See more photos from the Pratt collection
By Ron Hayes
Seventy-two years ago, you could park a trailer in Briny Breezes for $2.75 a week.
You could do your laundry in a reasonably clean clapboard building and cleanse your face in washbowls open to those briny breezes. You could attend to nature’s more private needs in 12 toilets that once served the servants’ quarters of the recently demolished Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach.
And you could purchase ice cream, sandwiches and soft drinks in the Quonset hut community hall.
But you couldn’t buy a beer anywhere in the park, lest “rowdyism” erupt.
We know all this thanks to that enduring chronicle of urbanity, The New Yorker
magazine of March 13, 1937, where “Our Footloose Correspondent” is revealed at the end of the three-page report.
Ted Pratt knew about trailers. In October 1936, six months before the New Yorker article was published, he and his wife, Jackie, began building a travel trailer in the Athens, Ohio, workshop of their friend, Arthur Boyles Jr. They finished in December and set off for Florida, where Pratt let the Big Apple know about tiny Briny Breezes.
In his day, Theodore Pratt (1901-1969) was one hardworking writer, a columnist for the New York Sun
, a journalist and short story writer and the author of more than 30 novels, five of them made into movies.
His 1941 Saturday Evening Post
article, Land of the Jook
, was filmed as Juke Girl
, starring Ronald Reagan.
In 1964, Pratt’s comic novel, Mr. Limpet
, became The Incredible Mr. Limpet
starring Don Knotts, 22 years after he wrote it.
Now, Pratt is remembered — when he's remembered — only as the author of The Barefoot Mailman
, a 1943 novel that fictionalized the adventures of pioneer postman James Hamilton, who carried the mail along the beach from Lake Worth to Miami in the 1890s.
The book is part of a Florida trilogy, followed by The Flame Tree
(1950) and The Big Bubble
(1951), but all are now out of print.
After arriving in Florida, Pratt lived in Lake Worth, Boca Raton and Delray Beach, where he died. The Spanish River Boulevard Bridge in Boca Raton is officially the Theodore Pratt Memorial Bridge, but few who drive it daily know that.
In other words, Pratt is not the sort of dead writer the people who take dead writers seriously take seriously.
“No, and there’s a reason for that,” says Dee Cael. “He was a spotty writer. His research was phenomenal, but he’ll carry you for a couple of pages and then he drops the ball. He loses the momentum. You know you’re reading and you don’t get lost in it.”
If Pratt has an official champion today, Cael is it. As the head of special collections and archives at Florida Atlantic University, she is custodian of the Pratt Collection, four file cabinets full of manuscripts, letters, contracts, scrapbooks and the library’s first donation after the university was chartered in 1961.
“In the '90s, we decided to shift things around,” she says, “and when we took the drawers out, more papers had fallen behind. He would do a phenomenal amount of writing to make sure he got it right. He really struggled.”
Now his writing life lives in The Pratt Room, a humble, 8-by-8-foot office on the second floor of FAU’s Wimberly Library.
Here’s the desk he bought from the old Boca Airfield after World War II, and the cracked office chair. Here’s a lampshade adorned with scenes from his novels, a 1946 gift from the cartoonist Herb Roth. The walls are home to original cover art, and here, in two full bookcases, are the books on which that artwork appeared.
Hardcover and paperback, they are vintage potboiler fiction of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Lovers of Pompeii
, Escape To Eden
, Mercy Island
, Handsome and Handsome's Seven Women
They say Pratt’s nymphomania novel, The Tormented
(1950) was so steamy 34 publishers turned it down before it sold a million copies.
There’s also a copy of Murder Goes In A Trailer
, written the same year as the New Yorker
article, under his pseudonym, Timothy Brace — which happened to be his cat’s name.
The novels’ artwork is modestly sultry, with square-jawed heroes who look like James Bond and heroines with skintight dresses and heaving bosoms.
In one scrapbook is a fading black-and-white snapshot of Ted and Jackie Pratt outside their homemade trailer. Pines and palm trees are clearly visible in the background, but is it Briny Breezes? Given the timing of their arrival in Florida, and the New Yorker article, it certainly seems likely, but the site is unidentified.
Looking through those scrapbooks one day, Cael found a yellowed newspaper clipping about the 1960 funeral of Zora Neale Hurston, another Florida writer whose reputation had all but vanished before a phenomenal resurgence in the 1970s.
Now Hurston is revered, all her books are back in print. She is a classic American writer.
But not Pratt.
“When they were restoring the old Palm Beach County Courthouse, I got a call asking if there was anything in his papers that would tell us where the original columns went,” Cael remembers.
“It will be years before anyone asks about him,” she says. “But then as soon as I think we can store it all, we get an e-mail or phone call.”
Theodore Pratt’s research notes for his Florida trilogy are available online and can be downloaded at http://palmm.fcla.edu/fh/. Click on the Author List and scroll alphabetically to Pratt.