NEW ORLEANS — When Tennessee Williams showed up early afternoons at David Wolkowsky’s home near Key West, Fla., he would have three things to help get him to nightfall: “A bottle of red wine, Billie Holiday tapes and paint,” his friend recalls.
Out of that motley concoction came paintings, dozens over 30 years, that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and poet gave to friends, neighbors and lovers, and when he died at age 71, there was no discernible plan for the works to ever be seen again.
Now, 32 years after his death in 1983, those paintings have finally been collected for an exhibition in New Orleans, another of his adopted homes. The paintings provide insight into the sensual dreamscape that lived within Williams and that he extracted through images of Christian crosses, water and naked flesh.
“There’s a reason he didn’t just take photographs, and there’s a reason why he didn’t write about these things,” says William Andrews, executive director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where “Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter” runs through May 31. “The act of painting is an intimate mirror. I think Tennessee Williams liked the reflection he discovered in this work.”
Williams first visited Key West in 1941, when he was on the verge of his most productive and acclaimed periods. Three years later, “The Glass Menagerie” would establish him as one of the most original, and poetic, voices on the American stage, and in immediate succession, more of his classic works followed, most notably “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer and Smoke,” “The Rose Tattoo” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The success allowed Williams to purchase a modest home in Key West at 1431 Duncan St., which, until his death, would serve as playground and refuge. He lived there with his partner, Frank Merlo, but after Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963, Williams vanished into a fog of depression that he tempered with alcohol and prescription drugs.
Writing, however, never failed him, as attested by the voluminous body of plays, novels, poetry, short stories, screenplays and teleplays he left behind. But painting was largely seen by Williams’s Key West friends as a creative outlet that was more personal and that offered true creative freedom. He rarely sold his paintings; some were discarded the day they were completed, and others became gifted mementos to those in his inner circle.
The paintings reflect not just the tropical yellows, orange and reds of the environment in which they were created, but also French poetry, satire and dark irony.
In “A Child’s Garden of Roses” (1976), a man and a woman stand on a beach bleeding from rose-colored hearts while a baby parades nearby waving a pistol. The baby also happens to have the head and shoulders of Truman Capote, with whom Williams had a long feud. Another painting, “Le Solitaire” (1976), shows a figure outlined in white, lost in the night between two buildings, their windows colored in blue. In the distance before him is the hazy blur of a palm tree, but he can’t move toward it; all he can do is rest his hands on his hips and stare.
Andrews says that although Williams’s paintings are often described as naive or primitive, they are sophisticated for their rich expressionism.
“I look at the paintings as an opportunity for the author to put into the art form things he would not put on the stage, but things that were important to him,” the museum director says.
Williams’s homosexuality, rarely overt in his plays, flourished in his art. Male nudes are celebrated, but there also is struggle. In “The Tidings Brought to Mary at Far Rockaway” (1975), a naked man is at the door, adorned with a yellow halo and rays shooting out from his body. He holds a cross to a man and woman, also naked, who face away from him, their faces dulled with blank expressions.
The exhibition also reflects the story of Wolkowsky and his friendship with Williams, which lasted until the playwright’s death. Wolkowsky was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Early this month, at age 95, Wolkowsky came to New Orleans to attend the opening reception for the Ogden show. It was only his second time in the city, not that he lives far away: A Key West native whose family moved to Miami when he was 4, Wolkowsky met Williams in Philadelphia, where he worked in real estate as a developer and preservationist. In 1962, he retired, and at age 42, returned to Key West, where, through his development projects over the next five decades, he helped to bring the quirky town into the modern era and transform it into a tourist destination.
Lunching at a bistro in the French Quarter across from the Hotel Monteleone, where Williams often drank, Wolkowsky recalled that in 1968, when he opened the Pier House, Key West’s first luxury resort, Williams would come there daily for lunch and dinner, since his house was a short mile down the road. When such Hollywood friends as Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton visited, Williams would send them to Wolkowsky to put them up.
“He had a quiet life, but he was an attraction to Key West. If you went to a restaurant, everyone knew him,” Wolkowsky says of Williams.
Wolkowsky owns Ballast Key, a 14-acre private island that is the southernmost point of the United States and is about nine miles from Key West. Famous friends retreated there — Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Rudolf Nureyev and Lillian Hellman, for starters. Williams, too, was a frequent presence there in the 1970s and early ’80s. He painted outside in the afternoon sun, using acrylics, oil paint, chalk and stickered letters. Despite his fame in the Keys and beyond, most people there had little idea he painted.
“I think he enjoyed the change of scenery,” Wolkowsky says of those afternoons.
One day the playwright asked him to pose. He did, he said, but the result embarrassed him: “I was horrified. I said, ‘Tear it up!’ ” The painting, titled “L’inconnu: C’est les Yeux,” hangs at the Ogden show with an inscription on the back: “Dear David, you realize I wasn’t painting the physical you, but the spirit visible to me. Love, Tennessee.”
“I saw too many people come and go with Tennessee, so I kept a very pleasant and semiformal relationship with him,” Wolkowsky says. “I always saw the best side of him. Just because I never tried the other.”
Wolkowsky now owns all of the paintings in the exhibition except for two; they are on permanent loan to the Key West Art & Historical Society, which plans to take the show to other cities. Acquiring them was not always easy. Williams gave many away, but others ended up at local galleries. One unexpected mover of his work was Viola Veidt, daughter of the early silent film star Conrad Veidt. She routinely took paintings from Williams’s home, exchanging them with art patrons for cash. Cori Convertito, the historical society’s curator, says Williams was fully aware of Veidt’s actions but let the thievery persist because she was down on her luck, her father having died when she was a teenager.
Convertito says she hopes the show will raise awareness about the Williams legacy in Key West, which she says is overshadowed by that of another literary lion, Ernest Hemingway, even though he lived in Key West for less than a decade.
“We wanted to show [Williams] was multifaceted here, which is what set him apart here and why he enjoyed it here,” she says. “The weather, the autonomy of Key West gave him a lot of respite, especially later in this career when his plays were not as well received as the earlier ones.”
The comfort Williams found in Key West would not sustain him in the end. In his 2014 biography of Williams, John Lahr writes that the playwright fled Key West in turmoil over the fact that his new work was not connecting with the public. He would die three months later in a New York hotel room.
Leoncia McGee, his housekeeper in Key West, recalls hearing him call a taxi. According to Lahr, “When she inquired about the car, he told her that he was going to New York. She asked when he’d be coming back. ‘I won’t ever be coming home again,’ he said.”
With these paintings finally assembled for all to see, now Williams is back in the Keys, the sun is still shining and soon it will be time for a swim.
Guarino is a freelance writer.
Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter Through May 31 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., New Orleans. www.ogdenmuseum.org.