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JAMES LEO HERLIHY
The Midnight Cowboy in Key West

04/29/2010  by Arlo Haskell  15 Comments
 

By MICHAEL SNYDER

James Leo Herlihy in Key West. Photo by Bud Lee.

James Leo Herlihy in his backyard with friends, Key West, 1960s. All photos by Bud Lee. © Bud Lee / The Serge Group

James Leo Herlihy was born in Detroit in 1927 and raised there and in Chillicothe, Ohio. He lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and, off and on from 1957 to 1973, in Key West, where he became “captivated,” finding it “a wonderful place to work and write.”

“The town excited me too much,” Herlihy told Key West Literary Seminar co-founder Lynn Kaufelt. “I spent all my time exploring, walking the streets. The place was mysterious, funky, indescribably exotic. It had much of the charm of a foreign country, but you had the post office and the A&P and the phone worked, so life was easy.” Key West was still “a pretty well-kept secret,” neither a tourist favorite nor a literary and cultural hotspot: “Nightlife was delightful, totally unsophisticated, nonliterary.”

Herlihy’s work brought him celebrity in his own time. Like his close friend and mentor Tennessee Williams, Herlihy was a gay author whose works delved into taboo subjects and broke new ground for what was acceptable to major publishers. His 1958 play Blue Denim confronted teenage sexuality and abortion and was praised in a newspaper column by Eleanor Roosevelt. His novels were acclaimed by writers like William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Nelson Algren, and Williams, who praised Herlihy’s writing as “luminous,” “true,” and “perfect,” hailing him as the most significant new writer since Carson McCullers. His novel Midnight Cowboy was made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman, and won an Academy Award for Best Picture despite being given an “X” rating.

James Leo Herlihy & Tennessee Williams. Photo by Bud Lee.

Herlihy (seated) with Tennessee Williams, a friend and mentor, in front of the travelers' palms at Williams's Duncan Street home.

Key West’s influence on Herlihy is plain from the settings of his fiction. In All Fall Down (1960), the adolescent protagonist Clinton Williams follows his idolized but ne’er-do-well older brother Berry-Berry all the way down to “Key Bonita,” a stand-in for Key West. His 1967 short story “A Story that Ends with a Scream” is set in Key West, as is “Ceremony for the Midget,” in which the midget is an apparition or hallucination symbolizing the spirit of a beloved bar that is closing. “The Day of the Seventh Fire” captures the mood of Key West in the 1930s. And at the end of Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck and Ratso are riding a Greyhound to the sunny Florida of Ratso’s dreams when tragedy strikes.

One of the most exciting things about Key West for Herlihy was the presence of Tennessee Williams. He told Kaufelt, “Before Tennessee had a pool installed, he and I went swimming off the Monroe County pier nearly every summer day at twilight . . . it was inexpressibly comforting to have the daily company of a kindred spirit; just knowing we were involved in the same sort of lunatic pursuit provided some essential ground that meant everything to me.” Williams told Kaufelt of their regular ritual of meeting at County Beach, trading lines from their favorite Wallace Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” before diving in. As late as 1976, when Herlihy’s mother died of cancer, Williams was there for him. Herlihy wrote Paul Bowles that year that he spent three months in Key West with his dying mother: “Tennessee was in Key West during much of that time, and he was enormously considerate. Sent flowers, messages. Cooked for me. Even showed up at the funeral mass, volunteering to act as pallbearer. I was impressed and moved by it all.”

James Leo Herlihy beneath a mango tree.

Herlihy beneath a young mango tree in his backyard.

Along with Williams, Herlihy became part of a circle of friends and lovers in Key West– mostly gay writers and “theater people”– that included James “Jimmy” Kirkwood Jr., co-writer of A Chorus Line and author of cult novels and plays including There Must Be a Pony!; Evan Rhodes, the author of The Prince of Central Park; one-time singer and agent Dick Duane, to whom Herlihy dedicated two of his finest novels, All Fall Down and Midnight Cowboy; and to a lesser extent, visiting writers like Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Author Christopher Isherwood paints the scene in an entry from his diary in August 1959: “(Broadway producer Walter) Starcke came by, en route for Japan and round the world . . . ‘Now I live by grace,’ says Starcke. ‘I live every hour of every day to its fullest.’ Actually he is in Key West, dealing in real estate and having parties with Herlihy and his friend which sometimes go on until morning. Lots of sex.”

In the late 1960s Herlihy became passionately interested in the hippie and anti-war movements. Though of an older generation, Herlihy was both a supporter and “a living participant in the counterculture,” as he told Kay Bonetti. In 1969, Herlihy purchased a cottage at 709 Bakers Lane. “My richest experience of that extraordinary phenomenon called the sixties took place in Key West,” he told Kaufelt. “The Bakers Lane cottage became a kind of ‘safe house’ for the hippies. I protected a fair number of them from the law, who wanted to drive them out of town and we had love-ins and weddings in the garden.” In a January 1969 letter to his old roommate at Black Mountain College, photographer and sailor Lyle Bonge, Herlihy writes, “I made the front pages here this week by sounding off against the police who have been arresting my friends as vagrants when they are nothing of the kind. The publicity resulted in visits from the chief of police . . . and there promises to be a new rapport or at least a stand-off from now on, or for a while, between the so-called hippy contingent and the fuzz.”

Herlihy had always been attracted to those on the fringes: “What made me so happy with those beautiful creatures was the sense they gave me that the marginal people to whom I’d been drawn all through my life were suddenly having a heyday,” he told Kaufelt. “We’ve learned since then that it wasn’t as simple as all that, but for a time, at least, the freaks really did have the establishment on the run, and nothing’s been the same since.”

By the start of the 1970s, the combination of Herlihy’s celebrity and local reputation as protector of the longhairs led to him feeling overwhelmed and desirous to leave Key West. The growing tourist industry was another factor. It was simply getting too hard to work. From California he wrote Lyle Bonge in 1973 that he was going under the name of Jamie Hathaway (a family name) in an attempt to lay low: “I’m trying not to repeat the errors of Key West where I had finally become such a public entity there wasn’t much for me to chew on.” In 1972 he purchased a farm in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania with the idea of establishing a communal lifestyle for himself and friends like his mentor from Black Mountain, potter and author M.C. Richards. He sold his Bakers Lane home in 1973.

Although he left Key West hoping to find a situation more conducive to his writing, Herlihy would never publish another work of fiction after leaving it. He lived mostly in Los Angeles, in Hollywood and Silver Lake. He unfolded ideas in letters and worked on manuscripts including a historical novel of the Midwest and a biography of eccentric artist Henry Faulkner, but these projects never came to fruition. He acted in several plays and movies, including the 1981 Four Friends, directed by a classmate from Black Mountain, Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn. Herlihy’s character in the film, a neurotic father, commits suicide in a shocking scene; sadly, more than a decade later, life would imitate art. Herlihy took his own life in October 1993.

Michael Snyder lives in Norman, Oklahoma, where he received his doctorate and teaches American literature at the University of Oklahoma. He is planning a book-length critical biography of James Leo Herlihy and is revising his dissertation on James Purdy for a book to be published by a university press.
Bud Lee was U.S. Military Photographer of the Year in 1966 and Life Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1967. More of his groundbreaking work from the 1960s-1990s can be found here and here.
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15 Responses

  1. mike gushee says:

    Lived and worked there from 1978 to 1994….
    sorry that the costs eventually forced me from
    the Keys up to Sebring,Fl….but they were the
    greatest years of my life,even though down there,
    ;;The times they were a changing”.
    Still miss the Key West of the good ol’days.
    Mike Gushee

  2. Beverley Kerkes says:

    My parents bought James Herlihy’s childhood Detroit home from his mother and father in 1956. I was a 12 year old budding writer (mostly intensely weepy poems about unrequited love) and inherited the bedroom that had been his. My sister got the bedroom that had been his brothers’. He wasn’t yet a famous author but I remember being quite awed a few years later when I realized who had written Blue Denim and Midnight Cowboy. His parents visited with my mom and dad quite often over the years. I guess maybe they wanted to see their old home again. The house is gone now–vandalized many years ago and finally torn down. Wish I could have met James. His parents were very nice people.

    • Joe Herlihy says:

      I was James Leo Herlihy’s nephew. He was my father’s brother. Very interesting to hear this since I have really no connection to the family anymore. Everyone has passed away from that generation.

      • Beverley Kerkes says:

        Joe, If you would like a description of the house and neighborhood let me know. I would really like to talk to you about some strange occurences that happened in that upstairs bedroom. Is your father still alive? Would sure like to ask him some questions. You can reach me at bevkerkes@yahoo.com. Hope to hear from you.

      • Michael Snyder says:

        Dear Joe,
        Thank you for posting this. I am working on a book on James Leo Herlihy. I would love to talk to you about your family sometime. I have spoken with relatives in Chillicothe, Ohio. Hoping to hear from you.
        Sinerely,
        Prof. Michael Snyder
        msnyder @ occc . edu [remove spaces]

      • Joe, I just came across this site and saw your name. As I recall, your curiosity was insatiable regarding JLH, not sure whether I coaxed your inquisitive mind into dead-ends or some degree of success. While I was profoundly straight, Jamie and I quickly became best of intellectual and social friends – we often held hands under the dinner table to ensure unanimity; I have never met anyone so similar to my mind and character than your uncle. If your curiosity remains, give me a call/email if you are ever near Newport, RI., I might fill in a couple gaps, all in respect for Jamie.

  3. Mary Ann Howard says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article & photos. I came across Mr. Herlihy’s writings after reading that William Inge’s screenplay was based on a James Leo Herlihy novel (All Fall Down). Of course, from there I had to find everything he’d ever written and devour it. I can’t wait to read the biography. And I feel lucky to have landed here and see posts from a former inhabitant of his childhood bedroom and from his nephew.

  4. Rick says:

    I have several letters from Mr. Herlihy from 1987.. I wrote to him thru his agent and he hand wrote me letters back. I still have them. I asked him all kinds of questions about ” Midnight Cowboy” both the novel and the movie.He was kind enough to take the time to write me and I was very impressed with that.

    • Michael Snyder says:

      Hi Rick, I would love to read those letters. Is there any chance you would be willing to make photocopies of them for me?
      Sincerely,
      Michael Snyder
      mkesnyder AT yahoo.com

  5. William Rothlein says:

    I got to know Jamie or James Leo Herlihy as he was known in the mid seventies in Los Angelos. He was a good friend of My friend James Kennedy who passed away one year ago this month. At that time we were working at the Actors Studio in Hollywood. A truly beautiful man, we spent some time together talking about life and the work in film and theatre. Last night watched Midnight Cowboy for the first time since it was released. Tremendous film. It brought back many memories. William Rothlein

  6. Larry Claypool says:

    I remember Baker Lane very well-even lived there in one of the guesthouses separate from the main house for a few months. We definitely had some great times there-(though I was not gay myself whereas most people hanging at jamie’s were) – I still found acceptance and enjoyed many a good acid trip and many lievly a conversation there.

  7. sara ryland says:

    I lived in KW as a child, Mr. Herlihy’s parents , Bill and Grace lived behind us. We visited them often and sat in,their backyard garden. We gave them momentis of grade school and had biscotti for the first time with them. I never knew of James at the time, but we loved them like grandparents as ours lived out of town. Great memories of two very loving people.

  8. Jean Donohue says:

    Hello,

    I’m producing an independent documentary about an underground gay and artist culture in Lexington, KY since the Civil War and some of the characters dead and alive, include Henry Faulkner (painter), Tennessee Williams, Robert Morgan among others. Henry, TW and Jamie Herlihy are part of the stories that are told having impacted a younger generation of gender bending, sexual outlaws, camp, and drag queens.

    I’m looking for images of Key West of the 60s, and anything that might include Henry Faulkner, Williams and Herlihy, houses that may have housed any of them.

    I would be happy to share what I have including oral history.

    best,
    Jean Donohue
    The Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies

  9. Marsa Hightower says:

    I remember well Jamie’s backyard and swinging to the sounds of Donovan. I came to Key West with Walter Starcke, and lived with him on Pearl Street until a dispute landed me on Tennessee’s couch for a brief spell. Watching Space Odyssey 2001 and Yellow Submarine at the theater on Duval with Walter and Jamie. Head Beach and evenings at Capt Tonys. It was a special time.

  10. Brian Antoni says:

    Hey,

    I live in 709 Bakers Lane now and have definately seen Herlihy’s ghost a few times! I love this article. If you are in Key West and want to see the property, let me know. The peep hole is still there

    Thank You,
    Brian Antoni

    b

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