Margaret Key. Who was she? Overheard in the new library that bears her name: Who was this wealthy woman who left all this money for the library?
She was not wealthy, nor did she leave a large sum of money for a new library. She was a hard-working woman, who loved history and served for many years as president of the library board.
Not a native of Apalachicola, nor even Florida, Margaret Harmon Livings was born Oct. 13, 1901, near Danville, Iowa. Her father, Chester Livings, was born in Indiana, where he became a well-known, local photographer. At some point, he followed Horace Greeley’s advice and went west.
There he met and married Myrtle Harmon. By 1905, the Iowa census listed the family as living in Washington, Iowa, with daughters Margaret and Bessie, two years younger.
Margaret and Bess were always close, and after they finished high school, it was Bess who knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to be an artist, and to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. Her father agreed to send her, but Margaret had to go as well. Margaret was more interested in journalism, but accepted her father’s conditions.
At the Art Institute, Margaret, now an attractive young woman, met a handsome young man named Alexander Key. He and his brother were orphans, raised by an uncle in Quincy. They fell in love and married in 1926.
Alexander, like Bess, knew very well he wanted to be an artist, and he wanted to combine it with writing fiction. He and Margaret felt they could help each other, because she could do the research necessary for his articles in the Saturday Evening Post as well as juvenile stories and books.
By 1930, the census listed them as living in Batavia County, Illinois, and Alexander Key had had his first book published, “The Red Eagle,” a story he both wrote and illustrated. Sometime after 1935, Alec, as she called him, decided he would like to return to Florida. He had been having health problems and felt depressed living in a cold climate. They decided to go somewhere in Franklin County where they could find “a hermit-like repose.”
In a March 1940 article in the Apalachicola Times, she wrote “The cottage on the beach [in Carrabelle] was exactly right, entirely secluded from everything but nature.”
Margaret and Alec decided to make a permanent move to Apalachicola. They bought the Villa Rosa and adjacent lots on Dec. 31, 1940, from Jennie Soraci, a widow living in the Bronx. The young couple barely had time to settle in before the United States was dragged into World War II. Key enlisted in the Navy Reserve on Jan. 28, 1943, and was released from active duty on Feb. 8, 1946. According to dust jackets on his books, Alec served in New Orleans and Alabama as an officer in Navy intelligence. By the time he was released at the end of the war, he had reached the rank of lieutenant senior grade.
During his duty in New Orleans, Key met Alice Towle and asked her to marry him. He divorced Margaret on Dec. 17, 1945, after 20 years of marriage. He began his new life immediately by marrying Alice on Dec. 21, 1945. He gave Margaret the house, plus alimony of $160 per month. At the end of a letter, dated Dec. 6, 1946, from her lawyer R. Don McLeod, he wrote Margaret “I should tell you that in everything that Alex has written or said to me, he has seemed to hold you in the highest regard and has been extremely solicitous as to your welfare.” According to all accounts Margaret “continued to admire and love him all her life.” She outlived him by 17 years.
There is no evidence Margaret joined Alec at any time during his years of service; she remained in Apalachicola in the house they had bought. Nothing is known of her activities, but by 1948, she had decided to do something about her situation. According to a resume she later prepared, now in the archives of her papers held by the Apalachicola Margaret Key Library, she moved to Tallahassee and by March was employed by the Capital City National Bank as bookkeeper. She was also in charge of Recordak, an early form of microfilm. Her suggestion to develop statistics for the bank’s business gains and losses was accepted and used in the newly-created advertising department.
By Nov. 1949, Margaret had accepted the position as head of the correspondence department of the direct mail division of the Florida State Advertising Commission. As such she answered inquiries from coupon mail in national advertising on vacations, retirement, agriculture, and commercial and industrial opportunities in the state. Her comment about this job in her resume was that it required “intense and continued study of all phases of state development.”
Four years later, when the volume of mail was too great to be handled by individual typists, Margaret “established an efficient and speedy system for auto-typists letters.” Incoming mail was coded for auto-typists or for brochures to be sent by the mail room. Margaret herself drafted responses to questions unanswered by the standard letters. With Margaret’s system, 200,000 inquiries could be answered.
By Dec. 1951, Margaret had changed employment to the Florida State News Bureau, where she wrote publicity releases and picture captions, and answered phone inquiries. She also researched statistics for speeches by state officials, and was in charge of picture and film files.
Sometime in 1954, Margaret left the bureau, and Apalachicola, and moved to Colorado, perhaps to be closer to Bess, who had become divorced.
Beginning in Sept. 1954, Margaret was employed by the University of Denver in the mechanics division of the Denver Research Institute. For this position, she had to be cleared for secret and top secret government contracts.
By Jan. 1957, Margaret was transferred to the security office, a classified library for the use of DRI personnel. To prepare for this, she took a course in special librarianship in the University Library School. However, in 1960, this library was discontinued for lack of funds.
In September, she was transferred to the personnel office. In November, she left this position for an opening in the alumni office, where she worked until August 1963, when she accepted the position of administrative assistant in the Office of Alumni Relations, but left that same month. Her reason for leaving was that when the director retired, his successor brought in his own assistant.
Meanwhile, Margaret appears to have continued living in Colorado with Bess. She was getting income by renting out the Villa Rosa in Apalachicola, until in late 1969, when a family that moved in one day and out the next, declared emphatically that someone besides themselves was prowling around in the night. They said it was ghosts and left.
“No! Definitely not,” Margaret is quoted as saying. She traveled over 1,500 miles to take repossession of her old house, again saying “I live there now.” She planned to fix it up and take care of it, stating that for the past 15 years she had dreamed of doing just that. Bess, who moved in with her shortly thereafter, continued to earn a living as a commercial illustrator and became active in the humane society. She even wrote a column on pets for the local newspaper.
Margaret continued to write for area newspapers, including contributions for the Apalachicola Times. Her experience working for the Florida State News Bureau served her well. Also, the course she had taken at the University of Denver was undoubtedly helpful in the years she served on the board of the Apalachicola Municipal Library.
There Margaret developed her love and appreciation of history, especially the history of Apalachicola. Residents of the town considered her to know more about its history, from 1831 through the years of the Civil War and into the present “than anyone else living.”
The sisters were intensely private people, especially Margaret, who was not a social mixer, nor was she a snob, according to friends. It was part of her sense of independence. Few people were invited into the house and as she got older, she began to feel they were trying to take advantage of her, mainly because some did not think she should leave everything to the library.
In her will, Margaret directed her personal property be sold at auction outside of town. Clark Holmes, executor of her estate, said he thought she just didn’t want locals prowling through her effects.
Margaret died on May 5, 1996. Her body was cremated and her ashes sent, as were Bess’ ashes, to Long Creek Cemetery, Danville Township, Iowa.
Proceeds from the auction of her effects, together with the money from the subsequent sale of her house, were, according to her will, left “to the City of Apalachicola for the library.” There was no place else for it to go, said Holmes. Margaret Key had no other heirs.
Key was never a wealthy woman, but more than $425,000 in proceeds and accrued interest from the sales of her effects and house, provided the necessary capital to build the new Apalachicola Margaret Key Library at U. S. 98 and 12th Street.
Information for this article was taken from the Margaret Key Papers, held by the Apalachicola Margaret Key Library. This month, Jane Richardson, a volunteer in the archives section, began organizing the papers to make them available for research.