Leading Men

Leading Men

by Christopher Castellani


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An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy

In July of 1953, at a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino, Italy, Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a mysterious young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. Their encounter will go on to alter all of their lives.

Ten years later, Frank revisits the tempestuous events of that fateful summer from his deathbed in Manhattan, where he waits anxiously for Tennessee to visit him one final time. Anja, now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, lives as a recluse in present-day America, until a young man connected to the events of 1953 lures her reluctantly back into the spotlight after he discovers she possesses the only copy of an unknown play—Tennessee's last.

What keeps two people together and what breaks them apart? Can we save someone else if we can't save ourselves? With emotional clarity and grace, Leading Men seamlessly weaves fact and fiction to navigate the tensions between public figures and their private lives. In an ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness, Castellani creates an unforgettable leading lady in Anja Bloom and reveals the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525559078
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/26/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 213,626
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christopher Castellani is the author of three previous novels (the trilogy A Kiss from Maddalena, The Saint of Lost Things, and All This Talk of Love) and The Art of Perspective, a book of essays on the craft of fiction. He is the son of Italian immigrants, a Guggenheim fellow, and the artistic director of GrubStreet, one of the country's leading creative writing centers. He lives in Boston.


Arlington, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

December 7, 1972

Place of Birth:

Wilmington, Delaware


B.A., Swarthmore College, 1994; M.A./A.B.D., Tufts University, 1998; M.A., Boston University, 1999

Read an Excerpt



the little horse

Truman was throwing a party in Portofino, and Frank wanted to go. The invitation came in mid-July, slipped between parentheses in the long, gossipy paragraphs of his letter to Tenn, as if daring him to acknowledge it. Frank read the letter in Tenn's absence. He'd been stuck for weeks in their stuffy fourth-floor apartment on Via Firenze, waiting for him to get back from Spain, while, on the loud streets below, the real Romans escaped for the mountains. He replied to Truman with a brief telegram, and then he called the finest hotel in town, the Splendido, to book a room. He auditioned various linen jackets and swim trunks and hats in the mirror above the dresser, mended two pairs of Tenn's socks, and walked their silks down to the cleaners. When Tenn returned home to find their bags lined up in the hall, packed for another trip, he didn't protest. He was sweet on Frank again after three weeks apart. A drive in the Jag up the coast of Liguria, far from the melting heart of the centro, could only make things sweeter.

They took one last walk through the Villa Borghese. They followed two boys, the dark one Tenn's, the blond for Frank, down the Spanish steps and out the eastern side to the Corso, pulled along by the smoothness of their elbows. Not a hint of saggy skin on Tenn's boy, his long arms tanned by lazy days on the beach at Ostia, or on Frank's, a Swiss. Who could say where the Swiss got that scar, new and pink across the knob of the elbow, or where he spent his own empty afternoons? Who could say he was a Swiss at all and not from some disappointing place, like Minnesota? Who could say the scar didn't come from an iron fence he'd tumbled over, running from a cuckold in Lugano, his wife in the doorway clutching her robe and pleading for mercy? They could say, Frank and Tenn, walking at a safe distance behind the boys, as they liked so very much to do evenings after dinner those summers they lived in Rome, inventing lives for the Italians, inventing lives for themselves. It's what Tenn was famous for. It was one of the many happy ways they passed their time together.

They brought back the dark one, Mario, to Via Firenze. A Sicilian, like Frank, it turned out, but at least he wasn't American. As he hastily slipped on his espadrilles, color rising in his cheeks, Frank said to him, you've just slept with one of the world's greatest writers, and because Mario had heard of Tennessee Williams, he stayed for the coffee and pastries Frank brought onto the terrace. Soon Mario grew tiresome, as they all did, talking of his mother, who expected him home, who worried-there was always a mother-and they watched with relief as he and his tight elbows descended the stairs.

He wasn't the first Mario, of course. Over the years, they forgot their names, but not their scars or their attitudes or the stories they told as they lay between them late into the night. Sometimes, on their evening walks, the streets sultry and flickering with shadows, they'd spot one of the Marios in a piazza with his pack of friends, laughing, his arm slung over a girl's shoulder. If the Mario noticed them, he'd turn his face away or shoot back a look of defiance and shame and fear, which enlarged them.

They left Rome like this, big as elephants, the heat and storms behind them, the top down on the Jag, for Portofino. Frank slept most of the way, his head on Tenn's lap, and then again on the skiff from Rapallo, though Tenn kept nudging him awake to point out the houses on the cliffs. You like the orange? he asked. The yellow? No, that blue, up top! I'm shopping, Frankie. Any of these can be ours.

Truman had rented an apartment a few steps from the harbor, above the Delfino Restaurant, which Frank and Tenn passed on their way up the hill to the Splendido. Tenn paid the boat guy to carry their luggage, and, when the hill got too steep, Frank grabbed the heavy case with the typewriter. He didn't like it when another guy did work for him that he could do himself, a guy who would have been him if he'd never left Jersey. The Splendido was first a monastero, the boat guy told them, and now look at it, che spettacolo, the place Clark Gable drinks his brandy to a view. Tenn went straight to the desk as usual and Frank arranged their dress shirts on hangers and brought their shoes down for shining and stole another hour for a nap. He'd never felt so tired in the middle of the afternoon, and he chalked it up to being thirty, but it's possible-no doctor was ever able to tell him for sure one way or the other-that the trouble had already started in his lungs. When he woke, Tenn offered him a pill. Tenn had as many pills as Italy had houses on the water. But Frank wasn't taking pills, not then. Instead he smoked another cigarette and paid the boat guy to drive him over the mountain to Paraggi Beach, where he swam to find his strength and clear his head.

They didn't like Truman much, but Frank didn't hate him the way Tenn did. Or maybe Tenn didn't hate Truman. It was hard to know for sure with Tenn. It was a job in itself keeping track of who he was angry with, and who was jealous of him, whose parties he was looking forward to and whose they'd have to make up some excuse to get out of. Frank's official job was as Tenn's secretary, but even his secretary didn't have a reason for being in Portofino other than to stop by Truman's party, and he didn't know when they'd be leaving. There wasn't much Frank knew in the summer of 1953, least of all how long he and Tenn might last.

In those years, there was no such thing as early, late, or on time. They went from place to place on a magic carpet. Dropped here, dropped there. Women in electric dresses, men in monkey suits and bow ties made of white silk. Cognac, cigars, wine. The sky turquoise even when it was gray. Because Tenn had no mind-and little use-for schedules and logistics and coordinates, he needed Frank to organize the day they woke, and the coming days, and even the days before. The dinner they'd had in London, Tenn swore on Mother Edwina's grave they'd had in Chicago. The party for the premiere of Sweet Bird of Youth in Philadelphia he remembered as the one in New Haven for Camino Real. The life of Tennessee Williams was a memory play in which memory was a jumble. It was bodies he remembered, bodies they remembered together. His body and Frank's, the Southern Gentleman and the Little Horse. The bodies of all the Marios, from Key West to Marrakech. When it came to matters of the body, Frank and Tenn trusted each other like soldiers.

At the Delfino, Frank lost track of him the first minute. Tenn couldn't walk into a room without someone sweeping him up and into a crowd. How many times had Frank stood at the edge of the crowd as if on a shore, watching him drift farther and farther out, his head bobbing on the waves, glancing back just once to meet his eyes. How many times had Frank found himself in an overflowing room like this one, greeting guests as they arrived, recognizing their faces from movies and the backstages of theaters. How many times had these people walked in, looked around, saw Frank, saw nobody, spotted a somebody over his shoulder, and then headed upstairs.

A brass band started up. Frank danced with a French girl whose uncle watched from the bar. Girls liked to dance with Frank, and he with them; he had a way with a spin and a twirl and a catch and a bow, and this French girl, she could follow. That wasn't always the case with girls, even the fancy brought-up girls, but dancing with the clomping ones-the Clydesdales, he called them-even that was better than dancing with a guy, which he and Tenn never did anyway, not with each other at least, not even in Provincetown. He saw the world like that a lot then: what he did with Tenn, what he'd done with girls.

He had his hands all over the Frenchy-Martine-until he noticed the uncle giving him the stink-eye. He let her spin into some other man's arms. He brought a whiskey over to the uncle, not bad looking himself once he relaxed and the stink left his eye, and they got to talking. They'd both been at Guadalcanal. They traded stories loud over the music. When it became clear to the uncle that there was no money in Frank for his precious Martine, he took off in a cloud of leathery cologne. It was then and there that Frank first saw Jack Burns.

Frank knew a drunk when he saw one. In a few years, he'd have good reasons to become one himself, to crave that slow blurry kill. That night, he craved only a cigarette and the sea air, but for the air he had to get past the drunk slouched against the doorway of the Delfino. From across the room, in the low smoky light, with the band playing "Lazzarella," he might have mistaken the man for handsome, but as he walked toward him from the bar, into clearer focus came his pink, bloated face, his world-hating mouth, his body heavy and lifeless as a sandbag. Frank stopped, looked him in the eyes, and asked if maybe he'd come to the wrong place.

"This isn't Portofino?"

A man appeared behind him and put his hand on his shoulder, to steady him or claim him or both. "We are here for the party upstairs," the man said to Frank in Italian. "It is privato."

"This is the party, downstairs and upstairs," Frank said in English, using his hands for emphasis. He spoke enough of his parents' native language to converse with the man, but there was no reason to make the effort. "Not as privato as you might expect."

Whatever the Italian then whispered into the drunk's ear had no effect on his scowl. "We drove from Firenze," he said to Frank. He put out his hand. "I am called Sandro. This is John Horne Burns. The novelist."

In just a single night in Portofino, Frank had met Rex Harrison the actor, kissed the cheek of Daisy Fellowes the heiress, eyed the not-so-secret boyfriend of Arturo Lopez-Willshaw the Chilean magnate, and posed for Cecil Beaton the photographer. He had never heard of John Horne Burns the novelist. From the looks of him, Frank doubted anyone else had, either. Truman's parties drew all sorts of hangers-on, parasites, and wannabes, even in this remote little cove at the tip of the peninsula.

"Nice to meet you, John Horne Burns the Novelist," Frank said, more out of politeness to Sandro than affection for the surly fellow.

"Jack," he said.

Frank looked around for Tenn. If he was already upstairs, he wouldn't be down for hours. Upstairs was where the glitter was. The most glitter was hidden behind the closed doors of bedrooms. He and Tenn had once spent an entire party on Maureen Stapleton's king-size bed, the three of them sprawled on the coverlet with their shoes still on passing around a liter of vodka, while her party clinked and boomed on the other side of the door and the glitter-hungry mob banged and shouted to be let in.

"The Gallery," Sandro said. "The great war novel. A great work of American fiction. And two just-as-great novels since."

"Quit it," said Jack.

"Great," said Frank.

"He is modesto," Sandro said. "He is working now on his great fourth novel. I force him this weekend to take a break. I say, go to the party of Truman Capote. We meet him in Firenze in June and last week receive the telegram with this address. Everyone in Italy knows his book, so I say, we take the car and drive to see the little man with the funny voice. Our first time in questo bel posto."

"This place is lousy with writers," Frank said to Jack. "You'll be in good company. Clare Luce is over there. Jack Dunphy." He paused. "Tennessee Williams."

At those glittering names Jack merely rolled his eyes and swayed. "We going in or not?" he said, and headed for the bar.

Sandro turned to Frank. "Please forgive," he said. "He has trouble with his book. He is a great man." Then he rushed to the great man's side.

To get an uncluttered view of the water, Frank followed the stone sidewalk around the bend of the harbor. White yachts crammed the shallow cove, their lights blazing, tinny music pouring from their radios onto their crowded decks. In Portofino in midsummer, Truman's was not the only invitation to be had. It was even possible that these people standing along the railings talking and dancing in pairs had never heard of Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, not to mention John Horne Burns; that they'd never gone to the theater or finished a book or attended the symphony; that they were rich without culture. Frank would rather be poor. He might rather be dead.

A dark-haired woman waved to him from one of the swankier yachts farther out, and for the delicious moment he mistook her for Anna Magnani, he brightened; he lifted his arm to wave back; but she wasn't Anna at all, of course, just another overflowing signora in an evening dress and a smile too big for her face. They'd just left Anna in Rome, and even she in her fierceness didn't pick up and leave without a plan unless she had a new lover, and if she had a new lover she'd have made sure Frank knew. Frank missed Anna. He could talk to her and she would at least make a show of listening before she brought the subject back to herself. In Rome, she called their apartment every morning first thing. "Ciao ciao," she'd say, already in a hurry. "What's the program, ragazzi?" Frank often forgot she was an actress in the big time and not one of his sisters in Peterstown, busting out of her brassiere and squeezing his face with her hands when she needed to get a point through his thick skull.

The buildings in the harbor glowed like giant jewel boxes, pink and yellow and orange. The archways along the curve shone down their own lights, making little stages where people stood on their tiptoes staring back at the boats for a glimpse of the rich and famous. Frank could have rooms in one of the jewel boxes if he wanted. Did he want jewel box rooms? Did he want to stay here, stay anywhere? What was the program?

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel is a fictionalized account based on the lives of real people, some of whom, like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, are very famous for their roles in elite literary circles. How did the author’s characterizations of these people surprise you? Did they differ substantially from what you imagined?

2. What is your opinion of Frank and Tenn’s relationship, and why do you think it endured for so long? What do they bring to and take from each other? Do you view them as codependent—and, if so, in an ultimately positive or negative way? Which of them do you believe needs the other more?

3. Leading Men examines the trappings and pitfalls of living in close proximity to celebrity, ambition, and excess, both for famous artists and those who inspire and support them. How did your understanding of this kind of relationship evolve over the course of the novel? How did this dynamic function in different partnerships (Anja and Hovland, Frank and Tenn, Jack and Sandro)?

4. The title of the book is Leading Men, but much of the novel hinges on Anja, the enigmatic Swedish muse and actress. Did knowing Anja’s story enhance your understanding of Frank, and vice versa? How do you think Anja’s experiences with her own set of leading men—Hovland; her husband, Pieter; Sandrino; her father—relate to the larger themes in the novel?

5. Castellani portrays several queer relationships in the novel, including those between Frank and Tennessee, Jack Burns and Sandro Nencini, Jack Dunphy and Truman Capote, and Sandrino and Trevor, each with its own set of norms. And there are more unconventional groupings— young Trevor and Sandrino with aging Anja; Frank and Tenn’s surprising alliance with teenage Anja; and even the brief and notorious love triangle between Anja, her mother, Bitte, and an Italian fisherman. What did you find compelling about these love stories? What differences, if any, did you notice between the relationships set in the mid-twentieth century, those that are more recent, and our current historical moment?

6. What did you make of Call It Joy, Tennessee’s “lost” play? What did it reveal to you about the man who wrote it?

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