Leading Men ~ A Capsule Book Review

Leading Men ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Tennessee Williams was the greatest American playwright of the twentieth century. He was a Southern gentlemen with a charming accent, a homosexual, a gadabout, a world traveler, a party animal, a wit and a genius. He drank to excess and took too many pills. He was as sexually promiscuous as his fame, wealth and position allowed. For about fifteen years, he had one live-in lover, one Frank “Frankie” Merlo, who was ostensibly an “assistant” whose principal duties were “sleeping with Mr. Williams” and doing whatever job needed doing.

Frank Merlo had little going for him other than his good looks and imposing physique. He wasn’t “connected,” wealthy or well educated. He had the idea that he wanted to be a movie actor but was never able to quite pull it off. (His one big chance came in Italy with Italian movie director Luscino Visconti, but his part was ultimately eliminated.) He was about ten years younger than Tennessee Williams (or “Tenn” as is he mostly known throughout this book).

Leading Men, by Christopher Castellani, is a mix of fact and fiction, real-life people and fictional constructs. Among the real-live people in the book are the two main characters, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo; fellow American writer Truman Capote; Italian actress Anna Magnani; now-forgotten American novelist John Horne Burns; Italian movie director Luscino Visconti.

Anja Blomgren (later changed to Bloom) is a major character in the book, but she is a fictional character. She is only seventeen years old in 1953 when Tenn and Frank befriend her on their summer in Italy. After 1953, she is taken up by a famed Swedish movie director, one Martin Hovland (again a fictional character), and becomes a big movie star, always remaining friends with Tenn and Frank until their deaths. As an old woman, Anja Bloom propels the modern-day story. It seems that Tenn, right before he died in 1983, gives her the only copy of his last play, Call It Joy. This play has never seen the light of day until Anja decides, at the urging of two young, gay men, Sandro and Trevor, both Tennessee Williams aficionados, to stage it.

So, Leading Men moves back and forth from the past to the present. A lot of the past concerns Tenn and Frank in Italy in the summer of 1953 and their friendship with Anja Bloom. It is mostly the story of the stormy and co-dependent relationship between these two very different men. Frank longs to be an “artist” but always remains on the fringes of the artists’ colony. He is a member only because of his relationship with Tenn.

In later years (but also part of the chapters in the book dealing with the past) Frank develops lung cancer. For two people who spent as many years together as Frank and Tenn did, Tenn isn’t nearly as attentive to Frank as he should be after he becomes ill. He always seems to be galivanting off, pursuing his own interests, while Frank remains in the hospital, every day getting worse and closer to death.

Leading Men is only partly effective for me as a reader. The story of the relationship between Frank and Tenn is interesting and compelling, as is the story of the trajectory of Tenn’s life as a great writer, but a large part of the book is taken up with Anja Bloom and her gay friends Sandro and Trevor and their efforts to bring Tenn’s fictional last play, Call It Joy, to the forefront. I would have preferred if the story had focused exclusively on Tenn and Frank and their coterie of real-life friends, instead of on these fictional characters and fictional situations. The second half of the book doesn’t seem worthy of the first half. On the whole, however, Leading Men is worth reading and has enough good stuff in it to make it worth the time and effort.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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