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Arts & Culture

Rose Tattoo House Reborn In Key West

DeWolfe and Wood Collection
Monroe County Public Library
Burt Lancaster, Anna Magnani's secretary, Tennessee Williams and Magnani on the porch of the Key West home known as 'The Rose Tattoo House.'

  Sixty years ago, a film partially shot in Key West won three Academy Awards — including Best Actress.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Robin and Carla Gay are huge fans of Italian actress Anna Magnani — so huge that they bought and restored the house in Key West where Magnani played the role that won her an Academy Award.

  Anna Magnani was the first Italian actress to win an Oscar. She won for her role in "The Rose Tattoo," a movie based on the play by her close friend Tennessee Williams.

The house where Magnani's character lived has recently been restored by an Italian couple. Carla Agostini Gay is a major movie buff and Magnani is her favorite actress.

She and her husband, Robin, have been visiting Key West for 15 years. They knew Magnani had spent time on the island and the couple always made sure to bicycle by Williams' home on Duncan Street.

In 2012, they noticed that the house next door to Williams' home was for sale.

"It looked like a disaster," Carla Gay said. "It was in terrible condition, in terrible shape. It was really falling to pieces."

But they couldn't resist the opportunity to buy — and rescue — the house where Magnani played her Oscar-winning role.

In the movie, Magnani plays Serafina Delle Rose, an Italian seamstress living in an unnamed town on the Gulf of Mexico. She idolizes her husband, Rosario, and is destroyed when he is killed in a truck crash. Three years later, she's still deep in grief — when she learns that her husband was cheating on her.


She comes back to life when she meets another goodlooking Italian truck driver, played by Burt Lancaster. But where her husband was a liar and a cheat, Lancaster's character is a goofball.

The film production spent about a month in Key West and filmed many scenes at the Duncan Street house.

"The location scout didn't even know that Tennessee Williams lived next door,"  Robin Gay said. "But it was just right for what they were looking for."

He and Carla got stills from the movie and worked with architects to recreate the interior of the home from the alterations that had been made since. They even put wallpaper, unusual in Key West, in the room they call "Anna's bedroom." It's also got furnishings they brought from Italy.

When the movie was shooting in 1954, some local residents were recruited as extras. Paul Toppino said his whole family was in the movie because they're Italian. He was 12 when the movie was made and even has a line in the very first scene.

He and another boy are following a woman — the woman sleeping with Serafina's husband — when she comes out of a tattoo parlor. She tells them she got a rose tattoo.

"Where did they put it on you?" young Paul Toppino asks the woman.

"Right over my heart, little boy," she answers.

"The Rose Tattoo" is not remembered like other works by Williams that were made into movies, "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof." But at the time it was a big deal. The movie won three Academy Awards in March of 1956, including Best Actress for Magnani.

Carla Gay said she has always admired Magnani because she was not a conventional beauty, like Sophia Loren, and because she was a single mother taking care of a son with polio.

"She was an independent woman ahead of her time. And this is another reason why I like her so much," Carla Gay said.

"The Rose Tattoo" has another distinction: a happy ending, unusual for Tennessee Williams.

"It is the story of a rebirth," Robin Gay said.

He said he thinks that Williams was wishing for a happy ending for his sister. She had had a lobotomy and was disabled. He became her caretaker and poured his love for her into works like "The Glass Menagerie."

Her name was Rose.

"He was perhaps daydreaming that his sister would somehow, someday be reborn as well," Robin Gay said.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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