Editorial note: I received a copy of Leading Men in exchange for a review.
Leading Men by Christopher Castellani is a rich tale that is moving and thought-provoking. Take a break from fast-paced thrillers and spend some time with this one.
I was fortunate to have many fantastic English teachers in my hometown. One particular highlight was my junior year when we read and analyzed plays. This is where I was introduced to Tennessee Williams’ work. I’ll never forget feeling absolutely memorized by A Streetcar Named Desire—once I finished it, I immediately re-read the play. We then analyzed it against the film version and I was hooked. One of those moments that will always stick with me.
So when I found out the premise for Leading Men revolved around the love affair of Tennessee Williams and his longtime partner Frank Merlo, I had to read it. Despite being a fan of his work, I hadn’t dived much into Tennessee’s inspiration behind his writing. And this well-researched novel provided plenty of insights of both his professional and personal life. But I was much more engaged with Frank’s story, a blue-collar truck driver from New Jersey who loved Williams almost to a fault.
It’s July 1953 in Portofino, Italy. A young Truman Capote throws a party for the literary elite, drawing Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo. This is where they meet the fictional Anja Blomgren, a young Swedish actress they decide to take under their wing, which sets a motion of events that will alter all three of their lives. Leading Men is a quiet look at the man behind Williams and what it means to stand in someone’s shadow and to sacrifice your own wants. It’s also about the consequences of words left unsaid.
An interesting true-life aspect is that during their fifteen-year romance, Williams wrote all his great plays (including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). They are estranged at the time of Frank’s death in 1963 and Williams never wrote another hit.
In the author’s note, Castellani discusses one of the reasons he focused on this relationship:
“I kept asking myself, what was the alchemy between these two very different men that produced such transcendent classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real and others? How must it have been for Frank to live in the shadow of that genre-defining artist, playing his supporting role, deferring his own dreams?”
For instance, in an early scene at Capote’s party, Frank observes how people will look past him in hopes of finding someone more “important.” This is a behavior Frank grew accustomed to. At that point, everything in Frank’s life was about Williams’ work, plus his wants and desires.
Frank comes across as a good man with this inner desire to help people. But someone can only take playing second or third fiddle to a superstar for so long. And he starts to get restless simply being Williams’ partner. But yet, as soon as Frank receives a sliver of hope at acting, it’s immediately taken away. Even with knowing the tragic turn that Frank’s life took, Castellani takes great care in showing all his different layers, and most of all, his unflinching goodness. It’s one of those times where fiction truly brings someone back to life.
This novel is rich with historical details but I would classify it as literary fiction. The narrative does not follow a traditional structure as there are jumps in time and storylines. While this structure did not bother me, I could see it being confusing for some. I will say even though Anja is a compelling character, we do spend quite a bit more time than I liked focused on her perspective. As I read it, I started to miss Frank’s storyline in Italy. This is just a small criticism though as the overall story is engaging.
Keep in mind, this isn’t one you’ll read in one sitting —but one to spend time with. If you have any curiosity about the inspiration behind Tennessee Williams’ greatest work and also enjoy literary fiction, this is a good pick for you.