Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911, to an alcoholic shoe salesman and an archetypal Southern belle prone to hysteria, Tennessee Williams had the kind of upbringing that lends itself to autobiographical fiction—something from a Tennessee Williams play, if you weren’t already talking about the man himself. As a small child he barely survived a case of diphtheria that made him an invalid for a year; his sister, Rose, was diagnosed with schizophrenia; he had his first nervous breakdown in his early 20s and, less than 10 years later, his parents made the decision to lobotomize his sister. Williams said, “It has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity—my sister Rose did not manage this. So I keep writing.”
And write he did: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth; Tennessee Williams became an American theater icon, winning two Pulitzer Prizes, three Tony Awards and three New York Drama Critics Circle Awards; plays, essays, film adaptations, memoirs—the list is exhausting and awe inspiring.
I remember studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in my small town Canadian high school and being blown away by the material—by the things we weren’t supposed to talk about being right there on the page. Here was alcoholism and homosexuality and family violence and they were letting us read it, letting us watch it. I felt like I had been entrusted with something, trusted to understand. Like I had been allowed to see behind the curtain in a way I was denied in my own family—the dynamics of which you can see being acted out in much of the work of Tennessee Williams. Brick and Skipper were not just friends in Cat, sister Laura is not a normal girl in the Glass Menagerie and Cousin Sebastian was not torn apart and devoured just because those young boys in Amalfi were so hungry. Tennessee Williams wrote what he knew (in that over-the-top Southern way of his); he lived openly as a gay man when few did, he spoke frankly about his shaky mental health and his substance abuse; he even provided the recipe for his daily chemical cocktail for a magazine profile in 1962. Tennessee Williams embodied the idea that our secrets make us sick, but that confronting them can too.
Writing from such a raw place at a certain pace takes its toll on a writer. (When I was putting together the first draft of my book, blowing lines and throwing up, my writing instructor said, “Great! Keep going!”) Williams started to use drugs and alcohol in the 50’s to deal with his anxiety and by the mid 60’s, he was under the care of Max Jacobson, Dr. Feel Good, in New York. Dexamyls, Seconals, Miltowns, Scotch to wash them down, an ever lit cigarette in his hand—Tennessee managed to keep writing, but he never again had the success he experienced in the early part of his career. Speed can make you prolific, it’s true, but not necessarily good.
In the end, on February 24th, 1983 at the age of 71, Williams choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York City. Natural causes they said at first. A kind of deception, a story line from one of his own plays. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”— The last line he wrote for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The truth is far bleeker: he choked while using the lid of a cap to collect those last few Seconals. A victim of his own vices, just like one of his characters. “We are all diminished by his death,” Marlon Brando said shortly afterwards and I tend to agree.
Tennessee Williams was the first writer who made me feel safe being me. I too felt the undercurrent of madness. A side effect of growing up crazy, I suppose. That fear of losing my mind is one of the reasons I got sober—I was afraid of ending up like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, a past-her-prime pretty girl, afraid of bright lights and desperate for a man to save her. I think Tennessee Williams, the writer and the man, helped to open the door for the kind of writing we do on this site, the unapologetic kind. An attempt to make art out of the suffering. “Though his images were often violent,” The New York Times wrote after his death in 1983, “he was the poet of the human heart.”
Photo courtesy of Orlando Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATennessee_Williams_cropped.jpg], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)