overview

The painter Buffie Johnson purchased this building in 1943 and lived here until 1950, though she owned the property until 1970. Johnson was a major figure in the post-World War II art scene and 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 in 1948 and 1950-51.

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

History

The New York City-born artist Buffie Johnson (1912-2006) was a notable 20th-century painter whose career spanned over seven decades. She worked in a variety of styles, ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Surrealism. Her work was exhibited in galleries in the city and in Europe, including the Betty Parsons Gallery, at 15 East 57th Street (demolished), which was run by Betty Parsons, an influential art collector and painter who was an early promoter of Abstract Expressionist painters. Johnson’s paintings are now in the collections of several major museums, including the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.

In 1943, she purchased the narrow building at 235 East 58th Street and, in 1947, worked with her friend, architect Tony Smith, to remodel the ground floor behind the storefront, which stretched to the rear of the lot. According to a 1948 article, “A Painter Remodels A Ground Floor,” in Harper’s Bazaar, the space featured Johnson’s studio and several living spaces, including her bedroom that overlooked a tiny roofed courtyard in the rear.

Johnson befriended many notable artists and writers, including those in the LGBT community, such as Truman CapoteGreta GarboGertrude SteinAlice B. ToklasGore VidalVirgil Thomson, and Andy Warhol. In the early 1940s, Johnson was married briefly to one John Latham; from 1950 to 1973, she was married to the art critic and writer Gerard Sykes (she and Sykes moved to the Hamptons in 1950, but Department of Finance records indicate that she held onto the 58th Street property until 1970).

One of Johnson’s best known paintings is a 1947 portrait of her friend, playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). In 1948 and again in late 1950-1951, Johnson rented the 58th Street apartment to Williams, who lived there with his partner Frank Merlo. (In The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume II, a September/October 1950 letter written by Williams notes that his grandfather likened the interior of the 58th Street apartment to a “Curiosity Shop.”) Their time here appears to have been brief; on the second occasion, Williams was in the city for the production of his play The Rose Tattoo (1950), which had its Broadway premiere at the Martin Beck Theater in 1951 and for which he won the Tony Award for Best Play. He dedicated the play to Merlo.

Williams is considered 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. Williams and Merlo were together 14 years, until Merlo’s death in 1963.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: unknown
  • Year Built: at some point between 1867 and 1892

Sources

  1. “A Painter Remodels a Ground Floor,” Harper’s Bazaar, Vol. 82, Iss. 2836, April 1948, 152-153.

  2. Albert J. Devlin, ed., The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume II (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2004), 350-351.

  3. Alexandra de Lallier, “Buffie Johnson: Icons and Altarpieces to the Goddess,” Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1982), 29-34.

  4. Hilton Als, “The Man who Queered Broadway,” The New Yorker, October 9, 2014, bit.ly/30Jvlez.

  5. John S. Bak, Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2013).

  6. “Kiss of Life: Tennessee Williams on a Romantic Reawakening”, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007, bit.ly/2xvmXT3.

  7. Margalit Fox, “Buffie Johnson, Artist and Friend of Artists, Dies at 94”, The New York Times, September 6th, 2006, nyti.ms/329YUHf.

  8. Sarah Schulman, “Making Lesbian History Possible: A Proposal,” OutHistory, June 6, 2016, bit.ly/30goZTm.

  9. Tracy Boyd, “The Artist’s Houses: A Brief Remembrance,” Buffie Johnson, 2009, bit.ly/32caTnC.

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