The scene: Tennessee Williams' house on Duncan Street in Key West, a small, simple, white-frame house with red shutters and a picket fence. The time is late February, day's end. The living room is dominated by books and art. Out back is a studio where Williams works every day, seven days a week, waking up about 5 in the morning and sometimes using a Bloody Mary, if need be, "to overcome the initial timidity." He has often said, "I work everywhere, but I work best here." Under a skylight, surrounded by empty wine bottles and paint-caked brushes, seated before a manual typewriter, he awaits sunrise and inspiration. On Key West, there is a great ethic of sunset, but the playwright stalks the dawn.
Williams is sitting on the patio adjoining the house. He has arisen late from an afternoon nap and his face is still puffy with sleep. In a few hours, he will attend the opening of one of his plays at a local theater. From where he sits, there is a view of the backyard, which is dominated by a swimming pool, strangled weeds and trampled plants. Williams glances with dismay at the untended growth snaking toward the pool.
"My gardener was shot, you know."
Tennessee Williams' life now on Key West in a way resembles the plot of one of his plays: an injured innocent in a honky-tonk town pitted against uprovoked malice, deliberate cruelty. Since January, his gardener has been murdered, his house ransacked twice. He has been mugged twice on the street, once reported, once not. His dog has disappeared. One winter evening some kids stood outside his house and threw beer cans on the porch, yelling at America's greatest playwright, "Come on out, faggot." The only person home at the time was a house-guest, writer Dotson Rader, and when the kids set off some fire-crackers, Rader remembers thinging: "This is it. They've resorted to guns."
Yet Williams has reacted with the resiliency of one of his heroines, dismissing it all as "ridiculous." He uses the same cliche to explain it away as does the Key West Police Department: "There is voilence everywhere." What has happened is enough to "shatter faith in essential human goodness," as Williams himself once put it, but he has insisted on a brave front, as if through "enduring the devil, he will earn, if nothing else, its respect."
After the first reported mugging on Duval Street, he told the local newspaper: "I've been here since '49, longer than they have. I'll be back." He joked about the incident, as if through humor he can defeat it: "Maybe they weren't punks at all, but instead New York drama critics. That mugging," said Williams, sounding almost jealous, "received better and more extensive publicity than anything I ever wrote." Tropical Tension
Williams may sound cavalier, but the problems on Key West are of increasing concern to natives and tourists alike. For years, the island has had a substantial gay population, and there has always been a certain amount of hot, tropical tension between the gays, rich tourists, leftover hippies, local teen-agers, the drifters and the druggies. In the winter the population jumps from 32,000 to 45,000. The visitors range from rich northerners who arrive by private jet and pay $125 a night for a suite to homeless men arriving by Greyhound. In season, there are 400 robberies a month in Key West. This year, this year, the frequency of attacks on gays has accelerated.
It is not as if Williams alone has been singled out for attack. But as the island's most prominent artist in winter residence and most prominent homosexual, the attacks against him are symbolic of something gone terribly awry in this otherwise peaceful fishing village: Life is no longer a breeze anywhere, even in the Florida Keys.
Tennessee Williams at age 68 is not in repose on Key West, island paradise at the southernmost tip of this country. Williams has been on the road ever since, as a young man, he quit his job at the same shoe warehouse where his father was employed (Red Goose shoes, Buster Brown's chief competitor). He has been a stranger passing through the world's most glittering places. Yet when a New Orleans cardiologist advised him to retire to Key West and live like an old crocodile 30 years ago, Williams bought his house on Duncan Street and despite his gypsy nature it has served as home base ever since. This season he no longr walks alone on the island at night. He dismisses it as merely "unfortunate," and says it will pass in a year or two.
On Jan. 5, Frank Fontis, a 49-year-old landscape architect, was gunned down. The curator of the Key West Railroad Museum, Fontis, for almost a decade, had been Williams' gardener and the caretaker of his property whenever the playwright was out of town. The police officer dispatched to the scene of the murder filed this report:
"I walked inside the door and observed the victim naked (except for a pair of white socks). Victim was lying on his back just inside the doorway, a small hole above right ear, and another small hole below left side of neck. A large amount of blood was coming out of the victim's nose, also victim was lying in a large pool of blood which was partially coagulated. Upon checking victim's pulse and breathing I found he was already dead."
Three weeks later, on Jan. 28, Williams and Rader were walking down Duval Street at one in the morning, a little high, singing hymns:
He walks with me
And He talks with me,
And He tells me I am his own.
From the Key West police blotter, 1/28/79:
"Mr. Williams and friend, Mr. Dotson Rader were accosted by four or five white males in the 500 block of Duval Street. The attackers advised they knew who Mr. Williams was. At this point the attackers punched Mr. Dotson Rader in the jaw. Mr. Williams advised that he was thrown to the ground. Mr. Dotson Rader and Mr. Williams were then kicked at by the attackers. I could not see any evident injury to Mr. Rader or Mr. Williams. Neither wanted to get any medical treatment. The only description available was that the attackers were between the ages of 18 and 25.
One of the attackers told the playwright: "We know who you are." Does Williams think the muggers were the same people responsible for the Fontis murder? "Oh, no," says Williams, "they were just punks. It happened quickly. There was no injury sustained. A lens fell out of my glasses. The publicity is ridiculous." Nevertheless, doesn't it bother him? "Of course not."
Why not? He seem surprised by the question, and his answer is delivered regally, in his best southern drawl, cadenced, liquid, honeyed. "Because, baby, I don't allow it to."
The effect is eerie. Throughout Williams' work there has been one underlying definition of gallantry: "the grace with which one survives appalling experiences." It is remarkable: Williams in his life is imitating his own art. Opening Night
The playwright steps across the patio through the doors leading to the living room. It is 6 p.m. on opening night. "Suddenly, Last Summer," one of Williams' more violent plays, will be presented, the second production of the Tennessee Williams Repertory Company's inaugural season. "The Glass Menagerie" opened on Jan. 30. Williams did not attend; he had left town.
Williams sits on the couch, nursing the wine, waiting for the 6:30 news, a ritual which daily prompts him to wonder whether the planet can make it through 1979 without another world war. Williams at 68 is almost an old man, yet his face retains an atmosphere of lush, full-featured alertness, especially in profile. He calls himself the "most promising playwright on Key West" and he cringes whenever anyone refers to him as the world's greatest living playwright. "I don't like that phrase. It has a way, don't you think, of implying the opposite."
He is gracious, instinctively courtly, even when he is in a bad mood, as he is on this evening. He admits to "always being crazy on opening nights." But that may not be the reason he missed the opening of "The Glass Menagerie." The rumor among the repertory troupe was that he was afraid his appearance might cause commotion, even violence. There was talk in some circles that he was going to sell his house and move away from Key West. Williams dismisses this speculation.
"I am not in the habit of retreat." There is a long silence. "The fact is, I had been planning to be out of town anyway and I don't much care to see 'The Glass Menagerie' anymore." Another thoughful pause: "It reminds me rather painfully of my mother."
He holds the glass of wine in front of him, examining the blood red in the muted twilight. "She never understood how much of her was Amanda," he says, almost to himself, refering to the domineering mother of "The Glass Menagerie." Amanda is a woman of false airs and true spirit who insists on arranging for a gentleman caller for her painfully shy daughter, Laura, a character based on Williams' sister, Rose.
"My mother is 94 years old," says Williams. "Longevity is a family disease." He punctuates this statement, nervously, with a "little breathless laugh," reminiscent of Alma, the spinster in "Summer and Smoke."
Williams is joined for the evening news by his two houseguests, writer Richard Zoerink and Rader. The two young men fulfill many roles: sons, valets, chauffeurs, audience, companions. After the news, Williams disappears into his bedroom off the living room to dress for the theater. Dotson Rader talks about the recent fear and loathing:
"It has been terrible. Tenn won't talk about it, but is has been really frightening what's happening in Key West, and what's happening in this house. I refuse to go out alone at night. I don't need to have my head bashed in with a lead pipe on Duval Street.
"When they broke into the house, they were obviously looking for something. The screens on the windows were slashed, and things were stolen, weird things that don't make any sense: lawn chairs, the toaster. Wine glasses were broken and the rose bushes out back trampled. I am more frightened here than I am in New York."
Why, in the face of all this violence, has Williams affected an air of unconcern, like Blanche Dubois, calculatedly blinding himself to the unpleasantness?
"Oh, he won't say anything. He has to live here. This is, for better of worse his home."
Williams returns to the living room, dressed for the theater, worried about a hole in his shirt: "Oh, well, the shirt is clean, anyway. It's good idea to look poor. Otherwise you have too indigent people in your trial."
Williams applies the final sartorial touch before his night on the town: a black Greek sailor's cap of which he is extremely fond. "It makes me look like a mean son of a bitch, don't you think," he says to no one in particular. It doesn't: The cap is festive, nautical, jaunty.
Thus suited, Williams leaves the house with Richard who drives him to dinner at the Rose Tattoo, a restaurant named in honor of one of his plays. The Two Families
The cerandah of a large tourist hotel, later the same evening. Royal palms move with the soft, hot breeze, and an older man, wearing a Greek sailor's cap, sipping pina coladas, is surrounded by young people like a patriarch. They are toasting him with champagne and the music of their laughter. It is the cast party of "Suddenly, Last Summer" and the author is ebullient: Tennessee Williams loved the production, thought it was wonderful, the acting just marvelous. As a gift to the troupe, he offers to sing the hymn that caused so much commotion on Duval Street a few weeks earlier.
The autobiographical nature of the play ("All organic writing is autobiographical; you cannot write about an emotion unless you have experienced it.") sets off a stream of reminiscences in the playwright. As in much of Williams' work, the theme of "Suddenly, Last Summer" is incest, this time about a young girl who has just returned from a trip to Europe where she was used by her male cousin as a pawn, procuring young boys as his sexual partners. Eventually, he is destroyed, devoured, cannibalized by a band of berserk urchins. The girl's aunt, Mr. Venable, wants Catherine put away, punished, lobotomized when she persists in recounting the sordid story of the summer. Mrs. Venable to a doctor from the local asylum: "Cut this hideous story out of her brain."
Williams speaks with compelling intimacy, alternately referring to the young woman as Catherine and "Miss Rose," his sister, who underwent one of the first lobotomies in the nation. In 1934, an operaion to remove a portion of the brain was considered fashionable, almost chic: the latest in putting the deranged out of their misery. This is the central sorrow of Williams' life and for years he has paid her bills at the New York sanitarium where she is confined. In his "Memoirs," the playwright wrote that taking care of Miss Rose was "probably the best thing I have done with my life besides a few bits of work."
An important thing to know about Williams is that he has two families, this one-the cast, his admiring public-and the one he was born into in Columbus, Miss., the family that moved to St. Louis when he was 8 years old: mother (ill), father (dead), sister Rose (institutionalized, brother Dakin (lawyer in Illinois). It is this second family which dominates his art, and when he is in an expansive mood, his conversation.
"I would like to invite my sister Rose down to Key West for a visit. I was in psychoanalysis once for about nine months, and the psychiatrist told me to quit writing and to break up with someone. I did neither. But the one thing that analysis showed me was that my father was a victim, too, and mother was the strong one. She is the one who approved the lobotomy. My sister had been away at a school for girls, All Saints School, and when she came home she talked about how the girls stole candles from the chapel and committed self-abuse. My mother wanted her to stop saying all those terrible things, just like Mrs. Venable, the aunt in 'Suddenly, Last Summer.' My mother wanted this hideous story cut from he brain. My mother was so puritanical. I was away from home at the time of the lobotomy; I never would have permitted it."
At midnight, Williams and Richard are the first to leave the party, the better for the playwright to greet the next sunrise. As they walk to the parking lot, they realize, suddenly, that a young man is following them. He opens his jacket, revealing a shining gun strapped to his chest, and accounces: "I'm security, from the Pier House." William would later joke that he was more frightened of this guard than the mean streets, but to the armed stranger he says, "We can take care of ourselves, baby." Greeting the Dawn
Noon, the following day. The world's greatest not-yet-dead playwright has survived to greet another dawn: "Mornings," he once wrote. "I love them so much . . . their great triumph over night." He is dressed informally, wearing only a bathrobe, having just left his studio where he is working on a play, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He has celebrated his session at the typewriter with a swim in his pool. Ordinarily, Williams moves like an old lion, full of slow ceremony. But twice a day he does spirited laps, back and forth for 20 minutes, displaying the vitality of a man much younger.
This is to be a session of photographs and the playwright very carefully composes the setting. He arranges himself in his bedroom, next to what he calls "the shrine." Above him on the wall is a portrait Williams painted of his longtime lover, Frank Melo, who died in the early '60s, heralding for Williams a period of depression that lasted seven years: his own grim battle with the "unlighted side" of his nature. Once, in describing this interval of drugs, booze, insomnia and conversion to Catholicism, since abandoned, he told Gore Vidal, "I slept through the '60s." Vidal responded, "You didn't miss anything."
The shrine honors Miss Rose. There is a tall structure, like a dripping candelabrum, an Indian symbol called the tree of life. Here are votive candles and, when the rose bushes are in bloom freshly cut flowers. in the center is a Madonna, veiled to convey spirituality.
He is asked about Fontis. Isn't he worried the same people who murdered the gardener are after him? "It's peculiar the way they ransacked the two houses on the same night. They were obviously looking for something, Dope, probably. At least that was the first theory. I don't think there have been any alternative theories. The police called earlier today and told me that they had just opened the safe at the museum (the Railroad Museum where Fontis was curator) and found a stack of manuscripts this high." His gesture is as big as the tree of life. "He was a peculiar man. I guess he supposed the manuscripts would be worth a great deal some day and that he would outlive me." Alma's laugh. "He'd been systematically stealing papers over the course of the nine years he took care of my house. I never noticed any of them missing."
And again, perhaps to himself, Williams says, "I am not in the habit of retreat."
Tennessee Williams has fallen silent. Wearing only the robe, seated next to the shrine and the portrait of his dead lover who stares straight ahead, there is a nakedness about the playwright, except for one detail. He is wearing sunglasses in the dim room, as if, to reveal his eyes, particularly in the final scene, is to reveal too much, to demand too little of his audience.Still silent, the playwritht studied the shrine.
Miss Rose has been punished for her madness, diagnosed as lunacy. He has been honored for his, recognized as genius. Has he exccaped?
"Oh, no," he says in that cadenced voice, "I have been punished, too, by her punishment, and by difficulties of my own." CAPTION: Picture 1, Tennessee Williams and his "shrine" at his Key West home; Miami Herald photo; Picture 2, Tennessee Williams