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  • Writer's pictureZibby Wilder

Thoughts on Florida

Well, I recently moved to Florida. It's pretty much the last place I ever thought I would live. For a vast variety of reasons.


I am lucky to have landed in St. Petersburg, a walkable, friendly, diverse, and incredibly artistic city. There are vegan restaurants! And beaches! And murals! And festivals! And culture! And community! I am relieved and grateful that all of the changes in my life culminated in a great job at a local University and a home near lifelong friends.


Maria once made it (sort of) to Tampa Bay, and while I was writing the chapter of my book regarding this specific journey I laughed out loud at her assessment of Florida:


“the whole idea of Florida is to look like a million and cost a nickel.”


I've never forgotten this line so just had to share it. For context, the short-ish story behind Maria's stop in the Tampa/St. Pete goes like this:


In the summer of 1937 Dorothy and Maria walked a steep gangplank out of the dank humidity of New Orleans and onto the sooty decks of the Italian freighter, Monfiore. Their destination was Avignon, France, which they would call home for the next 16 months.


Their days in Avignon passed with napping, drinking wine, writing letters, touring the countryside, and dining with Dorothy’s friends from Santa Fe and beyond.


Dorothy and Maria

At the end of the year Dorothy and Maria met up with Maria’s cousin from San Antonio, Cresson Kearney, for an Adriatic cruise leaving from Venice, with plans to spend the holidays in Greece. Cresson, a Fulbright scholar studying at Oxford, brought along his roommate, Dana Bailey, an astronomy student from Arizona.


Maria, though somewhat perplexed by Bailey, liked him immediately. “Bailey is the most brilliant young person I have ever met. I like him immensely,” she wrote to her mother. “We thought him about 29 or 30 - but he’s 21! Nights in an observatory and days studying astronomy have left him, already, quite weak and not too healthy. He was responsible for setting up the observatory in Peru last summer at the time of the eclipse and is far in advance in his chosen work already. He and Dorothy have mutual friends and we all get along together splendidly.” (Note: there is a whole 'nother story here...but for another time). Anyway...


Thanks to cousin Cresson, in June 1938 Maria found herself attending the first annual dinner of the Oxford University World Society, the guest of honor being one Dr. Bruning, the pre-Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Inspired by the breadth of students attending the event, Maria talked herself into an invitation to attend the remainder of a two-week series of lectures at Oxford, “a special summer school being held for colonial officers who are home on leave. There are about 200 men in the class from every part of the ‘uncivilized’ world: Swaziland, Malaya, Uganda, Transvaal, Ceylon...governors of state, political officers, specialists on native agriculture, native schooling, etc…” she wrote home. Maria was fascinated to learn of the past, and continuing, colonial policies in these places, stripping the Native populations of their art, spiritual beliefs, culture, and dignity–all too similar to her experience in the U.S.


By October, no number of adventurous letters nor amount of dancing could mask the fact that war was imminent. The U.S. Government, noting “reports of bombs, gas and concentration camps”, ordered all Americans out of Europe. The ladies were boarded onto the S.S. Nevada for a long trip home, stopping in Antwerp to pick up fellow Americans before continuing on to Savannah, Tampa, Havana, and Tampico before finally docking in Brownsville, Texas. Maria, still in the haze of her European vacation, noted little during this time other than what she gleaned from their short stopover in Tampa: “the whole idea of Florida is to look like a million and cost a nickel.”


Maria...always good for a laugh.



Quoted material and photos courtesy of Michael S. Engl Family Foundation Library and Archive at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

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Paul Rainbird
Paul Rainbird
May 22, 2023

Nice to have contact with you I have friends in Florida that want me to come visit but I am reluctant

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Zibby Wilder
Zibby Wilder
Jun 10, 2023
Replying to

Florida is full of great people and places despite what its current politics may convey.

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