This Niceville woman had no idea the house she bought once belonged to an artist she knew and loved.
NICEVILLE — When many people move into a home, they don’t think much about who lived there before.
While it might cross their mind; they wouldn’t dwell on it. They wouldn’t consider who tended that garden, what guests walked through that front door or what memories were made in that living room.
Suzette Breckenridge was the same, until the answers to those questions revealed themselves in a way even she couldn’t have predicted.
What’s in a name
Breckenridge recently returned to Northwest Florida after a brief stint in California after she remarried. She missed the area.
While looking for a new place to call home, she and her husband, Shawn McGaffee, stumbled upon a house in the woodlands of Niceville. The yard was overgrown and looked as if it had been "let go," she said.
But she fell in love.
"It’s a real quirky home," Breckenridge said. "It’s all angles and weird."
They closed on the house in February.
And as the two sifted through the buying process, a familiar name kept showing up: Marlin Griffin.
"It would ring something in my head, but I didn’t connect it because the seller had a completely different name," Breckenridge said. "It was at closing that I looked at some of the paperwork had his name on it, and it all came together for me."
‘One of those people’
Breckenridge met him in the early 2000s while working as the front end manager at Bonefish Grill in Destin. Griffin was a regular.
"He was always in there by himself, sitting at the tables – always had a glass of chardonnay," Breckenridge said. "Super pleasant, wonderful man. But always had a handful of Everest napkins and would just draw people, draw patrons he would see come in."
The drawings were good, too, she said. He would draw people accurately in a quick fashion.
One day, Marlin asked to take her photo so he could draw her. Breckenridge obliged.
"Literally a few days later, he came back with three 13 by 20, huge pictures matted of my face," Breckenridge said. "I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was so sweet and he had clearly spent a great deal of time working on them."
He later illustrated local author Marjorie Cox Gray’s "Bucky’s Adventures," a children’s book which follows a young boy who grew up near Choctawhatchee Bay. The mermaid he drew in the book was named Crystal Clear.
Breckenridge, a teacher, kept a signed copy and took the other to her school’s library. She stored the portraits he drew of her in a closet for years – she didn’t want giant pictures of her on the wall everywhere, she said with a laugh.
When she stumbled upon them a few years ago, she posted a message to her Facebook page asking if people remembered him and if he was still alive.
"At that point, somebody said, ‘Yes, he was just recognized in the Bay Beacon. He just turned 100,’" Breckenridge said. "People then were just responding on my Facebook post back then, ‘I remember him. He drew my picture. He drew my picture.’ He was just one of those people."
At 100, Griffin died peacefully in his home March 23 of 2017.
A legacy left behind
Breckenridge didn’t fully grasp it was Griffin’s home until she got the keys.
But he left behind clues – from pastel oil spills on the carpet to large matted and framed illustrations tucked in the closet. A lot was left behind, she said.
"He was clearly an artist, very into every form of art," Breckenridge said. "I found a huge stack of sheet music that dates back to even the late 1800s and correspondences with other artists around the world about what they were doing in music and in art and what he was doing. You know his whole life has been about the arts."
She found newspaper clippings and a letter sent to Griffin from the artist William Grant Sherry in 1963. Sherry was married to the legendary Hollywood actress, Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis.
Breckenridge describes the house like she describes Griffin’s art, quirky and playful.
"The eyes and the faces of the characters are a little older," Breckenridge said. "Typically when you see a cartoon mermaid, they’re young and voluptuous, but he had a different take on how he saw women and people I think."
His work deviates from a typical cartoon in the eyes and faces, she said.
"I saw that in the drawings he did of me," Breckenridge said. "My eyes were spot on in those prints. My teeth in these drawings, they have these quirkier, bigger than life character to them. He clearly had a style about him."
Moving into Griffin’s a home, a man with whom she had a personal connection, was a "God wink," she said.
"I feel like, ‘Wow, this was meant to be,’" Breckenridge said. "I had a connection with this man, and so many people did. So many people in this community knew him. He not only was a regular at Bonefish Grill, but other restaurants around. People would say, ‘Oh yeah he drew my picture at Camille’s.’"
Tricia Brunson, the president and CEO of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, remembers when they met.
"He was enjoying a glass of red wine for happy hour, and we struck up a conversation," Brunson said. "I had seen him before and he always sketched on cocktail napkins with a pencil and left them behind. They were always unsigned."
He drew Brunson’s picture, too.
"I asked him to sign it," Brunson said. "He said he did not normally sign them, but he finally agreed. I still have that picture tucked away safely – after all, it is fragile, having been sketched in pencil on a cocktail napkin."
Brunson saw him many times over the years, always armed with sharpened pencils. She, too, acquired "Bucky’s Adventures."
"He was quite talented and humble," Brunson said. "I do miss seeing him – such a sweet spirit."
The yard of Griffin’s Niceville home was once filled with azaleas and camellias.
Breckenridge spoke with her neighbors, who said Marlin had a "green thumb." "He could grow anything," they told her.
She hopes to restore the landscape to its former glory.
"We had a personal connection and never knew we would end up in the same place," Breckenridge said. "I feel like it’s my duty to carry on this yard and make it beautiful again and bring it back to what it was when he was able to care for it and love it. He would’ve known that I appreciate it. I appreciate his talents and what he offered while he was alive on this planet for a full century."