On the Tennessee (Williams) Trail
John Lahr’s new biography of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, makes an impression before you even open it. It’s huge and it’s lurid. On the cover, a middle-aged guy who looks like an out-of-shape Clark Gable stuffed into a dark suit and pink silk tie, holds a smoking cigarillo and stares at us. His eyes shine with intelligence while his sensual lips beneath the moustache lift slightly at the edges, as if he’s about to mouth a bon mot. He’s standing in front of the most toxic sunset you’ve ever seen, the sky an apocalyptic orange, the earth beneath it dark green, roiling. The colors of the words overlaying this image—baby pink juxtaposed with bright yellow—add to the discord.
This book, the cover by Paul Davis tells us, will be about a man who’s larger than life, perceptive and snarky, addictive, and stuck in some Purgatorial place. Mad, pilgrim, flesh—free associate: Monkish lunatic, sex. Pink tie and title: gay pilgrim. His journey won’t be easy, not in Puritan America. And so you open the book to find out if you’re right, or if you are already a fan of Williams’ plays and life, you know you are. But how much do you know? Lahr has packed this book so full of contemporary commentary from Ten’s friends, enemies, and self (frenemy indeed) that your head will soon be aching, unable to absorb it all.
Lahr had a mountain of material to work with—forty books have been published about Williams’ life, and there are innumerable letters, diaries, and other documents he had access to, plus interviews he conducted with those who had worked with, slept with, partied with, or shook hands once with Williams. Lahr tells us in his preface he’s writing yet another book about this neurotic genius because the first forty were flawed. In them, “[m]uch is gossip, much is self-serving, much is academic tracery, almost none of it risks an interpretation, which is the job of criticism.” That’s a bracing statement, but the interpretation Lahr gives of Williams’ life in the course of hundreds of pages doesn’t live up to it. Lahr’s fine sentences can’t finesse his simplistic thesis. Repeating isn’t the same as developing, but the “interpretation” never gets beyond its first formulation, which goes something like this:
Tennessee (né Tom) Williams was, first and foremost, an artist. He only felt alive when making art, but his art would eventually destroy him. He longed for love but spent his life feeling lonely, his only lasting connection the one he felt for his own creations.
Lahr repeats this several times but never does paint a nuanced portrait of the artist as a tortured man. Lahr is less like a painter (a trope he loves—there are a lot of “palette” references in the book) and more like a chef who has to use up a lot of ingredients going bad in the refrigerator.
By the last chapters of the book, he’s making sundaes out of his surfeit of anecdotes, topping them with little psychoanalytic cherries: “. . . [I]n Williams’s mind, creation and betrayal were psychologically conjoined. To give life to his characters Williams preyed on himself —drawing on drugs and promiscuity to engineer the extravagant conversion of despair into art. In seeking his liberation, he became his own oppressor.” One senses Lahr’s oppression beneath the weight of all this material and his need to give Williams his just deserts. Alas, the last thirty years of the artist’s life were no picnic for him, Lahr, or us.
If you read the book straight through, as I did, you will wish the repetitions had been cut, that Lahr had had an editor who would do for this book what Elia Kazan did for Williams’ plays. No such luck. Lahr seems determined to quote from each piece of a gargantuan heap of source material. He acknowledges that the book took him twelve years to write, and it feels like it. The stops and starts of such a project would explain why he repeats himself so much. Of course, Williams also kept repeating himself, so perhaps it’s a case of identifying too much with one’s subject. On that subject, I’ve learned that all biographies reveal something about the biographer.
Mr. Lahr, for example, has a fondness for the word “panjandrum.” The first time I saw it, I had to look it up. It reminded me of a magic word from a children’s story, one that lost power with each repetition. A word he likes even more (maybe he lived in France) is “louche”—that one I circled seven times. Louche lends itself to alliteration for literati named Lahr, and sometimes he paired the word with “love” or “life,” and once he landed the triple play, describing Diana Barrymore’s “louche lonely life.” Having seen The Wizard of Oz a few dozen times during my childhood (I was born in 1960), I can’t help associating the younger Lahr with his father and both of them with lions, so his opening to Chapter 7 seemed particularly apt: “The sixties came in like a lion and stayed that way.”
This book succeeds brilliantly as a multilayered resource when you want to look up a particular play, character, or person in Williams’ life. For example, I recently saw a wonderful production of The Glass Menagerie, which prompted me to reread Lahr’s funny, detailed depiction of the play’s first production. The drama evolved from a true incident Williams first recounted in a short story, then recast as a one-act play, and finally developed as a full stage production with the help of a prescient director (who also bought the play and starred as Tom), a wary producer, and a beloved leading lady who’d spent her last decade offstage drinking herself to death. The play previewed in Chicago in 1944 before opening on Broadway in March of 1945. It became the hit of the season and resurrected the career of Laurette Taylor, aka “the alcoholic of alcoholics.” In addition, it made its 34-year-old author both famous and rich, and inaugurated a new direction for American theater.
Williams’ autobiographical impulses came at a timely moment in American history. World War II was over, and Americans could start looking inward again. The country’s cultural narcissism began in that period of postwar prosperity. For his part, Williams had been mining his family drama since college in poetry and fiction and, finally, drama. As Gore Vidal observed, his family provided “his basic repertory company.” Just as Laura played with her glass animals, Williams played with his characters, crystallizing their faults, but also burnishing their tragedies into epic poetry. Tom’s lyrical closing speech is haunting even now, but for those first audiences, it must have been mind-blowing:
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest anything—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning. Blow out your candles, Laura—and so, goodbye. . . .
Unfortunately, though he could recast his family’s tragedy into this higher form, he could not cast away the family itself. Williams’ damaged elder sister Rose would haunt him all his life and outlive him by ten years.
In the late ’30s when, like Tom, he had finally left home for good, he spent a happy clutch of years coming out as both a writer and a gay man. The pleasures of his new life distracted him from the home troubles of his elder sister Rose, the model for Laura, who had begun to unravel mentally. In 1937, when her brother left Washington University to study playwriting at the University of Iowa, she was committed to a psychiatric ward for the first time. Williams graduated and moved to New Orleans, where his plays began to get attention, ultimately winning him a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Rose, diagnosed with schizophrenia, languished in a psychiatric hospital, her brain assaulted with shock treatments. In 1940, Williams moved to New York and embraced “the mad pilgrimage of the flesh” the city offered to a robustly sexual gay man. He wrote, traveled, and met famous people. As his horizons expanded, Rose’s contracted. In January 1943, she underwent a lobotomy. Williams blamed his mother for insisting on the surgery, even as he felt guilty for neglecting his adored elder sister at a time when she most needed him. Rose had played with little glass animals which she eventually preferred to the real people in her life, just as her brother would eventually prefer his characters to his closest companions.
The key family members for Williams were his hard-drinking, angry father; frigid, hysterical mother; and loving maternal grandparents who provided occasional respites from “a hate-filled parental drama—a theatre of war in which the children were stunned witnesses.” Amanda Wingfield, the smothering, loving Southern matriarch of Menagerie, is closely modeled on Edwina Dakin Williams, Tennessee’s smothering but loving mother. Tom the narrator is Tom the writer (“Tennessee” the nom de plume he chose in 1939), and Laura the handicapped daughter stands in for Rose. In this play, Tom’s father is “at a distance,” just as the playwright’s father was for several years when he worked as a traveling salesman for a shoe manufacturer. Cornelius Williams later took a managerial position at the International Shoe Company’s St. Louis headquarters, and his son, like Tom in the play, was forced to work a menial job there—Cornelius had yanked him from college his senior year after he failed an ROTC course. Like his alter ego, Tom worked all day and wrote at night.
What keeps Menagerie from being Mommie Dearest is Williams’ attachment to his characters. If Amanda were merely a bitchy, overbearing mother, audiences wouldn’t have responded so enthusiastically to this play. Instead, Williams presents a flawed woman who wants to protect her weakest child. Indeed, my attitude toward Amanda has done an about-face in the years since I first saw this play. In my twenties, I identified with Tom and his longing to escape a domineering parent, no matter the collateral damage; in my 50s, with grown children, I feel for Amanda—she’s trying to ensure her daughter’s future, marshaling the help of the son who, however unwillingly, has stayed close. Laura’s anxiety makes it impossible for her to get a job, though her mother has paid for her to take courses at a business school. As for Amanda, she tries to sell magazine subscriptions, but the only skill she ever had was her ability, long past, to attract “gentlemen callers.” With no other options available, she fixates on this solution for her daughter’s well-being. A character I’d once seen as hateful now seemed simply pathetic.
In real life, the ambivalent son and brother’s success came too late to save his sister, but he did save his mother—he gave her half his royalties to the play, enabling her to leave the husband she despised. He also established a trust for his sister, who lived in institutions for over 60 years, dying at the age of 86 in 1996.
As Lahr recounts, Tennessee Williams knew what entrapment felt like in all its forms. As a child, he contracted diphtheria and spent the fifth year of his life paralyzed. For the next dozen years until he left for college, and then for the years he was forced to return home, he was a helpless viewer of the dysfunctional parental drama—his father got drunk and abused his mother; his mother tongue-lashed the old man and refused to have sex with him. Eventually, the verbal sparring would become physical, and the children, soon including youngest brother Dakin, would hear their mother scream from the parental bedroom as she tried—vainly—to get away from their lusty father. As a teenager, his sensitive inner self was trapped in a body bursting with hormones—just putting his arm around his college girlfriend Hazel could prompt an embarrassing spontaneous ejaculation. He didn’t know what, or whom, he wanted. Lahr observes, “By refusing to acknowledge his own sexuality, he elected to remain a child well into his twenties.”
His mother, whose letters show her concern for the fragile mental state of her two elder children, wrote her own parents about a 1937 visit she and Tom made to Rose in the hospital (a letter that Lahr did not quote in his biography): “Rose looked so yellow and bloated and she was so full of delusions, the visit made Tom ill so I can’t take him to see her again. I can’t have two of them there.” This brings me to another lacuna in the biography, a plum from Mike Nichols that I’m amazed Lahr didn’t use. If Nichols hadn’t just died, I wouldn’t have known it either.
In Nichols’ obituary, I learned that a Tennessee Williams play was instrumental in pointing him toward a life in theater and film. In 1947, when he was 15, the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them tickets to the second night of a new play: A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando. “We were pole-axed, stunned. We didn’t speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive. It was so real.” In witty fashion, Nichols added, “I’m amazed about our bladders because we never went to the bathroom and it was about 3 1/2 or 4 hours long.” Lahr does, however, tells us about Nichols’ parody of Williams in 1960 when he and Elaine May were the toast of Broadway. One of their skits had Nichols playing “Alabama Glass,” a playwright whose new drama is titled Pork Makes Me Sick in the Summer. As Nichols told Lahr, he was embarrassed to discover the playwright in the audience one night. “The piece was nastier than necessary, especially if you add my voice and character when doing it.” Fifteen years after The Glass Menagerie, Williams had so dominated American theater that a comic could satirize him to good effect. Alabama Glass’s description of his play is too funny not to quote:
It is a simple story of degradation. The scene is a basement apartment in the Mexican quarter of Detroit. Before the action begins the husband of the heroine, Nanette, has committed suicide on being accused of not being a homosexual. Distraught, she has an affair with a young basketball team, after which she turns to drink, prostitution and putting on airs.
By 1960, Williams’ hit plays included not only Menagerie and Streetcar, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth. He’d also just become estranged from Elia Kazan, the genius director who understood his work better than anyone else and helped him to realize it as no one else could have.
Lahr includes copious quotes from Kazan’s letters, memoir, and detailed script notes. About Streetcar, Kazan wrote: “Tennessee Williams equals Blanche. He is Blanche. And Blanche is torn between a desire to preserve her tradition, which is her entity, her being, and her attraction to what is going to destroy her traditions.” The wounded Southern son had grown into a version of his hysterical mother, one infused with testosterone, alcohol, and drugs.
When Tennessee finally cast off his inhibitions in his late 20s, he went, as Lahr put it, “from prude to lewd.” In New Orleans, and later in New York City, he binged on boys. A man who felt insecure and ugly all his life lamented his own animal appetites. He longed for a pure love but gave in to his “jackrabbit horniness.” His first lasting love relationship was with Pancho Rodriguez, a Mexican known for making scenes. Elia Kazan witnessed the end of their relationship during the previews for Streetcar, when they were all lodged in the same hotel. A violent fight ended in a trashed hotel room and Williams escaping to spend the night in his director’s room. Kazan wrote in his memoir, “If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley. . . . [Williams] was attracted to trash—rough, male homosexuals who were threatening him. . . . Part of the sexuality that Williams wrote into the play is the menace of it.”
In 1948, Williams fell in love with a man who didn’t fit the Pancho stereotype. Frank Merlo was a WWII vet, a short but handsome man who had been an outspoken homophobe during his stint in the Marines. As Lahr put it, “Merlo’s sexual volte-face was his ticket to ride into a world of culture.” After the war, Merlo moved to NYC, tried to make it as a ballet dancer and an actor, and became the lover of John LaTouche, a Broadway lyricist. He was a perfect match for Tennessee, who needed calm to work and who had himself become a rather nasty prima donna. “Williams’s hysterical outbursts, his paranoia, his hypochondria, his infuriating vagueness were nothing compared to the mayhem of the real battles that Merlo had lived through.”
Merlo and Williams stayed together for nearly fourteen years, living in New York and Key West and traveling often to Europe. Their relationship, however, had only brief moments of happiness surrounded by large periods of jealousy (Merlo’s) and irritation (Williams’). Williams often noted that he seemed destined to live a life of loneliness, and he ensured it by always choosing his work over his lovers. He abused alcohol and drugs, so much so that by the early ’60s he was known as a drunken old reprobate, according to Frank Corsaro. Corsaro directed The Night of the Iguana, Williams’ last successful play, and came to loathe the playwright. He described a stoned Williams “mumbling his way through a meeting,” adding, “I lost a certain kind of compassion for his view of himself and the world, his desire, literally, to extinguish himself.”
Two years after Williams broke up with him, Merlo died of lung cancer. He was only 40, and Williams’ guilt and grief echoed his reaction to Rose’s lobotomy. This time, however, he was too strung out on booze and drugs to turn his despair into art. By his own account, the late ’60s were Williams’ “Stoned Age.” He was so drunk most of the time he could hardly walk or even stay seated in a chair. In his memoir, however, he makes light of his collapse: “I would fall down often, yes, but was put down only by reviewers.” Williams’ one period of sobriety was brought about by his younger brother, Dakin, with whom Williams had an ambivalent relationship (he turned him into the moneygrubbing Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Dakin, however, was the sibling who had stayed in St. Louis near their mother. In January 1969, concerned about his brother’s spiritual health, Dakin flew to Key West and talked his near-catatonic sibling into a conversion to Catholicism. In September, a paranoid Tennessee called his brother to tell him he feared someone was about to kill him. Dakin arrived and took him from Key West to St. Louis, to their mother’s house. After spending the night there, Dakin escorted him to the Barnes Hospital and checked him into the psychiatric ward.
In his memoir, Tennessee describes his attempt to escape. To Edwina he shouted, “Why do women bring children into the world and then destroy them?” As for Dakin, as soon as he could, Tennessee struck him from his will. However, the three-month stay certainly saved his life. He arrived with acute alcohol poisoning and was forced to withdraw from both alcohol and the pills he’d been abusing. Dotson Rader, a guy I associate with Parade magazine, the family-oriented Sunday newspaper supplement where he is a columnist, apparently didn’t have a family-magazine youth. Rader spent the ’60s and ’70s as a counterculture activist and avant-garde writer for Grove Press. He was an habitué of the New York City demimonde, and a bisexual hustler, hence how he met Williams. He wasn’t surprised that Tennessee cut his brother out of his will, or that he broke with both Kazan and, later, his beloved agent Audrey Wood. Rader echoed other ex-friends: “Tenn was big in giving blame to others.”
This biography brings together every source of biographical material on Williams, which makes it invaluable as a resource. However, in the end, Tennessee Williams analyzed himself better than anyone else ever could: “Between the first wail of an infant and the last gasp of the dying—it’s all an arranged pattern of . . . submission to what’s been prescribed for us unless we escape into madness or into acts of creation.”