Key West Reclaims Its Tennessee Williams Literary Legacy

Mar 12, 2015

Key West's literary heritage is overwhelmingly associated with one writer: Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winner's former home is a popular museum. And every summer there's a look-alike contest where white-bearded men compete to look like Papa.

But recently, the island has turned to celebrating another 20th-century writer who made Key West his home: Tennessee Williams. 

Tennessee Williams on the porch of his home in Key West.
Credit Ida Woodward Barron Collection / Monroe County Public Library

The playwright also won two Pulitzers — for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And he lived in Key West much longer than Hemingway did.

Williams, who died in 1983, is still part of the island's living memory, said Dennis Beaver, founder of the Tennessee Williams In Key West Exhibit, which is coordinating a month-long Tennessee Williams birthday celebration in March.

"So many people still have stories that they can tell about running into Tennessee," Beaver said, "drunk, maybe, or in a bad mood and how coarse he could be and that Southern attitude that could be so sweet and endearing one moment and really throat-cutting the next. But that's what made him part of our community."

For Williams' longtime friend, David Wolkowsky, it's simple.

"Tennessee is Key West," said Wolkowsky, who built the Pier House resort. He said Key West has neglected Williams.

"Hemingway is so famous in Key West with a very large house," Wolkowsky said. "Tennessee lived very modestly. He drove his bicycle and was not bothered by people."

Unlike Hemingway's former home, Williams' cottage on Duncan Street is a private residence, not open to the public.

Tennessee Williams at the 1975 dedication of the auditorium at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West when the auditorium was named for him.
Credit Ida Woodward Barron Collection / Monroe County Public Library

But now Key West has the exhibit, started by Beaver four years ago to mark the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth. It expands every year and includes photographs, playbills and even one of Williams' typewriters. Williams first visited the island in 1941 and bought his home in 1949.

Visitors to the exhibit often ask Beaver which of his plays Williams wrote in Key West.

"He wrote just about everything," is his answer. "He didn't finish everything or write all of everything but he wrote bits and pieces of everything in Key West."

Sometimes he wrote pieces that were transformed and re-named, like a piece called "Poker Night" that would eventually become "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"So it's hard to keep track when you're reading stories and interviews," Beaver said. "He'll talk about something you've never heard of, which will then later be changed to something more famous."

The exhibit is candid about Williams' life, including blown-up reproductions of the coroner's report about his death in New York hotel room.

Williams made a recording of his poetry for the library in 1971, and the auditorium was named for him in 1975. But he still got an overdue notice.
Credit Monroe County Public Library

And there's a section about his partner, Frank Merlo, who died in 1963 of lung cancer.

"Everybody in Key West knew it, but the big world in general wasn't really accepting of famous people being gay," Beaver said.

Merlo's official role was as Williams' assistant, "but he was much more than that," Beaver said. "He did everything for Tennessee. He set up his interviews. He fixed his dinner. And he lived with him for 15 years."

Williams was recognized during his lifetime on the island. The auditorium at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West was named for him in 1975, and he made a recording of himself reading his poetry in 1971 and gave the recording to the library. Two years ago, the library had the recording digitized, and it's posted and available to the public on the website of the Key West Literary Seminar.

In 1980, the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center, now known as the Tennessee Williams Theatre, on Stock Island opened with a premiere of a Williams play, "Will Mister Merriweather Return From Memphis?"

Williams was unhappy with the play and pulled it after two weeks, Beaver said. It's never been revived, "because the estate will not allow it, because he said he never rewrote it," Beaver said.

This painting by Tennessee Williams is of his friend David Wolkowsky. It's currently on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. Wolkowsky owns the piece, which is on permanent loan to the Key West Art and Historical Society.
Credit Key West Art and Historical Society / Courtesy

The Tennessee Williams birthday celebration includes poetry and plein-air painting contests, screenings of films based on Williams' work and a staged reading called "Tennessee's Rose," which is assembled from the poet's journals, memoirs and plays about his sister. Rose Williams underwent a lobotomy in 1943 and was the inspiration for Laura in "The Glass Menagerie." Williams bought a house for her in Key West and brought her to live there for two years.

The Key West group is working with the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans and provided material for a show of Williams' paintings in Havana. Beaver said he plans to keep adding to the collection in hopes of raising Williams' profile on the island.

The Tennessee Williams exhibit is open to the public, free of charge, seven days a week. Click here for more information.

So far, Beaver said, there are no plans for a look-alike contest.