Midnight Cowboy Author James Leo Herlihy, We’re Getting to Know Ye

James Leo Herlihy at home in Key West with photographer friend Cory McDonald, 1970. Anne Giese photo via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
James Leo Herlihy at home in Key West with photographer friend Cory McDonald, 1970. Anne Giese photo via State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The late playwright and fiction writer James Leo Herlihy, born on this day in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, is best remembered for his novel Midnight Cowboy. The story, centered on a naïve male prostitute struggling to survive in New York City, was adapted for film in 1969. Despite an “X” rating, that production starring Dustin Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Through the novel and film, we follow Joe Buck as he cares for a sick friend and plots their escape to paradise, also known as sunny Florida. Herlihy, who lived on and off in Key West – the southernmost island on the fringe of the United States – from 1957 to 1973, once wrote about his adopted Florida home:

“The town is plainly haunted. Lazy ghosts of old inhabitants rock forever on all the empty porches, and others watch over the street from shutters at second story windows. If you do not believe in ghosts, the town will make you nervous: Give up your disbelief or you will wonder forever at the sources of certain inexplicable sounds.”

Herlihy’s ghost is one of the many literary souls hovering in and around the small island community. Of all the great writers whose paths he crossed there, he was most captivated by Tennessee Williams, a close friend and mentor, according to an account by Michael Snyder for the Key West Literary Seminar.

Snyder – at work on a biography of Herlihy, which will supplement Robert Ward's Understanding James Leo Herlihy, the first book-length study of the writer – cites the Midnight Cowboy author's recollection to Lynn Kaufelt (author of the visually stunning book Key West Writers and Their Houses) of his ritual of joining Williams at the beach to trade lines from their favorite Wallace Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Together, they would then go “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.”

An integral part of that “lunatic pursuit” for Herlihy, as he illuminated the hope and futility of the American dream in his work, was imagining the subconscious lives of his characters as they were sleeping. In Midnight Cowboy, he writes of Joe:

"One night he dreamed a dream that would become recurrent, a dream of an endless chain of people marching across the side of the world. From his vantage point in some chill and dark and silent corner he could see them coming up from over the eastern horizon, all joined at the bellybutton by a golden rope of light and walking to a rousing march beat, and he could see them moving along until they had gone out of sight behind the western horizon."

Although tourism and development have changed much about Key West since Herlihy swam in its waters, the most vital elements of creativity and congeniality emanating from the island have been preserved. Proof of that lies in the comments posted below Snyder’s “The Midnight Cowboy in Key West” piece for KWLS.org. Those weighing in include a woman who grew up in Herlihy's now-demolished childhood Detroit home; his nephew Joe Herlihy; the independent producer of a documentary about underground gay and artist culture; and novelist Brian Antoni, who now lives in Herlihy's former home at 709 Bakers Lane.

At the conclusion of this golden rope of comments, Antoni claimed in November 2013 to have seen Herlihy's ghost a few times. In the inviting spirit that has drawn Herlihy and so many other great writers, he offers, "If you are in Key West and want to see the property, let me know. The peep hole is still there."