Florida festival honors Tennessee Williams

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 25 2003 1:00 AM ET

Ernest Hemingway may have been the most famous raconteur to put Key West, Fla., on the map, but gay playwright Tennessee Williams is getting his due for works influenced by life in this Southern paradise town. Key West's first Tennessee Williams Festival culminates on Monday--the 20th anniversary of Williams's death at age 72 at New York's Hotel Elysée on February 24, 1983--with a gala appearance by actress Elizabeth Ashley. Ashley starred in a Broadway revival of Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

Williams, who moved to the town on an island south of Miami during the mid 1940s when he was in his mid 30s, won his first Pulitzer in 1948 for his sultry A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams rewrote the famed play while living at Key West's downtown La Concha Hotel, although he began penning it as a resident of New Orleans. In Key West, Williams was known for dressing casually in white, often sporting a mustache and beard. He enjoyed local watering holes such as Sloppy Joe's and Captain Tony's Saloon, cycling around the 2- by 4-mile island and taking daily ocean swims.

Williams was shy and lacked emotional balance, recalled friend George Keathley, 77, a native Key Wester, Florida theater owner, and former Broadway director. "He liked the freedom of Key West, but over the years he changed a lot. Early on he was the most humble and sweetest man, very generous," Keathley said. "In the end he was irrational and difficult. He drank a lot, and he drugged a lot."

Williams also was a prolific painter who liked to escape the hubbub of Key West by going to Ballast Key, a private island nine miles off Key West and owned by friend David Wolkowsky, 83, a pallbearer at Williams's funeral. "It was a refuge for him to escape the big city life of Key West. He would bring a bottle of red wine, paint, and listen to Billie Holiday," said Wolkowsky, who built the Pier House resort and owned a beach club frequented by Williams. "I found him to be very alive, very honest, and very vulnerable. He could feel quite anonymous here."

Williams was known for luring writer friends to Key West, such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. He met McCullers, author of The Member of the Wedding, after writing a fan letter.

The Tennessee Williams Festival kicked off February 22 with big-screen showings of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Rose Tattoo. The latter was filmed in Key West in 1955 with Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar for her performance. Other events included recollections of Williams by local friends and theater luminaries, including playwright Sir Peter Shaffer, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony award winner known for his works Equus and Amadeus, and New York critic John Simon. Sixty attendees paid $500 each to dine at Williams's former home, an unassuming cottage-style wood-frame house built in the 1880s. Williams lived there with his grandfather, longtime companion Frank Merlo, and his bulldogs but guarded the only key to his writing studio. The private home is not open to the public. The three-day event is a fund-raiser for Key West's 480-seat Tennessee Williams Theater at Florida Keys Community College's Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center. Williams attended the center's opening in 1980.

Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Miss., on March 26, 1911, and nicknamed "Tenn" and "Tom" by close friends. As a child Williams lived with his maternal grandparents in rectories in Tennessee and Mississippi. He suffered from depression and alcoholism throughout his writing life and was haunted by a lobotomy on his sister Rose, for whom he bought a house in Key West. "He really misbehaved badly in Key West, but he was a workaholic until the end of his life," said Sol Jacobson, a former Broadway press agent and Key West resident. Williams is buried in St. Louis despite his wishes to be buried at sea.

In Key West, Williams was fascinated by novelist Hemingway. He met up with Ernest in Havana and became friends with Hemingway's second wife, Pauline. Key West's annual Hemingway Days, celebrating its 23rd festival this summer, attracts slews of raucous and portly Hemingway look-alikes. The event commemorates the July 21 birthday of the Nobel Prize-winning Hemingway, born in 1899.

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