Robert the Doll steals most of the attention at his old Key West residence at 534 Eaton St., but there was a time when the Key lime pies that came out of his kitchen were the doll of the island, and the star attraction was their baker, Anne Parker Otto.
Anne shared “The Artist House” with her husband, artist Gene Otto, and with Robert the Doll, from 1945 to 1974, but her story started long before. Anne was born into a wealthy family in Cincinnati in 1902, then raised in the Back Bay section of Boston. She started playing piano at age 5, and specialized in the instrument at the Grand Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In a 1935 interview, she described taking her “bow to society” by attending the Garland School of Homemaking. Garland School offered classes in food preparation, meal service and other skills that were considered necessary to run a proper household. It was schooling that would pay off.
After Garland, Anne’s piano passion took her to Paris, and she made the city her home for much of the 1920s. She worked as a concert pianist, touring Europe and even playing a command performance for King George V of England. Anne’s music also captured the attention of a Key West native, one Gene Otto, who had moved to Paris for art school and to study the Old Masters. The two fell in love, married and did a stint in New York, where Anne was a featured entertainer at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. They returned to Key West in 1945 when Gene’s mother fell ill. Here, they moved into his childhood home.
Gene was an outstanding artist. Townspeople packed his shows and stories of his success filled local newspapers. The society pages never failed to mention the infectious aura of beauty, charm and grace that surrounded Anne.
The Ottos entertained regularly. Anne used two stoves to prepare her meals because the burners on one just couldn’t keep up. She adopted local recipes passed on to her from Gene’s mother, and described her cooking style as Conch and Cuban, mixed in with a little French that she had picked up in Paris.
Anne’s friend and neighbor, Bill Geiser, told me the walls of the Otto home were decorated with Gene’s art. Gene made a point of inviting potential buyers for dinner, and though he never touched alcohol, Anne kept a “special” bottle of water in the fridge, and wine was always served to their guests. Anne’s Ropa Vieja won their stomachs while her charm won their hearts. Over dinner, conversation would shift to Gene’s art. A slice of Anne’s pie would seal the deal on a sale.
I discovered Anne’s Key lime pie recipe while researching the Otto archives for my book on Robert the Doll. I went straight to the Artist House to show my friend Laura, who was manager at the time. We both read the recipe and smiled. “Four eggs for family and six for company,” it said. We talked about how cool it would be to recreate Anne Otto’s Key lime pie in the same kitchen where she used to bake them.
As I left Laura by the pool, I cut back through the Artist House kitchen where Anne’s pies had been made. As I neared the front of the house, I felt a distinct presence and heard footsteps from behind as if someone was trying to catch up with me. I turned around expecting to see Laura. Instead, I was greeted by a cool blast of air that smelled like sweet gardenia perfume, and a presence that felt like it stepped out of the old society pages. Nobody else was around.
I’d like to think what I experienced was Annette Otto’s spirit. Perhaps this was a moment that set her spirit free. Or maybe there was a gardenia blooming nearby that I wasn’t able to locate.
In any case, we can all do our part to keep Anne’s spirit alive, for it will shine every time you make a Key lime pie with her Key West recipe. Bake it, share it, and love it. Add the extra eggs, build stiff peaks in her honor, let your pie send sweet music into the world like Anne did, and every time you serve the pie, tell the story of Anne Parker Otto. It’s a starring role she deserves, and you’ll be a doll for sharing it.
Love & Limes.
Anne Otto’s Famous Key Lime Pie
Anne learned to make lime pie from her mother-in-law, Minnie Otto.
6 egg yolks beaten slightly
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Juice of 7 large key limes (about ½ cup)
1 9-inch baked pie shell
6 egg whites
12 tablespoons sugar
Combine egg yolks and condensed milk and mix well. Add lime juice and blend well. Turn into pie shell. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) until set, about 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile beat egg whites until very stiff. Put on pie by large spoonfuls, spreading to edge of pie shell all around. Place in hot oven (400 degrees) for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake until meringue is pale honey colored.