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IN THE FRIGHTENED HEART OF ME
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS'S LAST YEAR
By TONY NARDUCCI
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Tony Narducci
All rights reserved.
SAILOR TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
KEY WEST, FLORIDA: FEBRUARY 1982
Would you like a kind stranger to help?" I asked, unrehearsed, tongue in cheek, wondering if anyone used that line before when meeting him for the first time. However, since he was stumbling down the stairs and in need of help, it made perfect sense. What I didn't know was how ominous Blanche's words would be.
He turned from the railing he'd clutched with both hands, looked at me wide-eyed over thick, TV-screen glasses, and, without acknowledging my clever introduction, he returned the courtesy. "Yes, I believe I could use some help."
It was Tennessee Williams.
Suddenly, I was cast in the role of the good doctor in A Streetcar Named Desire; he was Blanche Dubois, vulnerable and needing the kindness of a stranger. Like the doctor who rescued Blanche from oblivion, I would rescue him from despair, at least for a moment. I held his left arm with my left hand and wrapped my right arm around his shoulder. Slowly, we descended the stairs of the Monster—the outdoor disco that was the nightly haunt of men on the prowl.
Tennessee Williams, the most accomplished modern playwright and perhaps one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. His plays were renowned throughout the world. Many of them had been made into films: The Glass Menagerie; A Streetcar Named Desire; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Sweet Bird of Youth; Suddenly, Last Summer, and Night of the Iguana. Hollywood's best, brightest, and most famous brought his resonant characters to the stage and screen.
Icon of the 1950s, sought-after guest on TV talk shows, newsmaker famous for scandalous behavior, champion of sexual liberation, openly gay man, father of some of the best plays ever written. I watched him interviewed on talk shows, followed his career, saw all his plays. I read everything by him or about him. He was instantly recognizable to me. He was my hero.
This was the genius who redefined theater by stripping away old-fashioned, extraneous conventions. His plays read like modern poetry. I was fourteen when I first fell in love with his work. He taught me about life. He was my Socrates, my Wizard of Oz. He inspired me to be an artist. I knew him well, but I didn't know him at all.
Now I was seeing him up close. He looked old, tired, a Kabuki version of himself. Gnarled strands of dry, white hair wrapped his head like an unraveling bandage and owl eyes, magnified by his glasses, looked frightened.
Just a kid then, I wanted him to probe my soul, resolve the dilemma of what to do with my life. I was certain he had the answers. Here I was, rescuing my hero from plummeting down a flight of stairs. It was the beginning of the most significant redefining moment of my life, and the end of his most illustrious career in American theater.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Key West was a popular destination for many gay men escaping the cold northern winter. The tiny key had everything a gay man wanted: endless sunshine, beaches, bars, and easy, abundant sex. It was the time before the world fought HIV/AIDS infection, when gay men were unworried and promiscuous, and this place was paradise.
I made my first visit in 1979. My friend Albert moved to the tiny coral reef in the late 1970s. He was one of the early gay pioneers who came to resurrect the island from the quiet, shabby town it had become into the rollicking gay resort it would be. It was gay Mecca in those days, and I loved to make the pilgrimage.
From early childhood, I was creative and independent, confident I would do something artistic with my life. I had been making films for three years, but I wasn't making money and had many bills to pay, so I accepted a job working for Xerox as a sales trainer, at first part-time and then a year later as a full-time employee, and I hated it. The business world was filled with insincere, opportunistic, boring people. Compared to film, the work was meaningless. I desperately wanted to return to filmmaking, but I was in my early thirties, indigent, and knew the time had come to be responsible and have a career. The "starving artist" thing wasn't working for me; however, the corporate world was alien to me. I needed something to "jump-start" the dormant artist.
I came to Key West to reflect on my life. How did I get here? What should I do? I was passionate about filmmaking, and I was good at it! So why wasn't I making money? At that point, it had been almost two years since I'd entered the business world. I was looking for the thread to pull me back to the film world I loved. Maybe I was kidding myself, but it was now or never to decide which path I would take: business or film.
That was the fourth February in a row that I'd made the journey to this island of earthly delights. Each year, a posse of gay men from Chicago would arrive the last week in February and stay at the Lighthouse Court. It was a gay compound—an all-day party that lasted all week.
This gay playground got its name from the ancient lighthouse next door that rose like a giant phallus, marking the spot where the boys were. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the beacon guided sailors into shore; now, it was still guiding marauding men to its shores.
Pirates were among the first sailors. After plundering ships, they would voyage to Key West to bury their treasure, relax in the sun, and prepare for the next plunder. Pirates and sailors symbolized the ultimate gay fantasy—hundreds of young, half-naked, tightly clad renegade men traveling aimlessly for days on a ship full of other men. That lifestyle represented freedom, sex, adventure, openness, and debauchery. This history gave a gay romantic quality to this pile of white coral, set at the southernmost point in the United States, somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Across the street from the compound was the house where Ernest Hemingway lived during the 1940s and where he wrote some of his best work: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
His favorite hobbies were fishing, carousing, and, of course, plenty of drinking. Hemingway's stories read like the gay lifestyle as well, adventurous men who are either impotent, in flight, or in peril, and therefore unable to settle down with a woman, yet always ready for an affair or a fling. This isn't far off from how many gay men live.
Some critics believe Hemingway was a closet homosexual and may have had an affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gay men love to believe all this folklore because it adds to the romantic allure of the island.
Mornings at the Lighthouse Court would begin with classical music and a light poolside breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and a croissant. Coffee was the hangover remedy for the night before, and the energy booster to start the new day's adventures. After lying in the sun for two or three hours, we'd be ready for a walk down Duval Street for lunch, shopping, and cruising for "fresh meat." Then we'd head back to the guesthouse for a dip in the pool, a nap, or for some late-afternoon sex. Each day was the same, but each felt like a new adventure.
Evenings would begin with a frenzy of outfit changes, looking for the perfect combination of shirt and jeans to allure a trick for the night. All the fussing was more fun than necessary. Ultimately, we would take off our shirts and dance wildly through the night at the Monster. Sharing the experience made for rich gossip the next day.
Tonight, however, instead of hanging with our posse, I was having dinner with my best friend, John Kauppilla.
The night was magical. Cobalt twilight, an oceanside table, a bottle of wine, and soul-searching conversation set the stage for a great dinner and a great adventure. This would be the night I would meet my literary hero, Tennessee Williams.
After a fabulous seafood dinner and our usual finale of cognacs, we headed off to dance. The sapphire sky had turned blue-black. The stars were points of white light, like diamonds in a queen's gown, dazzling as she walked across the sky. The air was sweet with the scent of flowers. Tiny magenta bougainvillea bells jingled in the wind.
We entered the Monster to the familiar pulsating sound of Loud disco music and a crowd of sweaty bare-chested men. The Monster was completely outdoors, with cantilevered decks suspended over a wide-open atrium dance floor. I told John to wait downstairs by the dance floor, while I scurried upstairs to the less crowded bar to get us two more cognacs.
I'd leapt up the first flight of stairs and turned to leap up the second, when suddenly I halted in midflight. There was Tennessee Williams, slowly beginning his descent down the two flights of precarious stairs. He looked dressed for a costume party. Wearing a white cotton sailor suit with a matching white captain's cap, the bottoms of his trousers rolled, he looked comical. I noticed he was barefoot and struggling to get down the crowded stairs. As he was about to tumble, I reached to stop him from falling.
"Would you like a kind stranger to help?" I asked. This was more than a coincidence—it was destiny!
Exactly a year ago on this same flight of stairs, I'd watched him ascend. That night he'd worn a black dock worker's hat and a multicolored fur coat. I'd thought that odd, as it was 72 degrees. He looked half thug, half drag queen that night. Seeing him now, dressed as a sailor, made me think he might wear costumes to "try on" characters for his plays.
That first night a year ago, a bevy of young men buzzed around him, basking in the glow of the great playwright's fame. I stepped toward him but stopped, unsure of what to say. I didn't want to be an intrusive fan or, worse yet, a sycophant like the others. I watched as the opportunity to meet him slipped away. I regretted not being more assertive.
However, tonight was different. He was stumbling down the stairs, alone and needing help. It was an honest way of meeting him. We teetered down the two flights of stairs to the men's room. When we arrived, he turned and looked at me intently.
"Would you mind waiting to escort me back up those challenging stairs?"
"I'd love to!" I replied as he walked into the restroom. I was tingling. How could I continue to engage him? What would we talk about? Fawning is not in my DNA. The narrow bathroom hallway, laced with men in shadow, smelled of urine. Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" blasted through the space. He returned, smiling.
"You look familiar. Have we met before?" Could he have noticed me a year ago, or was this how sailors met? The familiar scent of fresh meat, the rush of lust, and a yearning desire to make contact made everyone look familiar.
"I saw you a year ago in this same place on these same stairs. You were with a lot of people."
"Perhaps I did notice you!" he exclaimed. I wasn't sure what to say next, so I smiled. "Do you mind if I hold on to your shoulder?" he flirtatiously asked.
"Please do," I enthusiastically replied. He put his right hand on my shoulder and used the other to clutch the stair rail. This was what I'd hoped for, ever since I first came to Key West—an adventure with Tennessee Williams. As we began to scale the stairs, he turned to look at me with a big painted smile smeared across his face. He was wearing makeup. A glint of light in his glasses twinkled at me. With his gaze fixed on me, I felt I could fly.
"Could I return the kindness by buying you a drink?"
I was struck by his gentility. "Thank you."
"What would you like?" he graciously asked.
We sat at a table full of young men. A flood of recollections came to mind. The Glass Menagerie, high school English, sophomore year:
"Why does Laura collect glass objects?" Miss Scott asked. Eagerly, I raised my hand, and she nodded at me.
"She's shy and uncomfortable around people. She prefers to escape into a world of her own imagination. The glass menagerie is her refuge."
The Glass Menagerie, American theater course, college sophomore:
Dr. Herbert asked, "What is the significance of the glass unicorn?" I eagerly raised my hand. "Yes?"
"Laura is like the unicorn, fragile and unique. When the gentleman caller drops it and the horn breaks off, it symbolizes that he has helped Laura feel normal ... accepted."
The Glass Menagerie, freshman honors literature class, as a first-year English teacher:
"Why does Laura collect glass objects?" I asked the class.
With that prelude flashing in my mind, I wanted to ask him a million questions. How much of Laura was based on his sister, Rose? Was his mother really like Amanda in the play? How do I become an artist? What should I do with my life?
"Cognac," I said to Tennessee.
"Sebastian, would you mind?" A tall blond Viking of a young man scurried off to get the elixir. The night was hot, the air rife with testosterone. Bare-chested men continually cruised the area around our table. The place was full of hungry predators. I wanted Tennessee all to myself. How could I have a conversation when all these sycophants were staring at me? But Tennessee was focused on me.
"Where are you staying?" he asked.
"The Lighthouse Court."
"Is it very nice?"
"Oh yes, it's great! Charming rooms, a swimming pool, and a small patio for breakfast and lunch make it a pleasure oasis." This was very polite conversation—too polite. I wanted to bare souls with this man I'd idolized since I was fourteen. Impatience had taken over, and my leg began to shake.
"Do you like Key West?" Tennessee asked.
"Yes, this place feels like gay paradise. How long have you lived here?" I wanted to get inside his head; that's where the answers were. The boys at our table fidgeted petulantly; they wanted more attention from him. He ignored them.
"Since 1949, but I visited here for years before that. I've seen it change a lot."
I was just born when he moved here. At that time, The Glass Menagerie was already a huge success. He was at the threshold of his greatest work. I felt intimidated. How could I think I could relate to this man, that I could talk to him about my life dilemma? "What do you do here?" I asked. I knew his answer would have to mention something about his work. Perhaps that would be a segue into a deeper conversation. The music swelled, bodies were sweat-drenched and nearly naked, too much to distract us. I wanted to leave with him, go somewhere to talk.
"I write." He laughed loudly, making me think of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
I turned stage right to see Sebastian bringing my cognac. We flashed smiles at each other as he handed me the drink. I read something in his face. Was he flirting? He oozed sensuality. Why did Tennessee ask him to get my drink? Was he the chosen boy at the time? I turned my attention back to Tennessee. "Are you working on anything now?"
"Oh, I'm always working on something. Yes, I am." He was grinning at me. Something was on his mind.
"A play?" I asked enthusiastically, knowing what the answer would be.
"Yes, a couple of plays. I'll be opening one in Chicago soon."
"Chicago! That's where I live." This was another thread weaving us together. I knew that meant he would have to be in Chicago sometime. Perhaps we would start a conversation that would continue after I left Key West. I was ready for anything.
"Cold, too windy, not very pretty, but Chicago has been good to me." I knew he'd premiered some of his best work there.
"It's the only home I've known," I responded humbly.
"You've never lived anywhere else?" he asked incredulously.
"I've traveled a lot but never lived anywhere else."
"I've traveled my entire life, never liked being home with the family or in any one place for very long—Key West is the only place I've called home." Again, he looked strangely frightened, his face partly in shadow, as if he were recalling a bad memory. He quickly changed the subject. "You look Italian."
"I'm Sicilian and Neapolitan."
"Well, that's Italian." He laughed loudly.
I had read he was fond of Italians and Italy. "Italians think of Sicilians as 'mixed blood,' not true Italian," I quizzically replied.
He laughed again, as if I shared something familiar with him. "The love of my life was Sicilian."
"Yes, Frankie, a beautiful boy." Frankie had died of lung cancer in 1963, sending Tennessee into a drug and alcohol haze for much of the 1960s. "You remind me of Frankie. He didn't have your eyes, though. Those don't look like Sicilian eyes."
I was flattered. My eyes are blue-gray and, at that time, framed by thick, black curly hair. "My mother is the Sicilian, but she has red hair, light skin, and blue-gray eyes. I think she has Norman blood. That's where the blue eyes come from."
"Would you come home with me?"
Excerpted from IN THE FRIGHTENED HEART OF ME by TONY NARDUCCI. Copyright © 2013 Tony Narducci. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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