Tennessee Williams was gay. A well known fact.
During his life, he had two great loves. One short lived. The other, 14 years. It is the longer of the two I am writing about. The reason is that during the 14 year relationship, Williams did his best work.
Frank Merlo was Williams’ lover and partner. They met and fell in love the spring of 1949. Merlo was younger. Good looking. Of Sicilian heritage. An occasional actor. A U.S. Navy World War II veteran.
Williams first visited Key West in 1941. His regard for Key West was instant. He loved Key West.
Along the way, he purchased a home at 1431 Duncan Street. It was his permanent residence from 1948 to 1983.
Merlo lived with Williams in the house from 1949 to 1963. The house still stands. The home has been owned by a couple from the Midwest for many years. It is well kept and without question the show piece of the neighborhood. During the Williams/Merlo years, the house was not the show piece it is today. The two men lived modestly and had little concern with tidiness.
Williams had a sister. Rose. She was mentally challenged. She lived in Key West for a while on Von Phister Street. She spent many years in mental institutions.
Rose’s mental condition affected Williams badly throughout his life.
Williams and Merlo had an apartment in New York City. However, Key West was home and they spent considerable time in the house on Duncan Street.
Merlo acted as Williams’s personal secretary. He assumed responsibility for domestic housekeeping tasks. He provided happiness and stability which balanced out Williams’ frequent bouts with depression.
Merlo was a constant comfort to Williams. Something he needed. Williams was a schizophrenic. His constant fear was that he would fall into insanity. As his sister Rose had.
Merlo was Williams’ crutch.
The 14 years the two lived together were the happiest and most productive of Williams’ career.
Williams introduced a new style writing. His works portrayed life as it was. In all its rawness. He introduced sex into writing more than had been done in the past. Not the Fifty Shades of Gray type. There was a sense of the sexual involved in the relationships. That sense was more than previous writers of consequence had portrayed.
Williams was also a swift writer. His talent amazing. From mind to pen to paper. Almost instantaneously.
During the Williams/Merlo years together, Williams writings were the best produced during his lifetime. Many plays. Some made into movies for which he wrote the scripts. He also wrote scripts solely for movies. A slew of short stories. One major novel.
Major works included The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, Period of Adjustment, and The Night of the Iguana.
Familiar to all of us. Turned out by Williams at the rate generally of one per year.
The novel was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.
Williams would not have produced so much and of such quality were it not for the relationship which existed between Williams and Merlo.
The relationship became unsteady in 1962 and 1963. Both were guilty of increasing infidelities and drug use. Williams and Merlo parted in 1963.
Soon thereafter, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Some say Williams personally took care of Merlo till he died. Others that said he took care of Merlo till he could take it no more and left Merlo in other responsible hands.
Although Williams’ life became increasingly difficult towards the end of his relationship with Merlo, it skyrocketed downward after his death. Williams suffered catatonic depression, used drugs increasingly, and was committed on occasion to mental health facilities.
Williams became dependent on prescription drugs. He received Dr. Freegood injections to overcome his depression and relieve his insomnia. The injections were sort of one shot takes care of multiple problems.
The downhill slide was mental and physical. He appeared on talk shows till his responses frequently became incoherent. His public personality suffered.
Williams died February 25, 1983.
It is obvious Merlo was good for Williams. The two appear to have been good for each other. They were given significant time together. They made the best of that time.
It would be remiss not to mention Williams’ impact on Key West itself. By 1979, he was one of Key West’s most famous faces.
He was open about his homosexuality. A fact which encouraged other gays to come to Key West to live and work. Key West progressed with their influx. Williams became known as the Gay Grandfather of Key West. A fitting title.