One of the most literary and colorful characters in Sarasota's history was writer MacKinlay Kantor.
Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. His mother, a journalist, encouraged Kantor to develop his writing style. Kantor started writing seriously as a teen-ager when he worked as a reporter with his mother at the local newspaper in Webster City. During this period he also wrote poetry and won a short story contest sponsored by the Des Moines Register.
His fascination with the Civil War began as a young child. At the age of seven, Kantor would march with the Civil War veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic parades down the streets of Webster City. He told everybody that he was a Civil War veteran.
Kantor's first novel was published when he was 24. After traveling around the country for a while, Kantor settled in Sarasota; he and his wife built their house on Siesta Key in 1937. At that time, the key was a jungle and, with only a few houses, the area proved to be an ideal place for Kantor to write. Some days, he would put the typewriter or the tape recorder in his car and head for the open country. Kantor dictated all his work, claiming the he had to hear how it sounded before he put it in writing.
During World War II, Kantor served as a war correspondent with the British Royal Air Force. He achieved combat experience with the U.S. Air Force in Europe, for which he was decorated with the Medal of Freedom by Gen. Carl Spaatz, then the Air Force commander. He also saw combat experience during the Korean War as a correspondent.
After World War II, Kantor traveled to Hollywood to work on the screenplay for Samuel Goldwyn's Academy Award-winning "The Best Years of Our Lives," adapted from his novel, "Glory for Me." The film won 13 Academy Awards in 1946.
Most of Kantor's books deal with 19th century life. According to a 1965 interview with the Herald-Tribune, Kantor "understood that century, and in a way he belonged to it. Kantor admitted that he was born 100 years too late. He would have fitted in well back there, among the pioneers, the fighters of the Civil War, the dreamy romantics who wrote long novels about war and peace."
Kantor did not have much use for modern conveniences. He never owned a television, did not use central heat or air conditioning and believed that Siesta Key was developing too fast during his lifetime.
The 1950s proved to be very productive for Kantor. Early in that decade he began his best known work, "Andersonville," the story of a Civil War concentration camp for which he felt he put in his greatest effort.
"Andersonville always fascinated me," Kantor said in another Herald-Tribune interview. "I had a great-uncle who was there. He lost an arm but survived. I started getting material about it, but it never got off the ground."
He started writing "Andersonville" in 1953 and after 17 months and nine days it was completed. "Andersonville" proved to be a major commercial success and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for fiction.
Kantor's last major novel was "Valley Forge," published in 1975. MacKinlay Kantor died in Sarasota on October 11, 1977, at the age of 73.
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Residents of Sarasota have long speculated about the origin of the name. A plausible sounding daughter Sara was invented for explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in the Manatee River in 1538, complete with a tragic love story to dramatize a 1916 “Sara de Soto” pageant. The pageant became an annual week-long celebration climaxed by a circus parade, and declined when the Barnum & Bailey winter camp moved to Venice in 1960. A more recent speculation is that the name may have meant Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance, but the truth may be more interesting.
The antiseptic tone of today’s obituaries is a far cry from the finely crafted, inspirational prose that documented the deaths of Sarasota’s early residents.