High on the dunes of Crescent Beach, just north of State Road 206, is a rambling white cottage with a legacy scripted on its walls. Stories of literary heroes were written in that house right up until the ink abruptly dried on the final chapter of its owner’s life.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is best known for her residence in Cross Creek, Fla., a location that inspired many of her best-selling books. But in 1939, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling, Rawlings used some of the $30,000 MGM awarded her for the book’s movie rights to purchase a beach bungalow.
Above photo: Rawlings at home in her beach cottage in Crescent beach, where she entertained literary icons like Ernest Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston.
Rawlings first rented the oceanfront property in the summer of 1939 from Ralph Poole, a founding partner at Marineland. By September, Rawlings was so smitten with the peaceful oasis that she purchased the property, sandpapered Poole’s name off the mailbox, and painted a droopy, black lettered “Rawlings” in its place.
In The Private Marjorie, a collection of Rawlings’ letters edited by Roger Tarr, the renowned author’s life at the beach is captured in her own words. Through these letters she painted literary portraits of rainstorms rolling in from the west over the river, nightly strolls with her trusty dog, Moe, and fishing adventures like casting for pompano and gigging flounder.
After purchasing the cottage, Rawlings split her time between her new home and the orange groves of Cross Creek that first brought her to Florida from New York in 1928. She slid easily into St. Augustine’s social and political scene by participating in local debates about turning Crescent Beach into a national park, lamenting frequent mechanical troubles with the Bridge of Lions, and enjoying Gene Johnson’s legendary oyster roasts.
As Rawlings established her place in St. Augustine, she also courted a new relationship with hotelier Norton S. Baskin. Divorced from her first husband, Rawlings found a more tenable suitor in Baskin, a gregarious and charming Southerner.
On Oct. 27, 1941, Rawlings and Baskin wed at the St. Johns County Courthouse flanked by Verle and Edith Pope, two local legends in their own right. Verle, known as “The Lion of the St. Johns” served in the Florida legislature for 24 years while his wife Edith authored several novels including the best seller, Colcorton, in 1944. The Popes weren’t the only notable St. Augustine residents to befriend Rawlings and Baskin. W.I. Drysdale, co-owner of the Alligator Farm, and his wife, Evelyn, were frequent guests at the beach cottage, as were Fred and Jean Francis.
A few other names more familiar to a national audience also dusted the sand off their feet at the threshold of the Rawlings home. Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, poet Robert Frost, brothers N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie, African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, Director of the Federal Reserve Owen D. Young, and a bearded fellow named Ernest Hemingway all visited Rawlings’ Crescent Beach hideaway.
There is a consensus among storytellers that Hemingway and Rawlings’ first meeting took place at a bar, though which one remains unknown. As the story goes, Rawlings spotted Hemingway and sent a note to him that read simply, “Are you Hemingway?” to which he replied, “Only if you’re Rawlings.”
No matter where they met, what formed after was a mutual bond of respect between the two literary giants. Hemingway and his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, stayed with Rawlings at the Crescent Beach cottage in 1940. Rawlings befriended Gellhorn, too, and later helped her find a place to rent in Crescent Beach after she and Hemingway divorced.
Though she admired the work of the “bearded genius,” Rawlings was not afraid to critique some of Hemingway’s less appealing characteristics. In a July 1944 letter to Baskin, who was serving in Burma during World War II, Rawlings enclosed an article with the note, “Hemingway at last looks as he has always longed to — distinguished. If he can get his squeaky voice down a couple of octaves and stop scratching his stomach, he will be most impressive.”
Hurston was another author with whom Rawlings developed a dichotomous relationship. The two became acquainted after Rawlings gave a guest lecture to Hurston’s class at St. Augustine’s all-black Florida Normal and Industrial College. Rawlings was taken with the young author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and invited her to share tea at Castle Warden, Baskin’s premiere hotel, which is the present day home to Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. But in Rawlings’ excitement, she failed to consider that Castle Warden was a whites-only establishment.
Despite the racially charged hurdles of the times, Hurston and Rawlings forged a friendship that Rawlings herself acknowledged as a turning point in her own prejudices. After Hurston visited Rawlings at her country home, Cross Creek, in 1943, Rawlings noted in a letter to Baskin, “From spending that time with Zora … who is an artist, who is big and wonderful, I have advanced a long way and she helped me in a way that she never thought of.”
Outside of visits with powerful friends, life was not always so glamorous at the cottage. During World War II, Rawlings volunteered as a plane and submarine spotter for the U.S. Coast Guard. In her almost daily letters to Baskin, she updated him on the latest news from home, including the devastating fire at Castle Warden in April 1944 that took the life of the couple’s dear friend, Ruth Pickering.
After Baskin returned from the war, he sold Castle Warden and took over Marineland’s restaurants. Rawlings bought a third home in Van Hornesville, New York, where she worked on her final novel, The Sojourner, while Baskin supervised a $7,000 addition to the cottage.
In her letters to Baskin from New York, Rawlings shared her input on the renovations, requesting the use of her property’s natural coquina for landscaping over “those dreadful cement blocks” and a blue-green paint color in her new studio instead of the eggplant shade in the living room.
While she continued to travel between her three homes, Rawlings spent the majority of her days at the cottage where she could be closest to Baskin. It was there that she suffered a stroke on Dec. 13, 1953. She died the next day at Flagler Hospital.
The home Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived in for nearly 14 years still sits perched on a sand dune; bearing on its sturdy trusses the legacy of a literary icon. A fan of Rawlings’ work saved the house from the wrecking ball in 1998, and now it remains in private ownership on two and a half acres of oceanfront land. Though it may be valued at well over a million dollars, the true value it carries runs much deeper in the stories written on its walls.
Rawlings’ beach cottage then and now, still stands as a testimony to the wonderful cultural impact St. Augustine has had on America throughout time.
The living room was part of the original structure when Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings owned the beachfront cottage. Several additions and renovations have been made since then.
Detail of the arch leading up the dune stairway to the Crescent Beach home which has literary references, such as the deer from The Yearling, to the home’s former owner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
“From spending that time with Zora … who is an artist, who is big and wonderful, I have advanced a long way and she helped me in a way that she never thought of.”
— Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings