Without question, Tennessee Williams was one of the greatest playwrights, not just while alive, but during all of America's history.
His unparalleled ability to create scenes, and tell stories with a raw, natural edge was one of this greatest gifts.
Yet apart from his accomplishments, he was a man who struggled with inner demons.
He fought addictions that led to a downward spiral in his career, and he often lived a lonely life.
He is also a large and important part of Key West history. He lived, painted and loved in Key West. He enjoyed toasting the sun a fond farewell at Mallory Square's nightly Sunset Celebration.
He wrote plays, stories and poems during his time in Key West. In fact it was during a stay at the La Concha Hotel that "A Streetcar Named Desire," one of the more famous Tennessee Williams plays, was finished.
Financial Agreement With Warner Distribution For
"A Streetcar Named Desire"
It was during the years from 1971 through to 1977 that Victor Campbell, friend, confidant, and last lover, lived with him in his home at 1431 Duncan Street, Key West. This is the home that Tennessee had purchased in the late 1940's with his long time lover Frank Merlo.
Beginning in 1972, Victor Campbell and Tennessee Williams also began to spend considerable time in New Orleans, LA. In 1960, Tennessee had purchased a luxury apartment building, and they frequently stayed in one of the larger units during their years together.
They also spent considerable time abroad. To help satiate Tennessee Williams penchant for travel, they enjoyed extensive excursions around the world, visiting with notable friends.
Even though much was shared over the years, when it came to writing, Tennessee Williams worked alone. He would visualize the various scenes in his head, arranging the characters, and then transcribing his visions onto manuscript. Occasionally Victor would watch this master at work, but Tennessee Williams writing was solitary.
Even though Victor never assisted Tennessee Williams with his writing projects, the two men did undertake one momentous project together. That project is the basis of this interview, and the foundation of Victor's two manuscripts, along with a movie scheduled for production in 2013.
It was during this time that Tennessee Williams taxed Victor Campbell with an important mission. A mission fully outlined decades in advance. A plan that was to begin it's implementation in the year 2000.
Victor kept his word to his dear friend, and the path that was first laid out in 1971 will soon reach completion.
Victor Campbell At Tennessee Williams Home In Key West
The purpose of this interview is to share a fresh look at the life of
one of America's greatest writers. Only someone who knew him closely
and intimately would be capable of providing this degree of insight.
That person is Victor Campbell. A man Tennessee Williams cared for so
deeply, that he developed plans and made arrangements so Victor, at the
agreed upon time, would move out on his own. He wanted him to be able
to begin a life without living in the shadows of his fame.
As such, their agreement was not to mention each other so that Victor could return to a life of normalcy. This would allow him to live life unhindered, without the media, until it was time to begin the special, secret project they had collaborated on together.
Here is our interview with Victor Campbell, last lover, friend and trusted confident of Tennessee Williams.
FKV: First of all Victor, I'd like to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us. One of the first things I'd like to discuss with you is Tennessee's name.
I know Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III. His family had close ties to the State of Tennessee, and his grandfather was an alumnus of the University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee. Did he choose this moniker for himself, or did his beloved grandfather give it to him?
VC: Back when he was a younger man, in the early to middle 1930's, he went by the name of Tom Williams when he was writing poetry and short stories. But then he was discovered, and he wanted to find an appropriate pen name, one that would have matching initials for Tom Williams.
He had a strong family history in Tennessee of politicians and so forth, so eventually in the mid-1930's he decided on Tennessee Williams. The initials matched and worked with his sense of family history.
Tennessee Williams With The Nanny Who Cared For Him And Rose
FKV: Now let's put into perspective your relationship and life with
Tennessee Williams, create a timeline so to speak. You were his last
lover, how many years were you and he together?
VC: We met in 1970 when I was 21 and he was 59 and he died 5 years after I left. My leaving was part of our plan. I was to go out on my own, go into the woodwork so to speak, and in the year 2000 I was to start what we called "the project", or as I refer to it, the "secret project".
I started the project as planned by opening the time capsule which was a large samsonite suitcase. He bought the suitcase in February of 1971 in Key West when he brought me in on the project as he called it. A number of items went into it to be kept until the year 2000, and then unveiled. He also told me that I was to write a book, and then eventually do a movie on it.
But going back to how many years I was actually with him. In January, 1971 I moved to his house in Key West and I was with him until the end of 1977. Sometime in the middle of 1977 he and I went to Paris for our last time together.
It was then in the latter part of 1977 that I moved
to a small Florida town called Punta Gorda. I went to work for a
newspaper there, and of course we kept in communication by telephone
calls, until he died at the Elysee Hotel. Phone was our means of
communication from 1977 until he died in 1983.
I also want to reiterate that this was part of his plan, to stay with him so many years, and eventually move out and into my own life.
Tenneesse Williams With Anna Maganni
FKV: So in
essence, you're the keeper of the secrets or the keeper of the light.
Bringing forth everything at the agreed upon time.
VC: Yes so to speak. I was supposed to begin this project in 2000. Until then I didn't speak much of him over the years. My close friends knew of our history, but that was part of the plan, to pop up in the year 2000. Towards that end I completed the 2 manuscripts, and the first one entitled, "A Blind Man Should Look Where He's Going" was copyrighted in 2001.
Regarding the second manuscript, the last chapter still needs to be written so I can't publish it yet. The last chapter of course is the dedication to Hart Crane, who took his own life in 1932 on the cruise ship.
FKV: Hart Crane was his favorite poet, so was this dedication at sea one of Tennessee Williams wishes?
VC: Yes. That final scene, the tribute and dedication to Hart Crane on the sailboat, Destiny, will be the ending of the second manuscript, and the ending within the movie itself. The plan, devised with Tennessee, was that this final chapter be written at sea during the dedication ceremony.
I also have come up with the correct location of where Hart Crane jumped. Over the years there has much speculation in many books, even in the 70's there was still controversy as to exactly where Hart Crane jumped. Was it before the stop in Havana? Was it after Havana on the way back to New York? I've been able to figure out the exact location of where he jumped, and that's where the tribute and ceremony will be held.
FKV: So that will be the ending of the film. A commemoration and dedication to Hart and Tennessee - sort of a soulful union in a way.
VC: Well yes. Tom gave me some personal items for the time capsule from when he was a young person, that will be given unto the sea at that location where Hart Crane committed suicide.
Christmas Card From The Charlie Chaplin Family
FKV: A question for you about the year 2000. This was the date Tennessee Williams decided on for you to come forward with the release of the time capsule.
What was the reason behind this date? Did it have something
to do with the fact that it was the new millennium? Was there something
specific in his mind that it had to be the year 2000? What was the
reason for this particular year?
VC: Well yes, the new millennium of course was a factor. Back in 1971 Tom brought out, which I still have here, a book published in 1887. The book is called "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy.
The reason Tom wanted me to start the project in the year 2000 is that he based his idea on this book. The book is a fictional account, still published, of a time traveler who was put to sleep in 1887 and then was suddenly woken by a doctor in the year 2000. Tom apparently wanted me to 'go to sleep' so to speak, during my time on my own, and then reawaken in the year 2000 and begin the project.
FKV: It's going to be the anniversary of Tennessee Williams death next year. That will be 30 years since his passing. Is that one of the reasons you're timing the release of the movie for 2013?
VC: In effect, this project began in 2000, but for the production and filming of it, yes. My current phase of the project is looking into e-publishing the first manuscript of which I've sent you several chapters. The movie will be based on both the first and second manuscripts.
FKV: So you're going to be doing the e-book and then the movie. You're thinking the movie won't be out into 2014?
VC: That's hard to say. It will take several months to film the movie. Filming will start in Fort Lauderdale and then we'll be traveling by sailboat to where Tom and I first met which is Coconut Grove. There's a marina there, right adjacent to the downtown Coconut Grove area.
Title Of First Manuscript In Tennessee Williams Handwriting
FKV: Have you decided on the name of the movie?
VC: There's a tentative title on the screen play, but that might be changed later on. The tentative screen play name is "The Shadows of Time". That's also the name of the second manuscript. That's the title that Tom gave me way back when. I also have something else I can send you, the title of the first manuscript written in Tom's hand.
FKV: Yes, thank you. That's such an amazing title. When you do any writing, as you do, you realize how difficult it is to come up with that "just right amount of something special" to totally capture attention. That title is absolutely incredible, it really is.
Something else I'd like to ask you. I was quite interested in one of your chapters that discussed your grandfather's letter. Both you and he had a very strong relationship with your grandfathers.
I was intrigued regarding the letter from your grandfather, that Tom noticed there was an inner meaning you had not captured. He indicated that there was more to the letter than you'd given credence to. Did you ever determine the underlying meaning your grandfather alluded to?
VC: Oh yes, actually that was figured out later that weekend after I had arrived at Tom's in Key West. My grandfather was hinting at my future, that it would be very good and very unusual. I hadn't picked up on that before I met Tom. He was trying to tell me that I would have an interesting and unusual life ahead of me.
FKV: And you have.
VC: Yes, ah-ha.
Tennessee Williams Painting In His Backyard In Key West
FKV: A question about Key West. In some ways it's the center of the universe when it comes to the Florida Keys. It has been, and still is, a major drawing card for many talented people, writers, musicians, artists and others who have called it home.
I know Ernest Hemingway passed away 9 years before you ever met Tennessee, but did these 2 great writers ever meet?
VC: Oh yes, they first met in Cuba back in the 1950's and they got to know each other. They were not what would you call buddies for whatever reason. They respected each others work but they didn't hang out.
FKV: In other words they didn't go fishing together.
VC: No, Tom wasn't into fishing or cabin cruisers, you know small boats. That's one of the reasons it was decided back in 1971 that a sailboat would be used for this project, because he was a stranger to power, it had to be a sailboat.
FKV: Let me ask you this. Tom, or Tennessee Williams rather, was perhaps the most honored literary figure in our nation's history. He's a true icon. But apart from his love for literature, plays, family and friends, and of course his love of travel, what were his hobbies? We know that Hemingway loved to hunt and fish, but what were Tom's other passions?
VC: He was an artist. He loved to paint. I have a photo of him in Key West out on his patio that I can send to you. But he loved to paint.
FKV: Was it water colors that he primarily used?
VC: He used oils but he also used charcoal and pastels, and he did a sketch of me, a drawing. I can send you a photograph of that.
Pastel Portrait Of Victor Campbell By Tennessee Williams
FKV: Thank you. Another question revolves around his struggles. Like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams was plagued with a number of personal demons. He suffered and struggled with alcohol and drugs. He did not have a particularly happy childhood. From what I gather, he also seemed to have a heightened sense of awareness and was very intuitive. Do you feel that the struggles he endured as a child added to these special gifts of his?
VC: Well this goes back to one of the topics that I said I wouldn't discuss because it needs to be covered by the movie, and within the movie there will be a key on how to research this item. I can say though, that when he was 15, his Grandfather took him over to Paris, with Reverend Dakin and group from the church congregation. Without going into details, while there he had his first of many paranormal experiences.
FKV: I see, then let me ask you this. His sister Rose was plagued with mental issues most of her life. Do you think it was a mental condition or was she affected by paranormal circumstances as well?
VC: Tom never mentioned anything about that regarding Rose. They did a lobotomy on her when she was a young person, maybe 20 years old. It was one of the first experimental lobotomies.
I knew Rose quite well. She died in the middle 1990's, but the first time I met Rose was in '71. Tom and I went up to New York and we stayed at the Plaza Hotel for a while. Of course Rose had been in a real nice home where they provide care for people. She came in with a nurse, and she visited with Tom for a few days.
FKV: Did they stay close for the rest of his life?
VC: Oh yes, Rose meant everything to Tom. From childhood right up to the end.
FKV: How did she fare through her life, did she ever become more functional? How did she handle her later years in life?
VC: Well she was always in her own little world, you might say slightly delusional. When I first met her, we had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in New York. That day she thought she was the Queen of England, believe it or not.
FKV: Well you might as well aspire to something high!
VC: No one could pull it off better than Rose. That day she was the Queen of England, it varied from day to day. That was all part of the lobotomy and her mental condition.
FKV: I hate to use the word, but it's appropriate. If you were one of the first "victims" of a lobotomy, which is really what you were, the resulting damage was horrendous. It's impossible to imagine what she endured. Perhaps if they'd foregone the procedure, she'd have been fine with more traditional treatments. It's truly sad.
Gore Vidal, Truman Capote And Tennessee Williams
FKV: So going back to your film project. Have you given any consideration as to who would play the 2 main characters?
VC: Well actually here's the way it's going to be set up as far as the movie. I'm the Storyteller, a Tour Guide if you will, of the various locations for the movie audience. I will perform the tribute and dedication aboard the sailboat Destiny where Hart Crane jumped. I'm the main actor within the movie. There's going to be another person, Dr. Jimmy Star who will with be acting as a companion who asks the questions to keep the dialogue flowing.
There will be other people in the movie as well, but the 2 main people will be myself and Jimmy Star.
FKV: So it's going to be a narrative that documents the release of the time capsule. It will also be an overall review of your years with Tennessee, both while you were together, and after when you kept in touch by phone. Is that correct?
VC: Well there's going to be a lot more to it than that, the on location filming at the various sites of course.
Sailboat Destiny Is Where Dedication To Hart Crane Will Be Held
FKV: It will be a recounting or a retelling of your years spent with Tennessee?
VC: Yes, that's it. It's of our adventure together because that's what it was for both Tom and I.
FKV: That had to be a very special time for both of you.
VC: I'd like to add something to your earlier question. Within the movie, there will be different people along the way at the different locations. I'm going to try and get some of the people, personal friends like Gore Vidal who's just now gone, but I'm going to have some interesting people in the various scenes.
However, the only people going out on the sailboat to the spot where we'll do the dedication, will be the non-sexual companion and myself.
FKV: The dedication to Hart. Is it going to be a combination dedication to him as well as to Tennessee Williams?
VC: No. It's going to be done on Tom's behalf. It was set up, how he wanted it done in the future, which of course is now.
Tennessee Williams At His Apartment,1014 Dumaine St,
New Orleans With A Documentary Film Crew
FKV: Tennessee Williams taxed you with this project and special journey. Obviously because he had a lot of trust in you. You had a very special and strong relationship.
I know you said that he sent you back out on your own.
He didn't want to reference you, so you could have a private life without
the media. I know you indicated that you were his last lover, and I
know you kept in touch over the phone, but did he ever have anyone else
in his life, or were his last years very lonely?
VC: The last 5 years of his life he did have companions with him. He
did like to pay young men for sex, so that part of his life was taken
FKV: But Tennessee Williams never developed another real relationship?
VC: Well he had a couple of friends he would travel with at times, and he had a good friendship with them, but no, he never found another lover.
Victor, Tennessee Williams And Daughter Of Maria Saint Just
So you really were his last lover. One question for you Victor. He
was an amazing playwright. No one can walk this earth and not know some
of the works this man created. But later on in life, the critics
really abused him. His style of writing changed, what happened?
VC: In 1963 Frank Merlo died of incurable lung cancer. They had been together 13, 14 years. At that time Tom went into depression - he was very distraught over the loss of Frank. He turned to a New York doctor whom he nicknamed Doctor Feelgood. He got hooked on speed, along with some other drugs and alcohol and in 1969 he almost died.
He was put into this hospital in St. Louis by his brother Dakin, and they got him off alcohol and drugs. When I met him the next year, he liked his wine but he didn't do any drugs except for the sleeping pill seconal, of which he took one every night because he couldn't sleep.
It was the heavy alcohol and the drugs that affected his writing in the middle of the 1960's.
After I left him in 1977 I went over to Punta Gorda. I bought a small house and lived there until about 10 years ago when I left Punta Gorda. After I left him, I found out that he was starting to get depressed again, you know, because he was alone. He started drinking a bit more again. During the years I was with him, he didn't take any drugs except for the seconal and of course he liked to drink his wine.
FKV: So it was the fact that he started drinking again that his writing style changed.
VC: Well that probably had something to do with it. You get a little lonely, a little depressed, you might not work your best.
FKV: I know he really took a beating by the critics.
Frank Merlo As A Young Man In Their New York City Apartment
What else can you tell us about this project, this film that you're
working on? I think we now have a good idea of the intent. It's
something you and Tennessee Williams determined needed to be released in the future.
These are things that are not just relevant to your and his
relationship, these are things that he had from before. That he wanted
people to know about him, after the fact. Is that correct?
VC: Yes. The way it was planned back then, was that I would start the project in the year 2000. I'd write the manuscripts from the journals, because he had me keep a diary. That's why I can pull out this information that's 40 years old, and it's why I was able to write the manuscripts so quickly. It's because of these special journals that I've kept for decades.
FKV: I know there are many topics you can't
or won't discuss because you don't want to expose information that
rightfully should be saved for the film.
VC: Yes. As you know, in any kind of a story, if you take a little piece towards the middle or the end and the people don't know the story prior, they can interpret the meaning incorrectly.
FKV: That's exactly right. You need to have the process go from the start to finish.
VC: It's 40 years, a little over 40 years ago that I've been keeping this under wraps.
Tennessee Williams And Gore Vidal Were Close Friends
FKV: I imagine over the years you've given it a lot of thought too.
VC: Well actually I've thought very little about it, because everything I needed to do was worked out in the '70's. And of course I had those special journals to work with.
FKV: It's quite a privilege to have had him tax you with this project, and it's a journey you're taking as part of your commitment to him.
VC: Yes, it's a part of my history.
FKV: If you could see Tennessee Williams now, if there was one last thing you could say to him, what would that be?
VC: (Very cheerfully) Good Morning!
FKV: (Laughing) Good Morning! I like that!
Out of all the memories you have with Tennessee Williams, and I know there are many, what would be your most momentous memory?
VC: Well, there are so many. I've never really thought about it. Hmm, ah. OK. The first time, at the "La Moon Villas" motel there in Coconut Grove after we went out that Sunday in my little volkswagen I was charmed by him.
Of course I didn't know him except for that Sunday, and I didn't know much about poetry. But while we sat in his room he read some poetry to me and then, I'm paraphrasing he said, "Victor, I don't want to be alone in this motel room."
I replied that I had to work tomorrow. He then said, "I have this shadow that follows me, and it's called loneliness."
What he was doing was inviting me to spend the night with him. I had to go to work first thing the next morning, Monday morning, at Southern Bell telephone so I couldn't spend the night. I left about 11:00 that night. But I was charmed by his conversation and the poetry.
A Casual Tennessee Williams In Italy
FKV: Tennessee Williams had such a way with words. Tell us Victor, without taking away from
you're going to reveal in your manuscripts or your movie, what is the
one thing that you don't think people know about him that they should
VC: Well of course that wouldn't be his gay life because that was known way back when. In fact that was revealed on national TV on the Dick Cavett Show. Dick Cavett asked Tom about his homosexuality, and Tom had to think about it for awhile. He then said "Let's just say I've covered the waterfront." Of course the audience laughed.
Now back to your question, well there's the paranormal that is discussed in the manuscripts and the movie. Of course he loved to laugh, that was very typical of him, and he liked to be entertained.
FKV: I heard his laugh on your video, it's incredibly robust and catchy.
Victor, I'd like to thank you for sharing this portion of your life
with us. The time you had with Tennessee Williams was obviously very
Plus there's this project that you and he developed together. You'll soon be able to bring it to completion, and there are many people looking forward to the various revelations you've alluded to. His paranormal experiences, and other interesting aspects of his life.
As you continue on this journey that you and he planned together in 1971, we wish you the very best.