Issue 81, Fall 1981
Two years ago, Frank Fontis, the caretaker of Tennessee Williams’ property in Key West, was murdered. It was an especially vicious killing. He was shot at point-blank range late at night in the living quarters of a railroad museum he operated on the island. It was a curious affair.
Frank Fontis was a well-liked, middle-aged queen with no known enemies in the Keys. He was a gardener by trade. Swishy, a bit of a camp, he took great pride in working for Tennessee and in being his friend. And, like Tennessee, he was at times hypochondriacal and loudly self-dramatic. He was also unusually generous, particularly if you were young, pretty and male. That may be the reason he got into such deadly trouble.
In the winter Key West is invaded by young drifters without funds who turn to drug dealing, petty theft, and prostitution to make do. They sleep in battered campers parked along public beaches or in cheap rooming houses; they lounge at night along Duval Street, displaying a mixture of sullen sexual availability and thinly disguised threat, much like hustlers everywhere. They are hungry, desperate, on to the game, with eyes open to the easy mark. Frank was just the right sort of pushover to hit, being fat, trusting, defenseless, and homosexual.
So one night that January he was discovered naked and bloodied on the floor by the front door of the tourist-trap he owned. Scattered near his body were several hundred dollars in bills, as if someone had tossed them into the air in glee after blowing his life away.
On the telephone table by his bed was found a single slip of paper. On it was written: “My friend Miss Lillian Carter.” Next to her name was her phone number in Plains, Georgia. It was the only phone number in Frank’s possession.*
Even stranger was the fact that later that same night, persons unknown broke into Tennessee’s house and ransacked the place.
Tennessee Williams was in New York at the time, staying in the apartment he keeps in Manhattan. He was working on “Clothes For A Summer Hotel” with Jose Quintero, who would direct the play on Broadway.
The morning after Frank’s murder ** , Tennessee called me and asked me to come to the apartment. When I arrived he was agitated, somewhat despondent, and anxious because he could get no word on the events in Key West. Together we phoned various friends in Key West trying to get a line on the murder and the condition of his house and property. We didn’t have much luck. Finally, Tennessee asked me to fly to Key West and stay in his house until he could join me there several days later. I agreed.
Why I agreed was because I loved him. He seemed very forlorn, and at a loss. That has so often been my perception of him since we first met—the sense of unadmitted sadness, an arresting loneliness that is articulated only in his work. And physical vulnerability. Tennessee is much smaller than I am, nearly a foot shorter. And like me, he’s had his bouts with booze and drugs and disloyalties, and has survived them. But when you’re his friend, it’s easy to forget the greatness of his literary achievement, and solely see someone in need of friendship and concern. Tennessee elicits, quite unintentionally, from those around him a desire to protect him. But from what?
Much of my perception is influenced by the environment in which I normally find him. Hotel rooms littered with clothes, pills, manuscripts, piles of mail (largely unopened), books, the ever-present typewriter. Or rented apartments where even the furniture is leased. He seems at home nowhere, except possibly Key West. And yet his curiosity, his sexual or rather affective needs are such that he ventures where it isn’t safe. I don’t simply mean the young men we meet or the various dives and bars he has accompanied me to. I mean his compulsion to travel, to keep in flight, whether alone or with a companion, all over the world in search of a place and someone with whom he can be content. Safe. He told me recently that he had given up sex. All he wanted, he said, was someone to caress on occasion. Someone to be with. Not much to ask, but since the death of Frankie Merlo in 1962 it’s been a desire largely unfulfilled.
“As long as Frank was well, I was happy,” Tennessee had written. “He had a gift for creating a life and, when he ceased to be alive, I couldn’t create a life for myself.”
And so he travels. I have helped him pack more times than I have packed myself, I guess. I once asked him why he travels so goddamn much, and he replied, “Baby, it’s hard to hit a moving target.”
So I went to Key West at his request. I’d frequently been to the island before, usually staying at Tennessee’s house, and enjoying it all immensely. Most of what little I know about writing and the discipline it commands, I picked up there from him. It’s a splendid place for a writer to work. There are few distractions, unless you find honky-tonk bars or artsy-fartsy shops or the Conch Train Tour your ticket. Even the beaches are small and poor, the surf dead; the restaurants mediocre at best; the sex ungenerous and often diseased. But what Key West has, or had, was quiet, and the finest weather and fishing in the United States.