Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Fine Art of Being Marion

Tennessee Williams' painting of Frank Merlo, his one true love.
Does anyone remember Marion Stevens, founder of the art gallery, “Artists Unlimited,” and heroine of a hundred crazy stories of old timey Key West? There’s a story of her chasing her naked husband, the artist Paul Stevens, down the middle of Duval Street, screaming and waving a knife over her head in the infamous wee hours on one otherwise quiet night. Marion, who arrived on the island in the late ‘50s, loved Haiti, Haitian art and Haitian men. She vacationed there often and chummed around this island, and Haiti, with the gruff and ever adventurous Margaret Foresman, editor of the Key West Citizen.  She sipped martinis at Delmonico’s on hot afternoons. She stormed the mayor’s office whenever her civic dander was up and addressed the Key West City Commission with such conviction she appeared to many to be mad. And maybe she was. She was very, very creative, using her body language, as much as her words, to get her sharp points across.
The also colorful Barbara Kellner (left) and Marion Stevens. This photo hung on the wall at the Square One Restaurant, a gift from Bill Divens to Square One owner Michael Stewart. They were absolutely not friends, Stewart says, which makes this photo rare indeed.
    And when she was older, and no longer running a gallery, or chasing her lovers through the streets, she rode her bike around and around the streets of Old Town. She wore elegant white shirts, capris, huge sunglasses, and sandals, her head high, like the dancer she’d once been.
    So who was Marion Stevens and how does she fit into Key West’s history, legend and lore? Finding the answers to those questions, and turning that information into a stageable narrative, is the job these days of playwright Toby Armour. Armour has been commissioned to pull together all the stories and fables and create a play for the purpose — according to the grant underwriting the project — of “capturing the heroic and colorful people who made Key West the unique place that it is.” Armour, a playwright of considerable insight, has had many of her works performed. (I Googled her. She’s the real thing.)
   Through research and conversations with people who have known, in one way or another, the eccentric gallery mistress Marion Stevens, Armour is fashioning a character based on a person she never met. There are quite a few of us left on the island who did know Marion, apparently, and the project has become both monumental and fascinating to the handsome and articulate playwright.
From Key West Arts Review, 1977
   Armour told me she’d learned that Stevens studied dance in Germany in the 1930’s with the renowned Mary Wigman, the mother of expressive dance. Among Wigman’s students were Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. Armour is frustrated that the trail of Stevens in Germany has gone cold. All Stevens ever said about Germany, and this to her sole surviving niece, is, “I got out.” Provocative, eh?
Le Solitaire, by Tennesee Williams. According to Key West Arts Review, Stevens was the sole agent for Williams' paintings in Key West.
    The Key West Fringe, formerly called the People’s Theater of Key West, has as their motto: “Key West is our theatre.” Their presentations go on at the Key West Women’s Club, 319 Duval Street, just a block south of Steven’s Artist’s Unlimited Gallery, which stood at 221 Duval. Their next production, "Dinner," by Moira Buffini, opens February 24. Go to keystix.org for tickets. The play, "Tennessee Williams @100," scheduled for August, 2012, is already sold out. No date has yet been set for the premiere of the play about Marion Stevens, still under construction.
    If you have something to contribute to the Marion Stevens saga, Toby Armour would like to hear from you. Her address: tobyarmour@msn.com. In the meantime, stay true, stay real, be memorable. One day the play being staged by the Key West Fringe may be all about you.

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