By MICHAEL SNYDER
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.
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.”
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.