In 1924, John Dos Passos was on the move. He was in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Savannah, New Orleans, and finally Florida. In New Orleans, he came close to completing most of his book, Manhattan Transfer. He moved across the Florida panhandle, then down the peninsula along the west coast and across Florida to Palm Beach, then becoming a winter getaway for millionaires and the powerful.
He found Florida to be “fabulous and movie-like,” and marveled at the building boom, which made Florida the fastest growing state in the nation by the 1920s. He was fascinated by the people who thought Florida was the get-rich capitol of the nation. “One arrives on foot, works a year, buys an orange grove from his wages, then in five years travels in a limousine, in ten years is the founder of a city, is a millionaire or a senator—it’s the American Eden,” he said with tongue in cheek.
His next stop was something of a surprise. Today, Key West is a lush resort and a destination for millions, but in 1924, it was a rundown relic, its economy failing and its best days seemingly behind it. Although the island became home to a string of famous writers, it claimed little fame in 1924.
Dos Passos chose Key West, explaining that he had “islomania,” an obsession with islands. The impact of Dos Passos on Key West cannot be overstated. He was the first significant author to visit the island, but more importantly he was well-liked in the New York and Paris literary communities. He became a public relations advocate for the island, writing to friends about the island’s wonders. He told Ernest Hemingway to go to Key West: “It’s the best place for Ole Hem to dry out his bones.”
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