Guest Column

Cousin Vinnie’s History Lesson

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My cousin Vinnie arrived unexpectedly last week. Imagine my surprise when he parked his semi-truck in our driveway, dripping oil on the new pavers. I rushed to greet him, and a husky German shepherd bounded from the cab, bared his teeth and growled at me before running to do his business in our flower bed.

“Hey, Cuz,” Vinnie said, engulfing me in a bear hug that would make a momma grizzly proud. “How’s your writing going?”

Vinnie has always been an avid reader, a lover of all things Stephen King. I had sent him a few of my books and short stories over the years, and he’d always replied with a terse critique. His last one read, “Stephen King doesn’t have anything to worry about.”

I asked him how long he was planning to stay and offered to show him around the beaches.

“I plan to head south to Cassadaga and get my fortune told, but first I want you to show me where Stephen lived in Jacksonville Beach.”

Assuming he meant Stephen King, I said, “King doesn’t live anywhere near here, but when he’s not in Maine, you might find him at his house near Sarasota.”

“Not that Stephen, writer boy. Don’t you think I know where King lives? I meant Stephen Crane, one of America’s most amazing writers.”

With that, he whipped out a dog-eared copy of “The Red Badge of Courage.” “The poor guy was only 28 when he died, but he wrote some awesome stories. I know he lived in your neck of the woods for a time with his common-law wife, Cora.”

Some of this rang a distant bell with me, but I didn’t know Crane had lived at the beach and told him I’d have to do a little research. Later, after he took the shepherd for a walk, I took the opportunity to visit my friend, Google.

Scrolling through multiple Stephen and Cora Crane websites, I quickly learned the author had indeed resided in the area in the late 1890s. But he’d stayed in Jacksonville, not Jacksonville Beach or Pablo Beach as it was known then. I marveled at the story of these two fascinating individuals and the role they played, however briefly, in the history of Jacksonville and the Beaches.

Stephen Crane was an established poet, novelist and newspaper journalist when he came to Jacksonville, a major port city at the time, to connect with a ship bound for Cuba. While he waited, Crane familiarized himself with Jacksonville. According to a reporter friend, Crane began “haunting the backrooms of waterfront saloons, chain-smoking and drinking countless bottles of beer.” He also visited a few of the city’s many brothels, and met Cora Taylor, the owner of the Hotel de Dream. The two hit it off and became close, shall we say.

Crane’s ship departed for Cuba on New Year’s Eve, 1896, but didn’t get far. The vessel took on water, and the crew abandoned ship. After floating in a small boat with three other men for a day and a half, the boat overturned, and Crane nearly drowned. He returned to Jacksonville with Cora and wrote “The Open Boat,” based on his near-death experience.

Reading on, I learned that Stephen Crane had suffered from tuberculosis for years, and he died at a spa in Germany on June 5, 1900.

Cora returned to Jacksonville shortly after the Great Fire of 1901, and found backing to build The Court, a grand bordello and entertainment center located at Ward (now Houston) and Davis streets. The Court became an instant hit, and Cora’s influence grew as she bought into other Ward Street brothels and bars.

Her connection to Pablo Beach came in 1905 when she built a two-story surfside “resort” called the Palmetto Lodge. It all came to an untimely end in 1910 when 46-year-old Cora Crane, relaxing on the porch of the Palmetto Lodge, noticed a female motorist’s car stuck in the sand. She helped the woman push the car free, but later suffered a stroke and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vinnie eventually returned from his dog walk, and I told him what I’d learned about Stephen and Cora. “What are we waiting for?” he bellowed. “Let’s go.”

“Go where?” I asked. “There’s nothing to see.”

“Hey, do you think I drove 2,000 miles just to see you? I want to see where Stephen and Cora lived.”

We first drove to 9th Avenue North where the Palmetto Lodge once stood. Vinnie remained far from water because of his fear of sharks and snapped a few pictures of the beachfront before we made the trek over the ditch to see Jacksonville’s City Hall. According to my research, Crane had a room at the St. James Hotel, where city hall now stood. Vinnie clicked off more pictures, and we walked to Ashley and Jefferson streets to view the Hotel de Dream’s location. Finding nothing there but a grassy lot with a few parked cars, we scouted the site of Cora Crane’s largest brothel, The Court, where we found another grassy lot.

Vinnie remained strangely quiet during the drive back to the beach. I finally asked, “What did you think you’d find after all these years?”

He shook his head and said, “I’m not sure, but it’s sad to think that people like Stephen and Cora Crane could leave so little of themselves behind.”

I was amazed. The Vinnie I knew would have shrugged it off with a joke, but here he was talking about the transitory nature of life and fame. “It does give you pause, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Sure does. And it also makes me thirsty. Let’s go to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville in Jax Beach and get a beer. And you know what? I’m going to jump into the Atlantic Ocean.”

“But I thought you were —”

“Yeah, yeah, afraid to go in the water. But life is short. Plus, I’m sure Jacksonville Beach has plenty of lifeguards to protect us.”

“Vinnie,” I said,” I have another history lesson for you.”

Vic DiGenti, aka Parker Francis, is an author, editor and publisher, with 14 books to his credit. He lives and works in Ponte Vedra Beach. Go to www.parkerfrancis.com.

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