“Ernest Hemingway and Key West may be synonymous, but Hemingway only lived here for about 10 years. Key West was the place that Tennessee Williams called home.”
– Michael Gieda, Key West Art & Historical Society
An exhibit memorializing iconic playwright Tennessee Williams, who called Key West home from the late 1940s until his death in 1983, expanded this winter to become the Tennessee Williams Museum under new dual leadership.
The museum evolved from the popular Tennessee Williams Key West Exhibit following its merger with the Key West Art & Historical Society, and can be found at the playwright’s beloved cottage at 513 Truman Ave.
Williams lived in Key West as an openly gay man with his partner Frank Merlo, and had a pivotal influence on the island’s literary culture. The award-winning playwright penned classics including “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Part of the story of the museum is the story of Dennis Beaver,” said Michael Gieda, executive director of the Key West Art & Historical Society.
Beaver, the founder and curator, first met Williams on a visit to Key West in 1978. Beaver returned to New York, sold his business and promptly moved to the island, where he opened a guesthouse.
According to Beaver, the exhibit features the largest permanent collection of Williams memorabilia currently on display for the public.
Highlights include personal photographs of Williams at home with Merlo and friends, first-edition plays and books, a typewriter used by Williams while he lived in Key West, an artist-crafted model of his island home and even the original steps from the film adaptation of Williams’ play “The Rose Tattoo,” which was filmed in Key West.
“I am delighted that the literary legacy of Tennessee Williams, ‘outed’ as gay by the press early in his career, will flourish under the stewardship of the Key West Art & Historical Society whose goal is to keep Key West history alive and accessible to the public,” said Beaver, who also founded the annual multiweek Tennessee Williams Birthday Celebration.
“Because Tennessee was here so long and he wrote at least part of every major work here, it’s important that we, as locals, understand this important history,” Beaver said.
Visitors to the new museum can take entertaining and informative self-guided tours as well as prearranged curator-led tours showcasing Williams’ history and legacy. Expanded elements include larger viewing and display areas for the extensive artifact collection and a gift shop.
Long passionate about preserving Williams’ legacy, Beaver remains as guest curator and consultant for the museum. He also intends to acquire and encourage donations of additional artifacts for the collection.
“Fortunately, I don’t have to work, I just give tours. The visitors keep me on my toes, and I can’t make a mistake because they’ll catch me,” he said with a chuckle.
Because so many longtime residents also knew Williams, stories abound. Beaver is always careful to document the colorful accounts.
“People tell me stories and I have to relay that they are just that. There is so much information out there,” he said.
In addition to the Tennessee Williams Museum, the Key West Art & Historical Society operates the Fort East Martello Museum, Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters and the Custom House Museum, which contains a display of Williams’ original paintings.
The Tennessee Williams Museum, 513 Truman Ave. in Key West, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, go to KWAHS.org.