Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Key West Trolley Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Tennessee Williams at his Key West house.
If you have suffered the betrayal of a lover you believed to be true, or the strange coming of age when you recognize that your parents are far from perfect, or the heartbreaking shock of growing old while on the inside you are the same blithe spirit you have always been -- in short, if you are a human being -- you are a Tennessee Williams fan. Nobody brings to light the tragedy of human emotion like Tennessee Williams. Alone, the titles of his great plays evoke terrible stirrings in the heart: "The Glass Menagerie"; "A Streetcar Named Desire"; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; "Sweet Bird of Youth"; "The Rose Tattoo".
    Tennessee Williams would have been 100 years old this month, so lately I’ve made a project of asking people how much they know about America’s greatest playwright. Turns out, not much.  Williams' star is largely faded in this part of the universe, this island he called home for the greatest part of his life.  I have referred the uninitiated to "The Rose Tattoo", the Williams play translated into film and shot right here in Key West in 1955 —these days readily available on DVD.
   Williams bought his home in Key West at the height of his literary prowess. He bought the house next door, too, because he craved privacy. He built a pool in which he swam laps daily. Fame and fortune enabled Williams to travel and live however he pleased. He roamed the planet, but in his memoir he stated that he did his best writing in the tiny studio of his Key West house.
With a fine eye for the depraved and the absurd, photographer Marie Cosindas took this photo at the Key West home of Tennessee Williams' great friend, painter Henry Faulkner. That's a Faulkner painting in the background.
    In Key West Williams kept a low profile as he labored at writing his incredible works. Falling prey to what he called the “tragedy of success” he drank way too much, took too many pills and became paranoid. He sometimes believed his house was being targeted by killers. He mistrusted those most loyal to him.
    Because he considered the day a waste if he didn’t end up in bed with someone, he needed a procurer and he found one in renowned painter Henry Faulkner, who was very loudly gay and known among the locals as “Juicy Junior.” Key West was full of sailors at that time, and Faulkner and Williams were rarely without the company of attractive and adventurous young men. Williams took up painting and gave his images more of those fantastic titles: “Fairy in a Wicker Chair”; “Great Silence of the Storm”; “Many Moons Ago”; and “Recognition of Madness.”
    I never met Tennessee Williams, but like many longtime Key Westers I have heard the stories about him, his sweetness, his charm, his ultimate madness. This event happened long after his death, but it is one of my favorite Tennessee Williams stories.
    My husband Michael, a songwriter, was for many years by day a trolley tour guide. He enthusiastically shared his love for the island, its quirky history and its stunning beauty with tourists from everywhere in the world. One day Michael drove around a trolley of Italian visitors and their translator. The Williams house is not normally on the tour, but he considered the Italian connection to be of significance and so he made the detour to Duncan Street. He pointed out Williams house and the one next door, the actual weathered cottage used in the film "The Rose Tattoo", as the home of the passionate widow Serafina, played by Anna Magnani. Magnani won an academy award for her efforts, made all the more amazing by the fact that she barely understood English at the time of the filming, and relied mostly upon her gist of the story rather than the words, to bring her memorable character to life.
    The Italian tourists went wild at the mention of Anna Magnani. They poured out of the trolley and, against Michael’s gentlemanly protests, attempted to enter the house. The Italians wanted to be where Anna Magnani had been, to breathe the same air that Anna Magnani had breathed. The current owner, who had nothing at all to do with Williams or his infamous life in Key West, came onto the porch, holding a tiny, squalling baby, and yelled to Michael: “What have you done? This is my home! Get them out! Get out!” 
    “Tell the nice lady thank you!” Michael suggested. But the Italians did not take the rejection well. Amid many shouts of “vaffanculo,” (translation: fuck you) they begrudgingly reboarded the trolley, and Michael hastily exited the scene.
    Williams died alone, in New York City in 1983, at the Hotel Elysee, which he called the “Hotel Easy Lay.” His work and life in Key West are more often celebrated here lately, it seems to me. There are more exhibits and discussions of his works. In New York, a not-well reviewed rendition of "Vieux Carre" is being mounted off Broadway. On Broadway: "The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore" starring Olympia Dukakis as an aging beauty, dying of cancer, penning her memoirs in a house by the sea. 
    Wait a minute . . . an aging beauty, with cancer, penning a memoir, in a house by the sea . . . This is exactly what I’m talking about: Williams’ themes unerringly hit home.
    If you were a character in a Tennessee Williams play, which one would you be?

1 comment:

  1. I am an ordinary and somewhat naive person, I would never appear long in Tennessee's world because I'm just so utterly normal. I'm Jim O'Connor. Of course, I've also taken a night class in public speaking (didn't do much good, however).