Travel and writing go together. So does travel and reading.
As a writer, I’ve traveled to do research on manuscripts in progress, and to discover new things, places and people that I may someday write about.
As a reader, I’ve been a pilgrim to the haunts of writers whose words I cherish. For me, language, writing, and books are the finest gifts we’ve bestowed upon ourselves as humans. The first type of writerly travel is work. The second is fun.
With that in mind, do you recognize where this quote comes from: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
I’ll identify the author later. No cheating.
Unfortunately, we usually cannot telephone our favorite writers, though I’d like to. I did consider calling Tom Wolfe before he died and saying to him, “Hey, I’m a native of Richmond like you, let’s chat.” I doubt he would have been impressed. And I’m pretty sure that, should I have been so lucky as to get him on the line, the next sound I’d have heard would have been “click.”
Okay, so most of us can’t telephone our favorite authors. Especially the dead ones. We can however, personal economics notwithstanding, visit their stomping grounds. What follows is an incomplete list of my own personal sojourns in pursuit of the great writers of the past.
On my first trip to London in October of 1989, the game was afoot for me. Directly after checking into my hotel, I hurried via double-decker bus to the Marylebone neighborhood where I walked Baker Street searching out number 221. Once there, all I found was a sterile high-rise. There was nothing else. I mean nothing else. Not even a plaque on the wall. I couldn’t believe it. I drowned my disappointment at a nearby pub.
Fortunately, the Brits saw the error of their oversight because less than a year later, they opened a cheesy museum nearby. The address on the door reads 221B, but it’s not true. The actual address of the museum is 239 Baker Street. Say that aloud: “239 Baker Street.” It so does not work that it falls upon the ear nearly like Dr. Grimesby Roylott’s, “hoarse yell of pain and fear and anger all mingled in the one dreadful shriek,” near the end of The Speckled Band.
On that same trip to England, I took a typically British slow train to the home of the Bard. No life of writerly pilgrimages would be complete without a stop here. It’s pretty much a single-company town. While there, you may visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, Shakespeare’s grave, stay at the Shakespeare Hotel, dine at Number 1 Shakespeare Street, and have a nightcap at Shakespeare Street Cocktail Bar & Nightclub. Long story short—yes, it’s a tourist trap.
And that brings me to the best part of visiting this town: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. When it comes to the Bard, it’s not about the quotes or memorable lines, it’s about the plays. And when it comes to mounting any of the 39 plays, this group is among the most masterful. If you’re as passionate about them as I am, you’ll find the magic here. I certainly did.
Between the ages of 12 and 15, I consumed everything I could find that was written by the true father of science fiction. I recall lying in bed with the nightlight on and staring proudly at the bookshelf where I stacked dog-eared copies of the “Jules Verne Big Six” as I thought of them: Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Mysterious Island. When other titles like Michael Strogoff, Off on a Comet, The Begum’s Fortune, and Robur the Conqueror became available, it was like stumbling upon rare treasures. I read them all. They were filled with adventures that not only thrilled me, but encouraged a desire to see and experience the world they chronicled.
Thus, during my first visit to Paris in 1991, I hopped a fast train for a daytrip to Verne’s hometown of Nantes, a seaport where he lived until the age of 19. The Musée Jules Verne at 3 Rue de l’Hermitage has many original manuscripts for viewing. It goes quickly if you don’t speak French, which I do not. Yet it was still a thrill to see.
But best of all, there is Nantes itself. Here, one may walk the cobblestones he walked, and explore the banks of the Loire River that first stirred the imagination of the young Jules as he watched ocean-going vessels come and go. The consequence this played upon his intelligence and inventiveness ultimately resulted in the literary creation of the submarine, helicopter, holograph, video-conferencing, guided missiles, drone warfare, moving sidewalks, and a moon landing that weirdly included Florida as the launch site.
Sean Connery as James Bond introduced me to Venice in From Russia with Love. At the age of 10, it was the first 007 movie I saw and I still believe it’s one of the two best, the other being Goldfinger. Not that I’ve never read Death in Venice, or The Merchant of Venice. I have. But that came later. In this case, pop-culture came first, and that’s not always a bad thing. Additionally, I turned to Ian Fleming’s Bond novels a few years after seeing the movies.
It was the final action in From Russia with Love that did it for me—when Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb tries to kill Bond with a poison shoe knife in his Venice hotel. (“She’s had her kicks.”) A moment later, Bond and Bond Girl (sorry, but that’s what they’re called) get romantic while cruising the Grand Canal.
Fact is, walking the canals, alleys, and bridges of Venice is magical, like stepping into an M.C. Escher lithograph. For writers, the city has been a magnetic draw for centuries, from Dante’s first visit in 1321, to the plethora of contemporary thrillers set in the narrow quarters of the Queen of the Adriatic. And as a fan of Hemingway, yes, I did visit Harry’s Bar where the drinks are overpriced, but then very little in Venice can be called a bargain.
Key West, Paris, Madrid, Havana
That’s a good segue to the man I believe to be America’s greatest novelist. Even if you disagree, you can’t possibly disagree that the influence of Hemingway’s writing style, along with Strunk and White, is the blueprint-formula that changed everything. As he once said, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” From writing memos and resumes, to crime fiction and thrillers, like it or not, Papa is the great influencer of our age.
Because I feel so strongly about him, I’ve enjoyed making sojourns to his homes, and favorite bars, restaurants, and museums around the world. More has been said and written about them in connection with the man than I can add, except to say that they are all wonderful places to eat, drink, walk, read, write and celebrate our collective joie de vie as he did. No doubt that is why Hemingway called each of these cities home.
Key West was the setting of To Have and Have Not. Here, of course, there is the Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street, where he lived from 1931-1939. There is also Sloppy Joe’s Bar which he frequented, though it’s not in the original location. Legend has it that he purchased a urinal from Mr. Sloppy Joe Russell as a reminder of how much money he pissed away at the bar. Whether true or not, the urinal is in the Hemingway House backyard, where it’s used as a water trough for the six-toed cats.
In Paris, there is 27 rue de Fleurus, where the young Hemingway attended Gertrude Stein’s literary salon. In the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, I sat and tried to imagine a broke and starving Hemingway capturing pigeons to eat or sell as food. Best of all, there are the cafés: Café de Flore, La Closerie des Lilas where he first read The Great Gatsby, and Les Deux Magots, which was one of many settings in The Sun Also Rises.
Of all the countries he explored and wrote about, Hemingway loved Spain and Italy the most. And of all the cities, I’m confident his favorite was Madrid. Here he embraced the history, romance, and passion of the people. It’s become something of a cliché over the years, still, I enjoy having roast suckling pig at Botin, and standing before the Velázquez masterpiece, Las Meninas, at the Prado Museum.
As for Havana, it was Hemingway’s next-to-last home, and his final address outside of the U.S. In 2014, I visited Cuba on one of those on-and-off the bus journeys sanctioned by both governments. I didn’t make it to Floridita Bar in Havana for a daiquiri, but I did visit Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm). Thanks to the Cuban government, it’s frozen in time. The home, furnishings, books, and even the liquor bottles are preserved as though he’ll likely return any moment. Also on display here is his beloved fishing boat, Pilar.
There is sadness here too. He met Fidel Castro only once in his life. It was at a Havana fishing contest in May 1960, though neither of them were the winner. Many photos were taken and one of those became well known. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saw that photo in Life magazine, and because of it ordered that Hemingway be put under surveillance. After leaving Cuba for his last home in Ketchum, Idaho, the writer knew he was being followed, which added to his paranoia and depression, and contributed to his ultimate suicide in July 1961.
Key West (Again)
I like bicycling. I particularly like bicycling in Key West where there are no hills. While peddling around town, I once made a point of discreetly passing a special privately-owned home in old town. Tennessee Williams lived in a Conch House at 1431 Duncan Street from 1949 until to his death at the Hotel Elysee in New York (home of the Monkey Bar at 60 East 54th St).
While living in Key West, Williams was assaulted, his home was repeatedly burglarized, and in 1978 his gardener was murdered in the backyard, all of which was suspected to be part of an anti-gay campaign. Fortunately, there have been many changes in the years since.
As a child, I would peruse my father’s library only to find nothing of interest. As a 14-year-old, I’d peruse it and find interesting titles like Ben Hur, and The Young Lions, but still there was nothing I really wanted to read. Later, as a 16-year-old, I found Dinner at Antoine’s, by Frances Parkinson Keyes on that same bookshelf. It’s a murder mystery set in a famous New Orleans restaurant that opened in 1840 and still operates today in the French Quarter. I liked the novel.
On my first trip to New Orleans in 1996, because of that novel, Antoine’s was a must dine locale. But better than that, I toured the Beauregard-Keyes House, so called because it was lived in by Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard and owned Ms. Keyes (the pronunciation rhymes with skies). This prolific writer lived from 1885 to 1970 and penned more than 50 novels. She’s little known today. But in the 1940s and 50s, she was a very big deal, with lots of best sellers, many of them in the crime and suspense genres. Dinner at Antoine’s alone sold more than a million copies.
Richmond and New York
The man credited with inventing detective fiction had many American addresses: Boston, West Point, The Bronx, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Richmond, and Charleston, among others.
Decades before it was the capital of the Confederacy, Edgar Allan Poe lived and grew up in Richmond. It was here, at the age of 26, that he married his 13-year-old cousin. (Fret not, as of 2016 that is no longer legal in Virginia.) There’s a Poe Museum at 1914 East Main where he never actually lived, but he did live and work at several nearby addresses. Being a native of this city, I’ve visited the Poe House many times. There’s a collection of artifacts, including an original book of poems, furniture, clothing, and even a lock of the poet’s hair.
His short story Murders in the Rue Morgue is the first modern detective story, thus the coveted Edgar Awards presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America is named after him. Poe called it a story of ratiocination, meaning: to reason via deliberate inference. This is what Holmes later called “elementary deduction.”
As for The Raven, that was written in New York City on a farm at the corner of 84th Street and Broadway. There are a couple of plaques in the area, and on West 84th between Riverside to Broadway the signs read “Edgar Allan Poe” Street.
While we’re in America’s biggest city, I must relate my writerly love for the place I’ve called home for the past 40 years. I live in Chelsea, home of the Chelsea Hotel. Though I’ve passed it thousands of times, I still enjoy stopping out front and admiring the bronze plaques that hang near the entrance. They include memorials to Leonard Cohen, Arthur C. Clark, Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, and O Henry. And that’s just the bronze. An abbreviated list of writers who stayed there includes: Mark Twain, Sam Shephard, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Gore Vidal, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Bukowski, and all the rest.
Then there’re the dark tales: Dylan Thomas was a guest there when he died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1953 after consuming “18 straight whiskies” at White Horse Tavern, which still stands today and is also worth a pilgrim’s stop. Charles R. Jackson, author of the masterpiece, The Lost Weekend, committed suicide in his room in 1968. And, of course, it’s where the body of Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of punk rocker Sid Vicious, was found stabbed to death in 1978. He was charged with murder, but OD’d before trial.
Finally, there are two books penned, at least in part, at the Chelsea Hotel that forever qualify it as a writer’s shrine: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. ’Nuff said.
As for the quote near the top, it’s Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, of course. Good luck to anyone wishing to make a pilgrimage to his old stomping grounds. But his books and the books of all these writers are available. And the books are what’s really important.
Gray Basnight is deeply immersed fiction writing, after almost three decades in broadcast news as a writer, editor, producer, and reporter; preceded by a few years pursuing an acting career. His published novels are The Cop with the Pink Pistol, a modern NYC-detective mystery; and Shadows in the Fire, a Civil War historical novel about two young slaves on the edge of freedom as Richmond falls in April 1865.
Gray’s new thriller, Flight of the Fox, hits bookstores on July 23rd.