Unlocking Paradise

From Truman's retreat to Hemingway's hangouts, the Florida Keys beckon to visitors in search of a soothing place to unwind

March 11, 2007|By Allen Holder | Allen Holder,Mcclatchy-Tribune

KEY WEST, FLA. // Only one road leads from Key Largo all the way to Key West, so you'll get wet before you get lost. For the directionally impaired, that makes things easier.

Yet the 100 or so miles between Key Largo in the north and Key West on the southwestern end cover a lot of territory. The Keys comprise 1,700 islands, after all.

Harry Truman visited 11 times between 1946 and 1952. Ernest Hemingway spent 11 years in Key West.

I had two days to take it in.

For the most part, U.S. 1 is two lanes -- sometimes highway, sometimes city street. Because it passes through every town along the way, it's tough to make good time.

But why try?

Along the Seven Mile Bridge southwest of Marathon and at plenty of places elsewhere, the view is pretty much the same: gorgeous. To the left, the turquoise waters of the Atlantic stretch to the horizon, where they meet a brilliant, cloudless azure sky. On the right, there's the Gulf of Mexico.

Tiny islands sprinkle splotches of green on the blue canvas. It's tempting to dive in and swim out to one, or at least pull over at the beach.

Just to keep paradise from becoming monotonous, a town emerges every few miles -- Islamorada, with world-class fishing and tony resorts; Marathon, with fast-food joints and strip shopping. Otherwise, it's next to impossible to distinguish Plantation Key from Indian Key, Duck Key from Grassy Key.

Then, finally, the signs announce Key West, where chickens wander freely, cats have six toes and the setting sun is reason enough to party.

Harry Truman loved Key West. Next to Independence, Mo., it was his favorite place in the world, our guide announced on a tour of the Little White House, a rambling Victorian structure where Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.

What's not to like?

Truman could escape the pressures of Washington here, relax and go fishing, take a walk, play solitaire on the upstairs verandah or get in a game of poker with friends.

"Key West has been a melting pot of society for so long that basically we weren't impressed with celebrities," said Bob Wolz, director of the Little White House, now a tourist attraction. "Ernest Hemingway was walking these streets and drinking in the bars. The citizens of Key West, for the most part, respected the president's privacy."

Truman came back again and again.

"The president would play poker and things until 11 at night, then he would go up to his bedroom with a stack of mail and work into the wee hours," Wolz said. "He really was putting in as much work as he did in D.C., but he felt he could relax here. And he didn't have the constant barrage of people knocking on his door."

Although other presidents, from William Howard Taft to Bill Clinton, used the Little White House, it is most closely identified with the Man from Independence.

In his bedroom, Truman's beige fedora rests on an upholstered green chair. The president's cane leans against it, in case he decided to go walking -- wearing a tropical shirt and khakis, his Key West uniform.

The president's room had a double bed (Bess and Margaret slept on twin beds in the room next door), a floral-patterned sofa and chair, a small desk, built-in shelves lined with history books, and access to the wide second-floor verandah.

On that porch, a deck of cards sits on a table, ready for games of solitaire. Sometimes the Trumans played double solitaire, but Bess didn't spend as much time in Key West as the president.

On the south porch below, a larger table is set with cards and chips for poker. In the living room, a desk contains the famous "Buck Stops Here" sign. On another table rests a copy of the Chicago Tribune, blaring the 1948 headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Truman visited Key West five times after he left office, the last time in 1968.

Papa's house

A couple of thousand cruise passengers had unloaded from the Celebrity Century. Downtown was packed.

Along Duval Street they were buying T-shirts at the Hard Rock and eating Key lime pie, getting on and off the Conch Tour Train. They were singing along to Jimmy Buffett songs and eating cheeseburgers at Margaritaville, listening to rock music and drinking beer at Sloppy Joe's, the bar Hemingway made famous.

For many visitors to Key West, Sloppy Joe's is on the short list of places to see. I was more interested in Papa than Joe and set off along Whitehead Street to find his home.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, his second wife, came to Key West in 1928. Ernest discovered the region's great sport fishing and Pauline found the house. In 1931 they moved in.

The Hemingway home, a Spanish Colonial structure with long mustard-colored shutters, remains much the way it did during the couple's years there in the '30s.

The house cost $8,000, but Pauline spent much more to rehab it. One of the first things she did was to install chandeliers throughout the house instead of ceiling fans.

"And we thank her for that every summer," our tour guide said. Even on a January afternoon, it was hot.

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