Famous Couples: Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo

Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo behind a fence at Key West residence circa 1958.

Tennessee Williams & Frank Merlo, 1958 (date added to Look’s library). Photograph. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to highlight the relationship between Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. Williams was renowned for his contributions to the theater world. Some of his plays include famous works such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie. Williams, who was openly gay, often featured gay characters and themes, and other topics considered taboo at the time. Despite this, his plays were generally well-received by both critics and the public. Frank Merlo was a working-class Italian American from New Jersey. He worked as an actor on occasion but was primarily Williams’ personal assistant.

 Tennessee Williams with Frank Merlo, Elia Kazan, and Charles Feldman.

“Tennessee Williams,” Campaign, no. 118, Oct. 1985, p. 47. Archives of Sexuality and Gender.

The two men met in 1948 at Atlantic House, a bar in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Williams describes the first time he saw Merlo in his Memoirs, “… he leaned smoking against the porch railing and he was wearing Levis and I looked and looked at him. My continual and intense scrutiny must have burned through his shoulders, for after a while he turned toward me and grinned,” (p.133). This encounter resulted in a relationship that ran the course of 15 years. In 1951, he even went on to write a play inspired by Merlo, “The Rose Tattoo”, which was his “love-play” to the world. It even has a dedication that reads“To Frankie in Return for Sicily.”

According to his memoirs, for Williams, living with Merlo in his Manhattan apartment and in his house in Key West were some of his happiest and most productive years. But Williams was heavily involved with alcohol and various drugs. This, combined with Williams’ promiscuity, put a strain on their relationship and Williams’ writing. 

Then, in 1962, Merlo was diagnosed with lung cancer. As his health declined, Williams remained by his side and housed Merlo in his Manhattan apartment. Later, the cancer was deemed inoperable, and Merlo died in 1963. His last words to Williams were, “I’m used to you now,” which Williams accepted as an admission of Merlo’s love.

newspaper clipping featuring the obituary of Frank Merlo

“Frank Merlo,” Daily News. September 24, 1963, p. 40.

Many consider The Night of the Iguana to be the last successful play he wrote, which premiered on Broadway in 1961. He fell into a period of depression and increased drug use following Merlo’s death and was never able to regain the success he had experienced earlier in his career.  Williams himself attributed the subsequent failures to the death of Frank Merlo. 

On February 25, 1983, Williams was found dead at the age of 71.

I’ll end with an excerpt from one of Williams’ poems, “We have not Long to Love” from The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams:

“…Intimate the silence,

dim and warm.

I could but did not, reach

to touch your arm.

I could, but do not, break

that which is still.

(Almost the faintest whisper

would be shrill.)

So moments pass as though

they wished to stay.

We have not long to love.

A night. A day…”

Discover more:

  • Search Chronicling America for coverage of Tennessee Williams’ life and work in historic newspapers.
  • Tennessee Williams. Memoirs. 1975. Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. 1st ed. 

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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