Miss Lula.” Miss Lula’s absence is made clear in the lines, “The skies were egg‑white for the funeral / and the faces sable.” And with reference to Lula’s deafness, which seems both physical and moral, she asks, “But who will shout and make her understand?” Out of 

such unfolding everyday events, and often using the actual names of individuals involved, Bishop wove the story of the world she found on the island of Key West. 

__________________________________

From Love Unknown by Thomas Travisano, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Thomas Travisano.

Thomas Travisano
Thomas Travisano
Thomas Travisano is the founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society and the author of Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman. He is principal editor of the acclaimed Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and served as co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century and the three-volume New Anthology of American Poetry. Travisano’s work on Love Unknown was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society. He is Emeritus Professor of English at Hartwick College.





More Story
Greta Thunberg: “This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” My name is Greta Thunberg, I am 16 years old and I’m from Sweden. I am grateful for being with you here in the USA. A nation...