Thursday, March 7, 2013

How To Live Forever

Tennessee Williams with his beloved bulldogs
The other day Michael ruefully commented that the 30th anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ death had come and gone without fanfare in Key West, the town where Williams found solace and retreat. This does not sit well with Michael, for whom Tennessee Williams represents all that is holy in theater. On the day the news of Williams’s demise burned across the newsroom teletype machines of America, Michael was in Key West, rehearsing a play at a local theater. Some of the actors beside him that day had worked with Williams, and, some had even known him, at least peripherally. “Peripherally” seems to have been the only way that anyone knew Tennessee Williams in those final years of his life.

Williams’ reputation was as great a presence in Key West back then as Williams himself. There was the story of Tennessee Williams going to the dentist, in a state of extreme paranoia, to be fitted for a partial plate that he never wore because he died before it was ready. The dentist kept the plate as a souvenir, pulling it out of his pocket at cocktail parties, and recounting the stories of the great playwright's visits to his office. There was the story of the Tennessee Williams painting auctioned off at a Historical Society fund-raiser, a little sketch delivered to Richard Heyman’s Gingerbread Square Gallery, where Williams’ paintings were sold. The work, donated for the auction, featured Williams’ trademark signature, “TW.” It sold to a Miami couple for $750.  After the auction Williams, who’d been out of town and missed the auction, raged that the painting was a forgery, created by his friend, the great artist Henry Faulkner. Williams demanded to have it back. Richard Heyman, who’d brokered the deal, explained the story to the Miamians. Henry Faulkner?! That made it even better, they said. But Williams wanted the painting returned. So Heyman refunded the $750 out of his own pocket. The Miamians reluctantly returned it to Heyman who returned it to Williams, and the painting was never seen again.
Quintessential Henry Faulkner

There were sightings of Williams and Truman Capote at the Pier House, and at Captain Tony’s Saloon. One night, as he wobbled down Duval Street with a friend, drunk, singing hymns, he was shoved around a bit by late-night locals. Within 24 hours the greatly exaggerated reports of the aging playwright’s vicious beating circled the globe, as the world, always ready for dirt, hungrily gobbled up the news of another fallen idol. When asked by a reporter about the scuffle months later, Williams wryly suggested that the Duval Street ruffians had probably been a pair of New York drama critics.

Henry Faulkner with sailors

Williams named this "Fairy in a Wicker Chair"
On an island of Tom Wingfields, Stella Kowalskis, Big Daddys, and hot tin roofs, Tennessee Williams, and, for a while, his lobotomized sister Rose, easily fit in. In his later years, when drugs and alcohol fueled his terrible decline, and he only coasted on the fumes of the dazzling success of his youth, Williams devoted himself to exploring Key West’s seedy underbelly. Henry Faulkner gave him painting lessons in exchange for Williams coaching him in poetry writing. Faulkner was also a procurer, who delivered hopeful young men to Williams’ Duncan Street cottage where they would pose for Williams’ paintings and deliver sexual favors, in exchange for a boozy dinner or two and the chance to say they’d been a lover of Tennessee Williams.

Frankie and Tennessee at cocktail time. Who do you suppose received this photo and message?

Merlo and Williams at 1431 Duncan St.  Check out the body language . . .
I knew one such man. His name was Douglas. He met Tennessee Williams when he was sent by writer Dotson Rader to meet Williams’ plane at LaGuardia and deliver him to his apartment at the Hotel Elysee, where the welcoming party was well underway. Douglas recalled that Williams seemed frightened, disoriented, and gobbled pills from the pocket of his tweed jacket on the drive from the airport into the city. Few young men, Douglas explained, spent more than an hour or two in Williams’ bed. And fewer still were invited for a second visit. There was one special person in Tennessee Williams’ life. That was Frank Merlo, a handsome Italian he met in Provincetown. For many years Merlo was Williams’ devoted caregiver, friend and lover. But the crazier Williams became, the more he detached himself from the people who most cared for him. After nearly twenty years, the years he called the happiest of his life, he dumped Merlo altogether. A year later, as Merlo lay dying of lung cancer, Williams wept at his bedside, crying, “I want my goodness back.”

"Frankie" by Tennessee Williams
There was a reading by Tennessee Williams at David Wolkowsky’s Sands Beach Club in the winter of 1982. I went with a group of friends to see Tennessee Williams. It was a cool night and the beach was packed with fans. I remember the fantastic excitement, the shivery thrill of being on that beach, waiting for all to be in place – the microphone, the chair, the script, his glasses – so the reading could begin. The wind was blowing off the ocean and Williams was perched on a pier, many feet from his audience. Finally he began to read in a thin, soft voice that was impossible to hear. He stopped. The microphone was adjusted. He tried again. But minutes after the reading had begun, it was over.  Williams was led off of the pier. He appeared to be unsteady, with people, one on each side, holding his arms. It brought to mind memories of Carl Sandburg reading at Kennedy’s inauguration, on a bitterly cold day. Or the Pope visiting Manhattan, so insulated by his handlers it was impossible to see the real man in all the throngs of people crowding around him. How can one aging human being, albeit a genius human being, satisfy the longings of so many? Is it so difficult to imagine this mass adoration driving a person mad?

Burt and Anna in Key West

A year or so after that night on the beach came the news of Williams’ death. On that day the Key West Picture Show theater on Duval Street, in a show of enormous respect and compassion, offered ‘round the clock free showings of The Rose Tattoo, Williams’ one and only happy-ending play, made into a film here in Key West in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his success, before he became victim to what he called “the tragedy of success.” Michael was there at the theater that day. And so was I. But we had not yet met. That happened a few years later. And when we met, we found common ground in our mutual love of Tennessee Williams’ plays, and in our worshipful study of his life and times. The genius of Tennessee Williams is like a diamond in candlelight, every glint and glimmer translating into a new slant on ... everything.

It’s all so delicious, picking over the bones of Williams, the salacious and the sentimental details of his nomadic life, made all the more tasty because we have in common with him this island that he called, and we call, home base. Tennessee Williams, his sister Rose, Henry Faulkner, my friend Douglas, are all dead now. Soon all of us who remember the tales of Williams, the Key West citizen, will be gone, too. But those born of the bright light of Williams' genius – Maggie the Cat, Blanche DuBois, Chance Wayne, Heavenly Finley, Alexandra Del Lago, Sebastian Venable, Val and his snakeskin jacket, (a character all its own!) live on forever. Ageless, as truth is ageless. And Tennessee Williams, the playwright, lives forever, too, right along with them.


  1. Memories of the real Key West. Thank you, June. Big hug <3

  2. What a truly, beautifully written tribute a an American and Key West legend...

  3. I really really enjoy reading your fine writing. Every piece is so interesting and beautifully crafted. This homage to Tennessee Williams is just great and sad and poignant and just lovely.

  4. I am currently attending the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. This Key West glimpse of the magnificent humanist is as moving and articulate as anything heard in the French Quarter. His work has and will continue to live on long after his pain and passion ceased to be manifest in flesh. Thank you to those who tell the stories, share a drink, and toast to the invaluable, thrilling, pulsing artists of this torturous world who keep conscious while bathed in the surreal.