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Florida's Homer, folklorist Stetson Kennedy, dies at age 94

Florida has lost a true icon. Stetson Kennedy, folklorist, author and civil rights activist, died Saturday morning in a hospital near Jacksonville. He was 94.

"He was a giant," said Peggy Bulger, a friend, protege and director of American Folklife for the Library of Congress. "He never quit working. Last time I talked to him he was still full of p--- and vinegar."

He was Florida's Homer, a talking history book, a troublemaker, a scamp, a radical and a shameless promoter of everything Stetson.

I got to know him late in his life. Now and again I visited him at the North Florida home he called Beluthahatchee — "Heaven" in the Seminole Indian language. His little paradise, sort of a rickety cabin on stilts perched over a swamp near the St. Johns River, will become a museum now that he is gone.

He grew up down the road in Jacksonville, left home for the University of Florida, enrolled in a writing class taught by an up-and-coming author named Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, quit college, took the train to Key West, drank rum, chased women, married his first wife and wrote down everything he found interesting, which was quite a lot.

He made his mark during the Depression as a writer and editor of Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, which was part of a Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal project to provide work to unemployed writers. Helping him gather information in the Florida hinterlands was another pauper, the African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, who had recently published her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Kennedy could have ended his career at that moment. The guide, considered an important historic document today, secured his legacy. But he had mixed feelings about a book meant to be carried in the glove compartment of tourist cars. "I thought it was a chamber of commerce kind of book," he once told me. "The idea was to get people to come to Florida and spend money and help the economy. There was excellent information in that book, but it hardly told the real story of Florida."

Kennedy was more proud of Palmetto Country, published in 1942. Driving through the state with a coffee table-sized tape recorder, he collected the stories of orange pickers, spongers, cigar makers, mullet fishermen, gandy dancers and turpentine gatherers. Kennedy called his favorite book "sort of a barefoot social history of Florida," but it was also a shocking expose of Southern violence and racism.

Later he fictionalized his investigation of the nation's best-known hate group and called the book I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan. Accused of Communist sympathies, he fled to France after many death threats.

In Europe, he wrote the Jim Crow Guide about how "separate and equal" actually worked for African-Americans, but failed to interest an American publisher. In Paris, the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sarte not only published the book but arranged for distribution in the United States.

Another friend was folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose This Land Is Your Land was a poor man's sarcastic reply to Irving Berlin's patriotic God Bless America. Guthrie often wintered in Florida with Kennedy, slept in his hammock, skinny dipped in the pond and wrote poetry on the back porch. In 1950, Guthrie wrote one he called Stetson Kennedy. In 1997, a band called Wilco and a rocker named Billy Bragg put the poem to music. Stetson Kennedy is on iTunes.

"He knew everybody," said Tina Bucuvalas, the former director of Florida Folklife who now leads a similar program in Tarpon Springs. "What a life!'

But it was an amazingly messy one. A Don Juan, he enjoyed romances with many women, some who turned out to be married during their trysts. Between girlfriends he still managed to marry seven times, according to his closest friends, though he admitted to having tied the knot on a mere five occasions.

He feuded with other writers, sometimes about who deserved what credit or how much money. Sometimes he needlessly exaggerated his own already considerable accomplishments.

In 2005, his Klan investigations were praised in Freakonomics, a blockbuster best seller. But the following year the authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner took back their kind words in a New York Times column, claiming they had been fooled. The authors somehow had mistaken Kennedy's steamy Klan novel — full of sexy dames and gats hidden under the pillow — for a work of serious scholarship. Kennedy, who enjoyed seeing his name in print, had not bothered to set them straight.

"Let's be honest about understanding Stetson Kennedy's life," said Gary Mormino, the co-director of the Florida Studies program at the University of South Florida, on Saturday. "He held passionate and unpopular opinions about race relations, the Klan, and the nobility of plain folk when such beliefs were wildly unpopular."

Kennedy made some money during his life, but was better at spending it and chronically lived on the edge of poverty, often depending on the charity of friends and fans who'd show up, often unannounced, at his door. Sometimes it was a widow with a casserole or an Audubon birdwatcher who hoped to photograph the osprey nesting in the swamp.

On one visit, the nearly deaf Kennedy handed me his telephone when he couldn't hear the caller. On the line was his old friend from Chicago, Studs Terkel, the oral historian who had won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about World War II. Terkel, a fellow veteran of the New Deal project, had written something he wanted to share with his friend. I took dictation.

"Tell him I'm on death's door," Kennedy said. He was hardly joking. Pale and fragile, he walked with difficulty, stopping often to gulp air from a breathing tube. But after a short nap — while I looked at his scrapbooks in the den — he would emerge strangely energized. He told me he planned an autobiography, a "Stetson Kennedy Reader" for college students and a book about old Key West. At the time he was 89.

He never finished writing his own story or the anthology. But Grits & Grunts, a delightful collection of his Key West memories from the Depression, came out in 2008. It contains stories and songs that would otherwise be lost to antiquity, sketches of characters he knew as Copper Lips, Black Caesar and Monkey Man.

Like Stetson Kennedy, they're gone but won't be forgotten.

Florida's Homer, folklorist Stetson Kennedy, dies at age 94 08/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 28, 2011 1:30pm]
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