For the Record: The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams

Courtesy of Tattoo Archive: Thomas Lanier Williams was born March 26 1911 in Columbus Mississippi to the son of a shoe salesman. He studied at the University of Missouri, Washington University in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. In 1939 he moved to New Orleans. It was here that he took his college nickname “Tennessee,” which he got on account of his heavy southern drawl and the state where his father was born. Williams had been a prolific writer since the age of five. During his career, he produced 25 full-length plays, short stories, screenplays, novels, poems and an autobiography. Throughout his career he won many literary awards including The Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award and was considered a major American playwright…

One of Tennessee Williams’ award winning plays was, The Rose Tattoo, which he dedicated to his lover Frank Merlo. It tells the story of a Sicilian woman living on the Gulf Coast, mourning her truck driver husband who was killed while smuggling. She learns her husband was “carrying on” with another woman and this torments her until another truck driver appears off the road and as one critic put it, “returned her to the warmth and comfort of human society.”

The stage version of The Rose Tattoo opened in 1951 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City and stared Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. At the time of this opening, stage critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “As a play, “The Rose Tattoo” lacks the intensity of “The Glass Menagerie,” A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Summer and Smoke.” It moves along loosely and loquaciously. But to those of us who were afraid that Mr. Williams had been imprisoned within a formula, it is especially gratifying. For this is a comic play that is also compassionate and appreciative. Some of it is hilarious; those gutsy and volatile Sicilians blow hot and cold at bewildering speed.”

The Rose Tattoo play was a big hit and in 1955 Paramount Pictures produced a movie version starring Italian star Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster. Tennessee Williams originally wrote the female lead role of Sarafina for Magnani, as they were friends. But it is said that her limited English skills kept her out of the stage version. However she did star in the movie version and her portrayal of the lusty Serafina won her an Academy Award. A rose tattoo figured in the plot and was featured in much of the advertising. In the lobby cards, publicity stills and posters that chest rose was prominently shown.

Tattoo Archive © 2008


  1. A movie still of Burt Lancaster proudly showing his rose tattoo, 1955.
  2. Eli Wallach, playing Alvarro Mangiacavallo, showing off his rose tattoo, 1952.
  3. Photo of the Martin Beck Theatre, 302 West 45th Street, New York City, during the run of The Rose Tattoo. Note the huge sign on top of the building next to the theatre, 1951.
  4. The Rose Tattoo movie lobby card showing Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani and the rose tattoo, 1955.
  5. Note the pre-code warning: suitable only for adults, on the bottom left corner of this Rose Tattoo poster, 1955.
  6. VHS slipcover promotion for the movie, 1980s.
  7. A very clever ad from The Playbill for the Martin Beck run of The Rose Tattoo, 1951.
  8. Illustration from the Curran Theatre’s run of The Rose Tattoo play, 1952.
  9. Another movie still from The Rose Tattoo movie, 1955.

This installment of For the Record was featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine issue #14. [divider]

More “FOR THE RECORD” Tattoo History Blogs: Tatts Thomas – Stencils  – History of Tattooing in ChicagoPelikan Ink Saint George & the Dragon – Thomas Edison and TattooingDoc WebbThe PIKETattoo PigmentsThe Zeis Studio FlashConey Island and TattoosPercy Waters MachineTattoo StampsThe Rose TattooJack Redcloud Bill the Beachcomber Sailor Jack Cripe – [divider]

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