Weidenfeld & Nicolson acquires novel based on ‘one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century’

LEADING MENFederico Andornino, Commissioning Editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, has acquired UK & Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada) in Christopher Castellani’s LEADING MEN, in a deal struck by Esmond Harmsworth at Aevitas Creative Management.

Based on twenty years of research, LEADING MEN re-imagines the love story between playwriting legend Tennessee Williams and his Italian American lover Frank Merlo. Williams and Merlo lived together from 1949 until 1963, when Frank died in a Manhattan hospital, waiting for one last visit from the great writer with whom he’d spent most of his adult life.

It was during the ‘Frankie Years’ that Williams wrote most of his major plays, including A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER and THE ROSE TATTOO.

At a glittering party thrown by Truman Capote, literary sensation Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet the enigmatic Anja Blomgren, an aspiring Swedish actress. Their encounter will alter the course of their lives forever.

Spanning half a century and featuring a dazzling cast of characters – from Anna Magnani cooking pasta amatriciana in a sun-kissed kitchen in Rome, to Ludovico Visconti barking orders on his latest film set – LEADING MEN is a heart-breaking story about life in the shadows of greatness, and a moving re-telling of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century

Federico Andornino, editor said: ‘As soon I started reading Christopher’s novel I couldn’t believe Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo’s story hadn’t been told before. Many wonderful books have been written about the wives and female lovers of great artists and literary and political figures: it’s high time we focus on the story of men like Frank, tucked away in a double-closet of anonymity and invisibility. Plus, who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours in the company of characters as beautifully flawed as these? From Portofino to Rome and Manhattan and from Truman Capote to Anna Magnani, this is a novel of glamour, fame and devastating heartbreak.’

Christopher Castellani, author said: ‘I wrote LEADING MEN because – as Tennessee Williams did in 1947 – I fell in love with Frank “The Horse” Merlo. Frank was a working-class Italian-American guy like me: a truck driver, an aspiring dancer and actor, a romantic, the life of the party.  I wanted to get into Frank’s head and heart not as a way to explore the life of the great playwright, but of the man behind him, the man who kept him alive. Merlo and Williams spent some of their happiest years together in Italy, where my parents were born. I wanted to walk alongside them through the streets of Rome, to hobnob with them and Anna Magnani and Luchino Visconti and Truman Capote. In Williams’s journal from 1953, I found two summer weeks from 1953 in which he’d made no entries, and I gave those weeks a drama and a series of consequences you might find in a Williams play. For once, though, Frank played the leading role and I like to think that I have finally brought him into the light where he belongs.’

The son of Italian immigrants and a native of Wilmington, Delaware, Christopher Castellani now lives in Boston, where he works as artistic director of Grub Street, one of the country’s leading independent creative writing centres. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for researching and writing LEADING MEN.

LEADING MEN is out now in ebook and will be published in mass market paperback on 13th June 2019.


‘Blazing…casts a spell right from the start. [LEADING MEN] vividly reimagines the relationship between Williams and Frank Merlo, and offers intricate thoughts about the nature of fidelity, the artistic impulse, and estrangement… To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket’ NEW YORK TIMES



‘I read Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men in one quiet, sunny, rapt afternoon, and spent hours afterwards just stunned from having been immersed in such a tender, psychologically devastating and gorgeously precise novel. This is an extraordinary book’ Lauren Groff, author of FATES AND FURIES

‘With extraordinary artistry and grace, Christopher Castellani interweaves history and invention to show us both the depths great artists are driven to and the love that draws them back. I know of few books that give such a moving account of the indispensable value of genius and its intolerable human cost. This is a novel of rare insight and beauty, and Castellani is a writer of brilliant gifts’ Garth Greenwell, author of WHAT BELONGS TO YOU