Robert the Doll

In KWHx #15 we told you the story of Key West's First Star, Gloria Swanson, and illustrated it with this photograph below of Miss Swanson in Key West in 1965. The gentlemen with her in the photo are, from left, Gene Otto, Mitchell Wolfson (restorer of the Audubon House,) and Swanson's protege-of-the-month. Each of these men has a story to tell in his own right, and this one is entitled "Meet Gene Otto and his Constant Companion, Robert the Doll!"

Robert Eugene Otto, nicknamed Gene, was born into an affluent family in Key West in October of 1900. The father, a physician, maintained the family home at 524 Eaton Street with the assistance of servants from the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Gene, an only child, was cared for by a woman who loved the boy as if he were her own and gifted him with a straw-filled doll made in his likeness. The doll was given Gene's own first name, Robert. Now the story gets murky--- perhaps servants were ill-treated, perhaps voodoo was invoked, who knows for sure? But things were certainly odd between the boy and his doll. The two would be seen about town in their matching sailor uniforms, accompanied by the help. Each night at dinner, Robert sat in his special chair by the dinner table, and every night at bedtime, Gene and Robert slept together. In time, both parents and servents observed, when Gene and Robert were alone, TWO distinct voices could be heard coming from their playroom. When the silverware was found in disarray and Gene was blamed, he was quick to volunteer that "Robert did it."

After numerous occurrences like these, Robert was banished to the turret room in the Victorian-style mansion. Children passing by on their way to school would notice Robert in one window in the morning and having moved to another window in the afternoon--- yet he hadn't been moved by any human who'd claim it. In later years, Gene took a wife, Anne. Gene was an artist, and locally successful. Theirs was an average marriage, oddly punctuated by suddenly volatile behavior from Gene. As always, after each outburst was over, Gene would say, "Robert did it."

Upon Gene's death, Anne left Key West. She left Robert in his turret room and rented out the house. A strict provision in the rental agreement stated that Robert must stay in his room and it was strictly adhered to until Anne passed away in 1976, even though the residents actually put Robert in a trunk, then left the trunk in the turret room.

Today, Robert resides at Fort Fort East Martello Museum. When he was donated to the museum in 1994, he came with his own hand-crafted Robert-sized chair and a stuffed lion, Leo. (Leo is the name given the lion by Key West Art and Historical Society staff--- his "real" name isn't known nor is it known when the doll and the lion hooked up.) At the museum, Robert continues to wreak havoc. Museum visitors tell stories of cameras that won't work, overexposed film, pacemaker failings, and the doll's ever-changing facial expressions.

Over the weekend of July 19-20, 2008, Robert ventured off the island of Key West for the first time in over a hundred years. He was guest of honor at the Atlantic Paranormal Society Convention in Clearwater.

Photo courtesty of Key West Art and Historical Society




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