When author and songwriter Ben Harrison stumbled upon the perverse love story of Count Carl von Cosel, who stole a woman’s corpse from the Key West Cemetery in the 1930s and kept her body in his home for years, he had only one thought.
“This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever read in my life,” said Harrison, learned of the story in the 1980s. “He’s a nut case, what can I say? It was totally strange and bizarre and crazy and all that stuff.”
The Key West resident’s musical “Undying Love” premieres at The Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton St., on Valentine’s Day, of course, and will run for 10 shows through March 3.
It’s the stuff Key West folklore, however macabre, is made of. Harrison was struck by the sympathy the faux count received at the time and that he was never tried for any crime for keeping his a woman’s decaying body inside his Flagler Avenue home for seven years.
Tanzler gave her glass eyes and reconstructed her body, Harrison writes in his book “Undying Love,” which came out in 1997 and has been reprinted five times. He saw some grotesque photos of the evidence.
But the public in the 1930s, wracked with the Great Depression and the 1935 hurricane that destroyed the Flagler railroad, saw Tanzler as a tragic figure who wad simply lost in love.
“It was a love story, that was the way people perceived it,” Harrison said. “There were people who wrote letters to him in Key West. He was a sympathetic character.”
Von Cosel wasn’t even a count. He made it up to sound better, he thought, so when Karl Tanzler, originally from Germany, landed in Key West,- at the time an island of about 11,000, circa 1930, he was presenting himself as royalty. He had also abandoned his real family.
Tanzler became obsessed with a beautiful woman named Elena Milagro Hoyos after he X-rayed her while working at the local hospital. They were never romantically involved.
“And it goes downhill from there,” Harrison laughs.
Harrison, 72, who was born in San Antonio and raised in Corpus Christi, landed in Key West in 1979. He’s been playing guitar since he first saw Elvis Presley on TV at age 14.
“I never reached his status but it was at least a noble ambition,” he said.
He doesn’t have a cell phone and his living room is filled with art pieces and several guitars.
Harrison started out in Key West playing local watering holes, singing a song about Elena. Now his repertoire includes a ballad about with the opening line: “It was the strangest of times in the strangest of places.” Since 1986 he and his wife Helen have run the Harrison Gallery, 825 White St.
Asked if Tanzler would like his musical, which is darkly funny and remarkably accurate from his studying of files and interviewing people who lived through the era, Harrison said no.
“Probably not,” he said. “It does make him out to be a bit of a fool.”
Opening night is sold out, but tickets for the other performances are on sale at $55 VIP, $38 general admission, $30 members and can be purchased at tskw.org or by calling (305) 296-0458.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen