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Tom's Town

An exhibit of paintings honors Tennessee Williams’ artistic mark on Key West, a place where he could just be ”Tom” and not the famous writer. 
by Cerith Mathias

When most people think of Key West’s literary history, Ernest Hemingway is the first name that springs to mind. It’s to Hemingway’s former home on the island that thousands of visitors from all over the world flock each year, waiting patiently in lines that often snake out into the street, for a peek into Papa’s writing room and a glimpse of its current residents — the famous six-toed descendants of Hemingway’s cat. But, Key West has provided both inspiration and sanctuary for numerous writers and artists, among them Pulitzer Prize winners, poet laureates and another of 20th Century America’s great literary lions — the playwright Tennessee Williams.

Though most often associated with New York and New Orleans, for almost four decades Mississippi-born Williams called Key West home. From his first visit in 1941, he was smitten; writing in a letter not long after his arrival “This is the most fantastic place I have been in America … this town is the real stuff.”

Echoes of Williams exist all over the island. While staying at La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, he is believed to have penned the first draft of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the film adaptation of his play “The Rose Tattoo” was shot on location there, and the tropical scenery is said to have inspired “The Night Of The Iguana.” In 1949 Williams laid permanent roots in Key West, planting himself amongst the palms and banana trees of a modest plot on Duncan Street, where he purchased a small white cottage, to which he later added a swimming pool and a writing studio. He would call this home for 34 years, until his death in 1983.

“Tennessee did so much for the community here,” Dennis Beaver, the director of the Tennessee Williams Key West Exhibit says. The permanent exhibit, a treasure trove of first edition plays, books and photographs, opened its doors three years ago and now daily welcomes a growing stream of visitors. But Beaver admits that the playwright’s life in Key West has been, until recently, slightly off the radar.

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“I was doing a bunch of historical work for the Waterfront Theatre and I found that Tennessee had done a big benefit for the building, and I thought, well that’s a connection I didn’t know about.” Beaver says “This quickly became my major focus. I found that quietly he did so much for everybody. He helped raise money for the first library, he held fundraising events for the Women’s Club, those types of things. He was very at home here — he could just be Tom and not the famous writer Tennessee Williams.”

In the little cottage on Duncan Street, Tom lived with Frank Merlo, his partner for 14 years. The pair became staples of island life, whiling away happy sun-soaked hours together on the beach, at the cottage or in the island’s numerous restaurants and bars. In 1963, Merlo’s tragic death from lung cancer pushed the playwright into a spiral of despair lasting almost a decade. It was during these self-proclaimed ‘stoned years’ following Frank’s passing, Williams, cocooned in the safe familiarity of his Key West garden, is first believed to have put paintbrush to canvas, a fact relatively unknown to those outside the island’s close knit community.

“Some are aware he painted, but most people have no idea,” says Cori Convertito, the curator of an exhibition of Williams’ artwork in the town’s Custom House Museum. Initially put together to mark the 30th anniversary of Williams’ death, the exhibition, which comprises 19 of Williams’ paintings, has been extended until May.

“The paintings are perhaps not technically great,” says Convertito “but they give us a window into his writing, into his characters. When I read his work, I get a picture in my mind of how a particular character might look, but with the paintings you get to see how he saw them.”

Indeed the eclectic mix of both method — Williams used a variety of acrylics, chalk, oil paints and stick-on lettering — and subject matter relay a complex, creative mind, a restless soul not entirely comfortable in his own skin.

“He struggled a lot with his sexuality,” Convertito muses. “You see that in the paintings. While he was happy to admit he was gay down here, it was not something he admitted openly in many circles.”

Perhaps the most striking piece of artwork on display depicts a lone man set against a black backdrop staring out to sea. Titled Le Solitaire, Convertito believes it to be a self-portrait, showing Williams’ well documented feelings of isolation and depression.

The majority of paintings displayed in the exhibit are owned by the entrepreneur and preservationist David Wolkowsky, himself a close friend of Williams. A pallbearer at the playwright’s funeral, Wolkowsky remembers him to be “… very kind and utterly charming.”

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Tennessee would spend the mornings writing and the afternoons painting, often completing a picture in a matter of hours. He also traded writing tuition for painting lessons with the likes of artist Henry Faulkner.

“I had a hotel there on the Gulf and Tennessee would come there for lunch almost every day,” says David Wolkowsky “He would come and go swimming and he would bring very interesting guests from all over the world.”

There is a painting of Wolkowsky included in the exhibition, though he admits that initially he was not very taken with Williams’ efforts to capture him on canvas.

“When I saw it, I was aghast — but Tennessee wrote on it in French ‘It’s the eyes.'”

On the back of the painting, Williams wrote “Dear David, you realize I wasn’t painting the physical you, but the spirit visible to me. Love, Tennessee.”

Wolkowsky’s desire to honor the legacy of his friend is the reason that the paintings are on exhibit in Key West.

“Hemingway is the brand name here of course,” Wolkowsky says, “but Tennessee’s plays are still on in New York and London all the time. People coming to Key West often don’t know about his time here. That’s why I decided to show the pictures here. I’d like to see them exhibited all over the world.”

This enthusiasm to raise Tennessee Williams’ profile in Key West is shared by both Cori Convertito and Dennis Beaver, who says plans are already underway for a bust of Williams to be placed in Mallory Square’s Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden next year.

“People come to Key West for Hemingway,” Convertito says, “but soon, hopefully they’ll be coming for Tennessee too.”

Photos by Cerith Mathias; top painting is Le Solitaire, Williams’ self-portrait. 

Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her account of Tennessee Williams’ Key West birthday party here

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