Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West, William McKeen's new book about the island's cast of famously wild characters in the 1970s, reminded me of that saying about the '60s: If you can remember them, you weren't really there.
But McKeen, chairman of the journalism department at Boston University and a chronicler of pop culture who has written books about the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson, found plenty of interview subjects whose memories of those heady times are remarkably intact, given the magnitude of fun they were having back in the day.
It helps that most of the book's main figures are writers, whose job it is to notice and recall. All of them were shaped in indelible ways by their years on Key West, and in turn some of them helped to create the popular image of the island as a tropical party town.
Key West didn't begin that way. Its first European name was Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island, because Spanish explorers found it covered with heaps of human skeletons. In the 19th century it became a naval base and busy port; by 1900, it was the most populous city in Florida.
McKeen, who was a longtime University of Florida journalism professor before moving on to Boston, reprises Key West's early history of ship salvage, piracy, cigarmaking and rumrunning, then moves on to the man who first made the town a magnet for writers and artists: Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway discovered Key West by accident in 1928, on his way back from Paris with second wife Pauline. They were supposed to get off a ship there, pick up a car and drive to Pauline's family home in Arkansas, but Hemingway was smitten in a single afternoon. He lived in Key West off and on for years and wrote some of his best-known fiction there.
His shadow still looms over the place (and his face still adorns countless Sloppy Joe's T-shirts, even if it's not the bar where he actually drank). It was in part Hemingway's spirit that drew this book's cast to the town in the '70s, particularly the central character, novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane.
A Michigan native, McGuane was already a noted young writer whom critics were calling the next Hemingway when he started spending half of each year in Key West. At first he was utterly serious about work despite the island's let-the-good-times-roll attitude, but he was coaxed out of that when his great friend and fellow great writer Jim Harrison began spending time there, too.
The two men supported each other's work — Harrison got McGuane's first novel, The Sporting Club, published, while McGuane persuaded Harrison, a poet, to begin writing novels — but they also bonded over fishing, drinking, drugs and the avid pursuit of women. Within a couple of years, serious Tom's nickname was Captain Berserko.
Their group was known as the Boys (memorialized in Harrison's wise and hilarious 1994 novella Julip). Its other core members were Guy de la Valdene, a genuine French count who was a serious angler and sometime writer, and Russell Chatham, an acclaimed landscape painter and notorious horndog (even for Key West).
McKeen gathers plenty of raucous tales about them, culminating in the events that would make the Key West literati into rock stars: McGuane's 92 in the Shade. The novel about dueling fishing guides was critically acclaimed, then McGuane wrote and directed the movie version, which brought them People magazine celebrity status for the sexual shenanigans on the Key West set in 1974.
A chart would probably help, but here's the outline: During shooting, the charismatic and handsome McGuane was having an affair with actor Margot Kidder, but brought his inamorata Elizabeth Ashley down from Broadway, where she was starring in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for a role as well. In the meantime, McGuane's wife, Becky, was sleeping with actor Warren Oates, whose best friend, the film's star Peter Fonda, was madly in love with her, too.
Other people were arriving in Key West for the fun. Jimmy Buffett was a struggling singer-songwriter in Nashville when he fled a busted marriage to visit friends in Florida and fell under the town's spell. He soon became part of the McGuane-Harrison crowd, and in 1977 his first No. 1 song, Margaritaville, became Key West's anthem.
Buffett left around the time the song became a hit (his new wife didn't think Key West was a suitable town for raising kids), moving to Aspen, Colo. There he met another of the book's cast, Hunter S. Thompson, and offered him the use of his Florida apartment.
The gonzo journalist arrived in Key West in the midst of an ugly divorce and a crushing case of writer's block, and he found a place perfect for his unique personality. For a time, he owned and proudly demonstrated a contraption that — well, let's just call it a sex machine. And in a town full of literary celebrities, Thompson could escape his own destructive public image for a while.
McKeen frames all these mad tales with the experiences of Tom Corcoran, a longtime Key West resident whose various roles — he has been, among other things, a naval officer, taco seller, bartender, photographer, songwriter and novelist — allowed him to get to know all the players.
Corcoran and others reflect on how the town changed as the decade ended. McGuane was gone by 1978; after he married his third wife, Buffett's sister Laurie, he got sober and moved to Montana, where Harrison and Chatham also now live.
Various forces, like the Mariel boatlift from Cuba, changed the town's atmosphere. And, ironically, Margaritaville transformed Margaritaville: "Now, because of a song, there was a new influx of tourists. Instead of only the extremely wealthy and eccentric, there were more middle-agers, more middle-classers, and more office-cubicle-daydreamers on their vacations who pointed the car south on U.S. 1."
Thompson committed suicide in 2005, but most of McKeen's subjects, now in their 60s and 70s, are still creating art. Collectors join a waiting list to pay five figures for Chatham's landscapes. Corcoran's sixth Key West-set mystery, Hawk Channel Chase, was published in 2009. McGuane published his 13th novel, Driving on the Rim, in 2010; it just came out in paperback. The Great Leader, Harrison's 17th work of fiction (and 38th book), was released Tuesday.
And Buffett is still touring, keeping Margaritaville alive, if only in a song.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.