- Last Updated on Saturday, 15 September 2012 11:17
- Written by Patti Lavell
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Key West might be a good place to analyze that long-standing stereotype that the most talented artists, authors and playwrights suffer from depression or mental illness. Were the award-winning and timeless works of art created by famous artists a by-product of their suffering or did they possess strength of character sufficient to be artistic in spite of their suffering? Perhaps personal intense suffering enables some to more deeply empathize with the human experience of pain experienced in the world around them and that empathy is expressed in the form of art or music. Presumably everyone suffers at some point in their lives. Maybe artists differ only in that they find meaning in their suffering and convert it into power for expressing from the depths of their being.
Key West’s colorful history is dotted with famous artists who suffered from internal demons or by the hands of the public. Sometimes both. Playwright Tennessee Williams first became a regular visitor to Key West in the early 1940’s, when he was about thirty years old. He came to the island to write plays and swim in our tranquil waters. After his first major success, The Glass Menagerie he followed it with A Streetcar Named Desire, which he first drafted while staying at La Concha Hotel in 1947. With a jingle in his pockets he was able to leave the rentals behind and buy the only house he’d ever own in his lifetime. It was at 1431 Duncan Street. It was a modest one-and-a-half story bungalow with a guest cottage, swimming pool and a one-room writing studio that he called the “Mad House”.
Williams was constantly aware of the apathy he felt while listening to the news and hearing about the horrors happening in the world around him. In spite of the fact that people were dying he felt anesthetized, zombie-like. He continued to fight with feelings of anger toward his father for being a drunk instead of a parent. He was angry with his mother for allowing his beloved older sister Rose to undergo a lobotomy because the surgery cost him a close friend in whom he sought comfort. He considered the heart as an important instrument to any writer and if that heart were to fail him, he stressed that he would begin to write cynically. He hoped that Key West would help him recover his goodness.
Williams was gay during a time in Key West’s history in which being gay was dangerous and he found himself embroiled in a drama of resentment that echoed his work. Key West had once been the stomping grounds of warring Indians, pirates and drunken sailors until the Navy arrived and took over the island. In the late 1960’s the navy presence declined slightly and tensions increased as the island began to attract gays seeking safe haven. The island underwent waves of renovations, which increased the cost of real estate and taxes and caused anger and resentment among the conchs (native residents). By the 1970’s, the anti-gay sentiment was palpable and hate crimes were on the rise.
In 1979, an architect who worked for Williams was found dead lying naked in a pool of blood. He’d been shot in the head and neck at point-blank range. Just days after the murder, Williams’ home was broken into and robbed. Shortly thereafter, Williams and a friend were attacked late at night as they stumbled out of a gay disco. They were drunk when they were jumped and suffered only minor injuries. While sitting on his front porch on evening, a passing bunch of thugs threw beer cans at him shouting and calling him a faggot.
Williams met Hemingway only once when they were introduced at a bar in Cuba. Williams was nervous about the meeting because he heard that Hemingway was a homophobe. Regardless of Hemingway’s stance on homosexuality, the meeting was cordial and they found common ground discussing their health issues.
Hemingway lived and wrote in Key West for more than ten years. At the height of Hemingway’s literary success, he was growing increasingly paranoid about very strange things. He was convinced that someone was trying to kill him and he was constantly worried about an eye condition that would cause his corneas to dry up. He told friends that J. Edgar Hoover and the Feds were after him, having him followed and tapping his phone.
As his condition deteriorated, he discovered that for the first time in his life, he was unable to write. This was the final blow to his sense of self as both a writer and as a man. When his wife found him standing with a gun in one hand and shells in the other, she distracted him long enough to get a doctor on the scene. Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo clinic where he underwent electroconvulsive shock treatment, which at the time was considered the best treatment for severe depression. By 1960, his depression manifested itself through anorexia, insomnia, deep sadness and self-destructive trends. When the paranoia kicked into high gear, it became evident that the shock treatments had been ineffective. He quit the treatments, claiming that they had caused him to lose his memory and creative ability. In July 1961, Hemingway took his life.
Legendary poet laureate Robert Frost also spent many years in Key West, wintering in a cottage at 410 Caroline Street from 1945 to 1960. Like Hemmingway, he suffered from mental illness and depression.
Born to an alcoholic father and a depressed mother, Frost was no stranger to battling mental demons. In fact, Frost’s entire family was rocked by the effects of mental illness and tragedy.
Forced to commit his sister to a mental hospital in 1920, Frost was actually trying to protect her. Never able to recover, she died there nine years later. His daughter Marjorie died in childbirth in 1934. She was only 29 years old. Four years later, Frost’s wife Elinor died of heart failure. In 1940, his son committed suicide at the age of 38 and his daughter was committed to a mental hospital in 1947.
Not surprisingly, Frost suffered from depression and often lost control of his actions and emotions. One of Frost’s daughters described how she’d been awoken in the night to hear her father screaming at her mother. He had a gun to his wife’s head and told her “Take your choice. Before morning, one of us will be dead.” His paranoia and jealousies unhinged Frost’s dark side but somehow poetry seemed to be the only solidly good thing in his life.
Poetry was Frost’s way of making sense of the horrors around him. It allowed him to control the world and its events through verse. Unlike some artists for whom their art is a way of escaping life, poetry was Frost’s way of engaging it.
Are the lives of these three men sufficient enough to support the suggestion that crazy people are more creative? Perhaps artists who see themselves as outsiders because of their mental illness have a very different perspective on humanity than those who are insiders. Perhaps being outside sheds a different light on society and they articulate what they see and how it makes them feel through their poetry, painting or storytelling.
One thing is clear and that is that Key West provided a haven for Hemmingway, Williams and Frost alike. It was here that they sought refuge from their demons and the island provided them some measure of comfort. Key West has the ability to soothe and calm the soul like no other place on earth.