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South Florida's Oldest Library Has Some Big Connections, From Hemingway To Buffett

The Monroe County Public Library system is celebrating its 60th birthday this month. But the Key West library calls itself South Florida's oldest, dating back to the 1800s. 

"We don't know much about them, the early ones," said Tom Hambright, the Monroe County historian, about the beginnings of the institution. But a diary entry from a man living in Key West in 1858 refers to paying library dues of $5 a year.

The first formal library with records was formed by an association in 1892.

"Then the Woman's Club was founded in 1915," Hambright said. "When it was founded, their primary mission was to provide for the public library. And they maintained a library at various locations until this library was dedicated."

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Monroe County historian Tom Hambright oversees the Florida History Room at the library, including the vault that houses rare documents like a galley proof of To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.

That was 1959, when the first county library opened at Fleming and Elizabeth streets in Key West. At first, the rest of the Keys were served by a bookmobile. Now there are five branches in all: Key West, Big Pine Key, Marathon, Islamorada and Key Largo.

The libraries in the Keys provide the usual sorts of services, like loaning books and DVDs, putting on children's programs and providing internet access.

But the Key West branch in particular has had some high-profile patrons — and literary connections — over the years.

"We're located in Old Town, we have all sorts of people here and we attract some very prominent people in our library. We have a letter from Jimmy Buffett saying this was his office before he hit the big time," Hambright said.

Buffett came to Key West after recording some albums in Nashville that didn't do that well.

"He had dropped out, sort of. He came down and he was writing songs and singing in the bars for small change, basically. So he hung out here and said this was a place that he used as his office and his inspiration for some of his songs," Hambright said. "His letter says if we ever have trouble keeping the air conditioning going, let him know, he'd help us out."

Credit Monroe County Public Library
Monroe County Public Library
Monroe County has not taken the singer-songwriter up on his offer to help out with the air conditioning - yet.

The library has not, so far, taken him up on the offer, "but we thought about it here a couple years ago when we were having all sorts of problems with our air conditioning," Hambright said.

The public library system and the current building were not in Key West when Ernest Hemingway lived there, in the 1930s. But it still has some Hemingway connections.

The founder of the Florida History department, where Hambright works, was Betty Bruce. She was married to Toby Bruce, Hemingway's "right-hand man in Key West," Hambright said.

"And after [Hemingway's] death, when they found all the documents that had been stored in the back room at Sloppy Joe's they actually brought them here to the library to sort them through and [Hemingway's widow] Mary did donate some of the stuff that we have from Hemingway to the library," he said.

"We have a galley proof for 'To Have And Have Not, which is Hemingway's story about Key West in the '30s. So not only is it a Hemingway, it is our story, our story of Key West in the '30s."

That galley includes notations from Hemingway and from his editor, Max Perkins, Hambright said.

And there's another even more unexpected connection with the famous writer.

"The nurse who took care of Hemingway in World War I, Agnes von Kurowsky — he fell in love with her. But she told him to move on. But he used her as a model for his book, 'A Farewell to Arms.' She married another guy and they ended up living in Key West in the early '60s. And she got a job working here at the library, in technical processing," Hambright said. "So she was here two or three years. No record that they ever met here in Key West or at the library."

Hemingway died in 1961, but that was after von Kurowsky moved to the island, Hambright said. But he did not spend time here after splitting up with his wife, Pauline, in the late 1930s.

Tennessee Williams spoke at the dedication of the Monroe County Library auditorium in 1975. The auditorium is named for him.

Another Key West resident who was a famous writer — Tennessee Williams — did use the library. His library card is now part of the historical collection that Hambright oversees.

"Not only we do have his library card, we have his overdue notice so we know he took out books," Hambright said. "And the auditorium in this library that was added in the 1970s, was named for him. And he spoke at the dedication."

Williams also recorded some of his poetry, with the intention of raising money for the library. That never worked out, but the library did get the recording digitized and it's now posted on the Key West Literary Seminar website.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.