Intimate paintings by Tennessee Williams on view in Miami Beach

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams at his typewriter in Key West

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. ― Long known as “Mr. Key West,” David Wolkowsky, the famed scion of Florida’s pioneer Jewish family that helped to settle Key West in the 1800s, has loaned his paintings by close friend Tennessee Williams to the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU for their premiere in Miami Beach. The art will be on view through October.

This marks one of the few times they have been exhibited outside of Key West. The exhibition “Tennessee Williams Playwright and Painter” is an intimate showing of nine exquisitely rare paintings by one of America’s greatest playwrights, created by Williams in Key West during the 1970s. Wolkowsky, a Key West developer, owned a private island called Ballast Key (nine miles from Key West), and the Pier House Resort. Both idyllic locations were the scene of many glamorous gatherings hosted by David and Tennessee, including parties for Hollywood luminaries, heads of state, and society’s crème-de-la-crème. If these paintings could talk, oh the stories they’d tell . . .

Tennessee Williams

Le Solitaire, by Tennessee Williams (1977), oil on canvas board. On loan from David Wolkowsky

Subject matter includes the writer’s famous cohorts during the ’70s in Key West (including a portrait of a very young Michael York), and personifications from Williams’ own poetry, short stories, and characters from his plays. Billie Holiday songs played in the background while Williams captured different images on his canvas. Some of the paintings by Williams feature gay themes. An “open secret” throughout his fabled career, the playwright struggled with societal prejudices from a young age, and the taboos surrounding homosexuality during his lifetime manifested in a number of Williams’ paintings. His artwork remains widely popular among collectors, most of these sought-after paintings from the last 30 years of his life are in private hands and rarely seen. These precious gems are the pride of the Key West Art & Historical Society, and this new Miami Beach exhibition is an uncommon opportunity to see in person how Williams expressed through painting his feelings about sexuality, loneliness and being gay.

Tennessee Williams

Citizen of World III, by Tennessee Williams (1970s), oil on canvas board. On loan from David Wolkowsky

David Wolkowsky, who still lives in Key West and is almost 100, is from one of the earliest Jewish families of Florida, and their history is documented as part of the Jewish Museum of Florida’s permanent collection about the history of Jews in the state of Florida. He is revered as a Key West original with a “campy sense of style, whose name every local knows.” Williams was often found at Wolkowsky’s private, celeb-drenched affairs. Guests included the likes of Truman Capote, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and members of the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Mellon families. According to Key West lore, Wolkowsky was notorious for serving plain hot dogs, white wine and potato chips to his famous guests, while Tennessee painted and drank red wine.

Tennessee Williams

The Tidings Brought to Mary at Far Rockaway, by Tennessee Williams (1975), oil on canvas On loan from David Wolkowsky

“The story behind these paintings, and the close friendship between Wolkowsky and Williams, is just one example of the many unexpected treasures in the rich history of Jewish culture in the state of Florida, spanning four centuries,” said Susan Gladstone, the Executive Director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. “The fact that Williams painted, much less that he painted in Key West, is a surprise to many, and his paintings have mostly remained outside of the public eye. We are honored to have these works here at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, and to be one of the few museums that David Wolkowsky has selected to exhibit these works outside of their Key West home.” Read more about the life of David Wolkowsky and his contributions to the history of Florida, in the new profile This Man Is An Island, written by Michael Adno.

Tennessee Williams

The Blaze of the Moment, by Tennessee Williams (1970s), oil on canvas

More about Tennessee Williams:

Tennessee Williams’ plays during the 1940s and 1950s were innovative, confrontational, and presented audiences with controversial subject matter such as deep, dark family secrets, Southern gothic themes, and other taboos that had never been seen on the stage before. His Southern dramas, The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were blockbusters that were adapted into iconic films. Williams singlehandedly introduced Marlon Brando to the American theater, and other leading stars included Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Page, Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis.

For more than 30 years, Williams lived part-time and wrote in a small cottage on Duncan Street in Key West. He took up oil painting in the early 1960s. On his patio, he would sketch friends, acquaintances, various literary characters and authors. Guests would often visit his home on Duncan street and purchase his recently created paintings.

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams painting in Key West

By the beginning of the 1960s, American theater shifted, and Williams’ new plays were not as popular. In 1963, his lifetime partner Frank Merlo died of lung cancer in Key West. The years following Merlo’s death were difficult for Williams although he continued to write until his own death in 1983. The enormous output of his literary career includes plays, short stories and novels. As a writer, Williams was persistent and tireless. His later plays strove towards innovation and bold experimentation and continue to be revived and performed today.

Like most writers, William’s life was fraught with hardships and struggles, and upon viewing these paintings it is clear that painting provided solace and refuge for one of America’s most recognized playwrights. In this exhibition, Williams pays homage to his own literary works (including his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone), writers he admired (Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens), and a portrait of a very young Michael York, who starred in the 1973 production of Williams’ Outcry. Of significance is the fact these works were created during the 1970s, a progressive era for artists, activists, and forward thinking, with the notion of liberation being key. These rare paintings now on view in Miami Beach at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU capture the essence of a strong and independent artist living in a particular time and place.

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams and David Wolkowsky, circa 1960s in Key West

About the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU:

The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is located in the heart of Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, at 301 Washington Avenue on South Beach. It serves as a major cultural attraction and source of information for a wide audience of residents, tourists, students and scholars of all ages and backgrounds from throughout the state, nation, and the world. Located in a former synagogue that housed Miami Beach’s first Jewish congregation, the museum’s restored 1936 Art Deco building and 1929 original synagogue are both on the National Register of Historic Places. The 301 building features nearly 80 stained glass windows, a copper dome, marble bimah and many Art Deco features including chandeliers and sconces. The Jewish Museum of Florida is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and holidays. Admission: Adults $6; Seniors $5; Families $12; Members and children under 6 always free; Saturdays-Free. For more information, please call 305-786-972-3175 or visit jmof.fiu.edu.

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Tennessee Williams