A Conversation with Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men

Illuminating one of the great love stories of the twentieth century—Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner Frank Merlo—Leading Men is a glittering novel of desire and ambition, set against the glamorous literary circles of 1950s Italy.

 

 
Christopher Castellani
Photo © Michael Joseph 2018



Illuminating one of the great love stories of the twentieth century—Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner Frank Merlo—Leading Men is a glittering novel of desire and ambition, set against the glamorous literary circles of 1950s Italy.

The editors at Viking asked Christopher Castellani about the inspiration and research behind the novel that led to his decision to write about the man behind the man.


 

LEADING MEN is based on the real-life love affair between legendary playwright Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. What first attracted you to their love story, and why did you decide to explore it in the form of a novel?

I’d always been a fan of Williams’s plays—especially Suddenly Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—but I didn’t know much about his life until I stumbled upon Dotson Rader’s 1985 memoir, Tennessee: Cry of the Heart, at a used bookstore in 1997. It was in those pages where I first met Frank Merlo, this working-class gay Italian guy from Jersey who’d been Williams’s longtime lover, and who died at forty after days of waiting for one last visit from him. I myself was a twenty-five-year-old working-class gay Italian guy from Delaware with dreams of being a writer, feeling an instant kinship, which eventually became an obsession, with both men: the neurotic and ambitious Tenn and the steadfast and searching Frank.

I wrote them into a short story in my MFA program, but the story didn’t quite work, so I wisely expanded it into an even more glaringly flawed novella. The idea wasn’t “big enough” for a novel, I feared, and, worse, I didn’t fully believe I had the right to write about them. It took reading Christopher Bram’s Gods and Monsters, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and Colm Toibin’s The Master to convince me I could fashion these real people into fictional characters, and it took learning about the fate of another real-life literary couple—John Horne (“Jack”) Burns and Sandro Nencini, contemporaries of Frank and Tenn—to widen the lens of the novel.


How did you approach your research for the novel, and did you find anything particularly interesting or surprising along the way?

I spent nearly twenty years dipping in and out of as many texts as possible—the letters and journals of Williams, Merlo, and Burns; all the biographies; all of their fiction and plays and poetry and criticism. There’s a lot. I didn’t read to add to their biographies, I read to find the cracks in them, a place where my imagination could take root. I retraced the steps of the four men in the various places they lived in Italy: Portofino, Florence, Rome, Livorno. I talked at length with Burns’s brother, Tom, well into his nineties at the time. I was surprised at every turn—by the cosmic connections between these four men who never officially met, and between them and my own life; by their shared sensibilities and tensions; by the theories as to whether or not Sandro murdered Jack (the jury is still out, but Leading Men puts forth one potential scenario); by the honesty and openness of their romantic and sexual relationships, and—most compelling to me—how little attention Frank Merlo has received in the many books and essays written about Tennessee Williams. The more I researched, the more convinced I became of the profundity of his influence on the great playwright’s life and work.

Frank and Tennessee were together for fifteen years. Why did you decide to focus specifically on their time together in Italy?

While reading Williams’s collected journals, which he kept regularly, I noticed there were no entries between “circa Tuesday 28 July or Wednesday, 29 July 1953” and “Friday, 7 August 1953,” when he and Merlo were living in Rome. In his collected letters to Maria Britneva, I learned that Truman Capote had sent them an invitation to join him in Portofino around that same time. When I realized that John Horne Burns died a few days later under mysterious circumstances, I knew I had to set the story during that “missing week.”

Though Williams and Merlo traveled extensively and constantly, often apart, they returned together regularly to Italy, where they spent some of their happiest summers. Like fiction itself, though, their relationship thrived on trouble, and so it felt right to set the novel in the stormy summer of 1953, when Frank’s ongoing affair with a Roman man named Alvaro came to a head, and when Tenn escaped to Barcelona to avoid Frank’s perceived cruelty.

And finally, when I read in Capote’s July 1953 letter to David O. Selznick that one of the big scandals in Portofino that summer concerned a Swedish mother and daughter who were sleeping with the same fishermen, I knew I had another storyline—a completely fictional one—to somehow weave into the lives of these four men. I just had to figure out who these women were.


Almost all of the characters in LEADING MEN are based on real people in Tennessee’s elite literary circle, with the exception of Anja Bloom – an aspiring actress the pair meets at one of Truman Capote’s parties. Why did you invent the fictional character of Anja to accompany the very real characters of Frank and Tennessee? Was she inspired by anyone in particular?

I always sensed that, for this novel to work, it needed the “air” that only a character and a time period outside the four men’s tight circle could provide. Not only would an entire book set in 1953 Italy feel claustrophobic, it wouldn’t be true to the breadth and depth and impact of these influential lives; nor would it account for the important role that women—especially actresses as muses—played in Williams’s life in particular and in the lives of gay men in general. Also, so much of the book was already about the role of the “man behind the famous man,” what about the inner life of the famous woman who’d had many leading men of her own? This is what, I hope, makes Frank and Anja such complementary main characters, and why I was so compelled and moved by the idea of their friendship.

That said, Anja’s most significant leading man was not Frank, the friend of her youth, or Pieter, her husband, or Hovland, her director and former lover, but the father she abandoned. This dimension of her character fascinated me, and it also unlocked so many of the themes that run through the novel. Without Anja as the hinge between the two main time zones of the novel, I don’t think I would have fully understood how the entire story fit together.

Some have assumed Anja is based on Maria Britneva, Williams’s controversial longtime friend, ambitious actress, and eventual executor of his estate, whom I deliberately omitted from this novel. But it was Liv Ullmann, not Britneva, who first inspired Anja, after a chance conversation I had with her at a dinner party, and which she has surely forgotten. In that conversation, Ullmann briefly and vividly described both the loneliness of living in cold, unforgiving Boston, and also the one memorable time many decades ago when she met Williams in the lobby of a hotel in Paris. I asked myself, “What if that young Swedish daughter who caused the Portofino scandal turned out to be someone like Ullmann? What if she’d held onto something from her time in Italy in 1953, something that becomes part of a present-day drama?” I didn’t know what that thing might be, so I wrote in order to find out.


LEADING MEN jumps through several different time periods, one of which features an aging Anja in possession of a manuscript for Tennessee’s “final play,” Call It Joy – which you created and included in full. What was it like trying to channel one of America’s most famous playwrights, particularly during his period of decline?

I put off writing Call It Joy for as long as I possibly could, almost convincing myself that I didn’t need its full text in the novel. But given how much of Leading Men’s plot hinges on its production, and, given the opportunity it gave me to let Williams “speak” about Frank one final time through this imaginary play, I knew I had no choice but to include it. In retrospect, it would have been cowardly not to give readers the play in its entirety. I hope Williams fans and scholars will forgive me for my audacity—that they will see Call It Joy not as a parody but as an homage.

For the play’s content, I actually plagiarized myself: the story of a well-meaning bartender who tricks Williams into taking home a Frank Merlo look-alike in 1982 is the plot of that flawed short story I wrote back in my MFA program. I just needed to work up the courage to turn this content from a half-baked Castellani short story to a late one-act by the then desperate, and then brain-addled, Tennessee Williams. I tried hard to make it a “failed play” that was still readable and that still pushed the plot of Leading Men forward. I wanted it to mean something different to each character: to Tenn, to Anja, and to the young men who convince Anja to mount it in Provincetown.


Many alternative history books focus on respected literary figures, such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (Virginia Woolf) and Colm Toíbín’s The Master (Henry James). However, LEADING MEN concentrates on Frank instead of Tennessee. Why did you decide to write about the man behind the man?

The short answer is that I found the question of Frank’s “double closet” vastly more compelling than any of the questions I had about the inner life of Tennessee Williams. Williams nakedly and poetically explored his demons and obsessions in his work (often, by the way, in the voices of actresses like Anja Bloom); biographers and critics have then insightfully explored them in their biographies and reviews. But what about Frank’s inner life? What about how it felt to be not only the nearly invisible partner of the great artist, but one without any sort of legal or societal legitimacy? I wanted to give Frank Merlo—my interpretation of him, at least—a louder voice, and I wanted him to be recognized and remembered not only for his contribution to Williams’s career, but for his essential value as a human being who died too young, before his own ambitions and desires could be fully realized. And, finally, I related to his status as a working-class son of immigrants and I wanted to dramatize how a man like this—who was also an autodidact, an aesthete, and a fun-loving extrovert—navigated the lofty and elite and exclusive literary world.


Tennessee and Frank were constantly surrounded by celebrities, many of whom make an appearance in the book. If you were in Tennessee’s crowd, who would you have liked to get to know?

That’s an easy one: Anna Magnani, who’s been called the “volcanic earth mother of all Italian cinema.” I had the most fun writing the scenes in Leading Men where she makes an appearance. I love her fire and honesty and integrity and confidence, and I’d give anything to have been there each morning in Rome when she called up Frank and Tenn to say, “Ciao ciao, what’s the program?” She and Frank always got along particularly well, and I have a feeling we would have, too.

My second choice would have to be Truman Capote, of course, though I fear I’d be too intimidated by his fierce brain and his vicious wit to be able to say a word in his presence. I rewrote his dialogue in Leading Men at least a hundred times.


The three central characters in the book—Frank, Tennessee, and Anja—all struggle with the double-edged sword of fame, and deal with their notoriety (or lack thereof) in different ways. What made you want to explore this theme, and how does it relate to the book’s title?

Fame is a tricky business, of course—anxious but addictive, more lonely than liberating. It seems to destroy more people than it sustains. We all think we’d handle it better if only we had a crack at it. What we really crave, though—all of us, the famous and the ordinary—is not so much the fortune that notoriety might bring, but for it to convince us that we matter, that our time on earth had some impact. It’s not just a need to be loved, though that’s certainly part of it, it’s a need to be seen, to be valued for our uniqueness. What better subject to explore in a novel?

Williams enjoyed his fame immensely, but it certainly did more to exacerbate his neuroses than it did to alleviate them. His successes bedeviled him as much, if not more, than his failures did. He worked every day, simultaneously convinced he’d never write anything great again and that the next project was the one that would get him back on top. His legitimacy and relevance were always at stake, always precarious, primarily because he’d achieved so much of both early in his career. Frank had a front-row seat to this show, and the misery it often caused Tenn, and yet he still wanted a piece of it for himself, to be more than a minor player on the set. He wanted to be convinced of his leading role not only in Tenn’s life, but in his own. I saw his unique position as a man in the shadow of a great artist as an extreme version of the desire we all have to measure our own significance against something or someone.

At first glance, Anja might appear to be a different creature. She didn’t ask for fame, and, after she achieved some degree of it, she willingly gave it up to live as a recluse. But she struggles with the same questions of purpose and identity, especially after she finds herself completely alone after Pieter’s death. When Sandrino comes to town offering her a piece of her past, she is seduced as much by his company as by a return to a time of greater possibility. The boys’ attempt to convince her to produce and direct and star in Call It Joy is another form of that seduction. It’s not fame and fortune she’s after—she’s already got plenty of that—it’s to play her own leading role in someone’s life again.

Frank and Tennessee were together during the mid-twentieth century, a more repressive time for gay couples. The book examines the nature of same-sex relationships—both then and now—and pays homage to queer spaces, including Provincetown. What did you want to explore here, and what relevance do you think Frank and Tennessee’s relationship has to our current moment?

Though we live in the age of federally recognized same-sex marriage, and of increased protections and so-called acceptance of queer lives (however illusory or precarious they are in the current political climate), the truth is that queer people continue to set our own unique terms for our relationships, just as Frank and Tenn did in the fifties and sixties. In the meantime, we continue to create and nurture queer communities like the one still going strong in Provincetown, places that exist alongside but distinct from other communities.

I am surrounded by men in long-term relationships with each other, but no two relationships look exactly alike or define themselves by the same set of rules or codes. Frank says in Leading Men that he doesn’t know what to call his relationship with Tenn; he can only define it in relation to heterosexual marriage and to the examples set by the same-sex couples around him (Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy, and Jack Burns and Sandro Nencini). He struggles to find the right metaphor to describe this other thing he has with Tenn, which is different from what these other men have with each other, and what straight people seem to have. I think that if Frank were alive today, he’d struggle just as much, and perhaps more, to fit his and Tenn’s notion of a relationship into a tidy definition. Queer people are still inventing ourselves and exerting a kind of pressure on cultural norms, a pressure that didn’t begin or end either in the fifties or sixties or with the political gains of the last twenty years.

I was equally interested in the queer relationship that Anja and Sandrino develop over the course of the novel—a relationship that surprised me even as I was writing it. The two have a frisson that isn’t sexual, but also isn’t not sexual, especially when it is triangulated by Trevor. She describes the simultaneous unease and thrill of conducting the current between the two men. She’s attracted to Provincetown not just because Frank and Tenn met there, but because it’s a place that recognizes and celebrates such asymmetry. I like that she challenges the gay men in her life to see her in her full humanity and not as a stop on the way to self-actualization. On a personal note, I want to say that, in creating Anja, I channeled the lifelong friendships I and virtually every gay man I know have had with the women who’ve loved us unconditionally, who took us in when our families rejected us, who spent countless hours with us trying to solve the puzzle of the male mind and heart. It felt very right to me to make Anja a central figure in her own right and not one who is simply defined by the men who helped shape her life.

***

Leading Men is the kind of fiction that appeals to a wide audience and is perfect to recommend for readers of Paula McLain, Michael Cunningham, and Jess Walter. "This is a tale of love and loneliness, the personal costs of genius and its attendant fame, and of the ultimate, inconsolable pain of loss. In its depiction of Americans in Europe, its closest literary cousin might be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night." —Library Journal

To start reading Leading Men, click  to view or download an excerpt.

Leading Men touches on themes that will interest reading groups, from co-dependence and same-sex relationships to the nature of "greatness" in artists. Click for a Reading Group Guide to engage your discussions.

 


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