“If you believe that, I’ve got some land in Florida to sell you.” The great Florida land grab of the 1920s is a theme in 7000 Clams, a novel by Lee Irby (2005) that moves from gangsterland on the East Coast to the balmy climes of St. Petersburg. No, the “clams” in its title are not edible; instead, they refer to a $7000 IOU signed by the great Babe Ruth, who is heading for spring training in St. Petersburg, a city that still boasts ball fields.
Perhaps filled with too many characters—a ravishing chanteuse fleeing from Al Capone; crooked cops; a Jazz age coed; a henchman with a heart of gold—the novel evokes an earlier age when The Babe was a god—even if he had feet of clay and was 30 pounds overweight.
Speaking of feet of clay, Beat Generation fans can make a pilgrimage to Jack Kerouac’s home in St. Petersburg (5169 10th Avenue North) or toast him with his favorite drink, whiskey and beer chaser, at the Flamingo (1230 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N), the bar he frequented until he died much too early at the age of 47. Reading his On the Road offers a homage to this trendsetter.
St. Petersburg provides artful outings, including the stunning Dali Museum (go even if you don’t care for surrealism); a fine Museum of Arts with café on the waterside; and a
collection of Dale Chihuly’s gorgeous glass art. To revel in 1920s style, move on to St. Pete Beach, where the Don Cesar Hotel rises majestically in full pink glory on wide beaches of white sand. Have a drink in the Gatsby Bar, named in honor of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who stayed there. Stay at the 1928 pink palace for about $200 a night and watch the fabled sunsets.
Florida’s heyday is reflected in the number of attractions on offer in the St. Petersburg/Tampa/Sarasota area. The Tampa Museum of Art features a small but elegant exhibition space and an exceptional café on the riverfront.
The Plant Museum, which is actually a 19th century railroad magnate hotel, is well worth a visit, located on the University of Tampa campus. Its Victorian Christmas Stroll is a delight. The Aquarium gives up close underwater vistas although visiting the Manatee Viewing Center at the power plant in the winter months when these interesting creatures seek warmer waters is another option.
In Sarasota, the enormous Ringling complex offers a full day of interesting venues in its Circus Museum, Museum of Art, mansion by the sea, and lovely gardens. The mansion, Ca d’Zan means “House of John,” but docents noted it is really the “House of Mabel,” the Iowa farm girl who went on to be a wealthy art collector.
Florida inspires authors. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling are two classics. Rather than the sad coming of age story that Rawlings penned, try her memoir Cross Creek (1942). John D. MacDonald’s extremely successful amateur detective series featuring Travis McGee—and color-coded titles—are good beach reads. Carl Hiaasen is a great choice for his adult fiction, his titles for young readers (e.g., Hoot), or even his nonfiction like Team Rodent, about Disney’s invasion. (John Ringling preceded Disney, though.)
Peter Matthiessen won the 2008 National Book Award for his Shadow Country, a novel that in itself has a fascinating story. The tale of killer and killed E. J. Watson, Shadow Country is a re-working of an earlier trilogy by Matthiessen, who seems almost possessed by this real-life story of a planter, who was also a serial killer. This 900+page thriller could take an entire vacation to complete.
One final quirky title to consider: The Young Marooners on the Florida Coast by F. R. Goulding. This 1852 entry is considered an early juvenile novel, featuring a young foursome who exist Robinson Crusoe-like on an island in Tampa Bay. It’s available from the Gutenberg Project for free.
Perhaps buying land in Florida is not such a bad deal after all, particularly if it’s on the fabled white sand with an ocean view.