overview

The artist and painter Buffie Johnson purchased this building in 1943 and lived here until 1950. Johnson was a major figure in the post-World War II art scene who socialized with many of the era’s most notable artists and writers.

She leased the first floor to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived here with his long-term partner Frank Merlo from 1948 until the early 1950s.

Header Photo

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017.

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History

Buffie Johnson Residence
Buffie Johnson (1912-2006) was a notable 20th-century painter who worked in a variety of styles, ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Surrealism. Her career was prolific and spanned over seven decades. Johnson’s work was partially influenced by Carl Jung (whom she knew personally) and his theory of archetypes. Her paintings are in the collections of several major museums, including the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Johnson was also known for befriending many notable people, including Truman Capote, Willem de Kooning, Lawrence Durrell, Greta Garbo, Gene Krupa, Gypsy Rose Lee, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Gore Vidal, and Andy Warhol. She was married twice, first to John Latham and later to the art critic and writer Gerald Sykes. Johnson also had relationships with women, including influential writer Patricia Highsmith, who was then in the early stages of her career.

Johnson purchased the building at 235 East 58th Street for $2,000 in 1943. The building had fallen into a state of decay, so she enlisted a friend, Tony Smith (a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright) to complete a creative restoration. Together with Smith she created a “wonder-filled paradise” that mirrored the paintings she was working on at the time. An aviary with 13 canaries filled the living room.

“There were sea shells and whalebones, and objets d’art of every description placed carefully about, some of which were in the process of becoming subjects in her paintings, and everywhere the eye rested, there was a perfect little still-life to behold.”
Tracy Boyd, 2009

Johnson was close friends with playwright Tennessee Williams, and she painted a portrait of him in the summer of 1947 that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. In 1950, Johnson moved to a house in the Hamptons. She continued to own the property at 235 East 58th Street until 1970.

Tennessee Williams Residence
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was born in Mississippi as Thomas Lanier Williams, and changed his name to Tennessee in 1938. Williams is considered by many to be one of the foremost playwrights of the 20th century. He was best known for works such as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the latter two of which earned him Pulitzer Prizes. Many of Williams’ plays were performed in Broadway theaters with LGBT creators, set designers, and actors.

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh no, it is curved like a road through mountains.”
Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

Williams leased the first floor of 235 East 58th Street from 1948 until the early 1950s, as his renown took off. It was while living here that he won the 1950 Tony Award for Best Play for The Rose Tattoo.

Williams met Frank Merlo in 1947 and dedicated The Rose Tattoo to him in 1950. They lived in the East 58th Street residence together, and Merlo enlisted Johnny Nicholson (owner of the iconic bohemian Cafe Nicholson) to help decorate the place. Williams referenced the “Victorian Chic” style of the apartment’s furnishings in the stage setting of his one-act play A Cavalier for Milady (1979). Williams and Merlo were together until Merlo’s death in 1963.

This entry was written by project consultant Sarah Sargent.

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