Key West Celebrates Tennessee Williams
Birthday events honoring the playwright are scheduled through March in the town he called the most fantastic place in America.
Last March, Cerith Mathias went inside Tennessee Williams’ birthday party in Key West, Florida, the playwright’s adopted home where he was known simply as “Tom.” Last year’s celebration was the first time the playwright’s birthday was celebrated publicly, but it won’t be the last.
This month, fans of such iconic plays “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” can celebrate his legacy March 2 through 31 with cultural and creative events on the island Williams called home until his death in 1983. Events begin today with a 5:30 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. showing of the film adaptation of “The Glass Menagerie” at Tropic Cinema. Other classic Williams films are to be screened on Mondays throughout the month, and a March 29 film forum and reception also are planned at Tropic Cinema.
On March 15, audiences can explore the relationship between Williams and his muse and sister Rose in a staged reading titled “Tennessee’s Rose” at The Studios of Key West on Eaton Street. Williams’ loyalty to his sister is also to be explored poetically in the celebration’s annual poetry contest. In addition, a March 21 plein air painting contest challenges artists to depict the former home of Rose Williams at 915 Von Phister St. (The home is also the site of a March 5 membership party for the Tennessee Williams Legacy Foundation.
Events culminate in a March 26 birthday party from 6-8 p.m. at the Tennessee Williams Center, recognizing the 104th anniversary of Williams’ birth with cake, a display of the paintings created during the challenge and a reading of the winning poems. And all month long, fans of the playwright can explore a permanent, free exhibit at the center that chronicles his Key West years through personal photographs, rare memorabilia, video footage and more.
Tennessee Williams first visited Key West in 1941, subsequently buying a small cottage in a quiet neighborhood where he resided until his death in 1983. Most people attribute Key West’s literary history to Ernest Hemingway, but Williams called Key West home for almost four decades. “This is the most fantastic place I have been in America … this town is the real stuff,” he wrote in a letter not long after his arrival.
Other sites on the island that still evoke his memory include La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, where he’s believed to have written the first draft of “Streetcar,” and South Beach on the southernmost point sports a sign that says Tennessee Williams swam there every morning. Director of the Tennessee Williams Key West Exhibit Dennis Beaver says Williams’ life in Key West has flown under the radar in past years, but he’s working to change that. After doing some research, Beaver discovered Williams did things like help raise money for the first library and held other fundraising events in town.
“Tennessee did so much for the community here,” he told Mathias last year. “He was very at home here — he could just be Tom and not the famous writer Tennessee Williams.” What the permanent exhibit and birthday celebration are helping to point out are that Williams was also an oil painter. Many of his paintings depict characters that seem to have jumped off the pages of his plays and illustrate a creativity that extended well beyond the written word.
The paintings were on display in Key West last year and have now made their way to New Orleans’ Ogden Museum, where they will be up through May 31. A majority of the paintings are owned by the entrepreneur and preservationist David Wolkowsky, himself a pallbearer at the playwright’s funeral, and the exhibit was organized in conjunction with the Key West Art & Historical Society.
If Beaver, Wolkowsky and other Williams enthusiasts in town have their way, tourists won’t just be coming to see Hemingway’s cats any more. Plans are in the works to put a bust of the playwright in Mallory Square’s Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. There, he would join Hemingway, President Harry S. Truman and industrialist Henry Flagler as one of Key West’s most influential people.