IT WAS A PROFILE that John Lahr published in The New Yorker that led him to this biography of Tennessee Williams—a profile of the Lady St. Just, an over-zealous friend of the playwright who, as his literary executor, was so prudish that she threw his Memoirs into the wastebasket. She felt they were too louche and, after Williams’ death, forbade a production of one of his plays because it was “too homosexual.” She even went into the library at the University of Texas and used a razor to cut out passages from Williams’ letters that she found offensive. Her attempt to sanitize the writer’s reputation came to an end only when St. Just died and scholars were once more allowed access to Williams’ papers. Now, twelve years after taking up the torch given him by Lyle Leverich—the man Williams asked to write his biography, who died with only half the job done and asked Lahr to finish—we get Lahr’s account.
Lahr’s biography is not, like Leverich’s, a detailed chronological account. Lahr was The New Yorker’s theater critic for decades (and the author of a biography of Joe Orton), which may be why the narrative thread here is simply the plays themselves. The book opens where Leverich’s ends: on March 31, 1945, the night Laurette Taylor brought down the house playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie—a familiar legend, yet one that Lahr makes as suspenseful as if it were happening in real time. From then on, however, the plays and personal life are described without much reference to dates, or mundane circumstances—so the reader is caught by surprise to learn, say, that a letter was written from Cairo, when Lahr has not told us that Williams had gone there, or why, or what he did in Egypt.
Lahr does provide a chronology at the back of the book, and the entry for 1969—which includes Williams’ conversion to Catholicism, an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri, the Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and three months in the Renard Psychiatric Division of Barnes Hospital in St. Louis—captures the mélange of honors and drugs, failed plays and dogged continuance, that characterized the latter part of his epic career. When Williams awoke from a drug-induced sleep in the psychiatric hospital to which his brother Dakin had committed him, he asked: “Where am I? At the Plaza?”—which sounds like a line that the star of Sweet Bird of Youth, Alexandra del Lago, might have spoken. But such was the mix of personal life and theatrical creativity that we read about in these 600 pages, which, to Lahr’s credit, go by very quickly.
Between Williams’ first hit, The Glass Menagerie, and his last, The Night of the Iguana, are only fifteen years; but Williams lived 22 years more after Iguana, long enough to feel he’d outlived his golden age. One reason Williams chose Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald as the protagonists in one of his last plays must have been that, like those two, Williams saw himself as a romantic artist. And since the romantic artist traditionally burns out, or drowns, in liquor or a body of water (like Hart Crane, Williams’ hero) after outliving the era he epitomized, the latter part of Williams’ life has always exercised a morbid fascination on his fans.
Williams, of course, wrote his own memoirs, which he wanted to call “Flee, Flee This Sad Hotel” (from a poem by Adrienne Rich)—a title that gives us the sense of a man running from his own sorrow. For Lahr, the origin of this sadness was his family. “Williams’ ambivalence about love,” he writes, “—his longing for it and his need to diminish it—had its origins in the primary couple in his life: his toxic, unreachable parents.” Lahr’s book is intensely psychological in focus. At the end he thanks his “friends in London’s psychoanalytical community,” including the author of a book called Hysteria, for helping him to understand Williams. Lahr is not shy about drawing cultural conclusions about Williams as well. It’s as if we get the long shot and the close-up, while the middle, which Leverich had provided, is missing.
As for the long shot: in Lahr’s view Williams’ career reflected a change in American culture following the austerities and sacrifices of World War II—a turn away from the communal to the self—which included, of course, sexual liberation. The product of a household steeped in Victorian morality and Southern gentility, it was, in a sense, his mother whom Williams was trying to escape all his life. (Even the lobotomy that Williams’ mother authorized for his sister Rose in this telling seems to have been brought about by something their mother could not bear—Rose’s babbling obscenities in public—in other words, Mrs. Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer.)
But if Williams was rebelling against confinement, sexual and emotional, Lahr says he faced an even more difficult challenge once he was free. Williams made no effort to hide his homosexuality, though he came under attack by gay activists in the 70s who felt he’d disguised his predilections. In a letter to Gay Sunshine, he replied that he’d never hidden a thing; sexual identity, he said, is fluid, and inside him was a man, a woman, and an androgyne, which was why he was able to write about human relationships and not just sex. In Key West, people peed on his plants and tossed eggs at his house; he was fag-bashed while walking down Duval Street. Williams, characteristically, fought back. The longer he lived, the more he thought there were parts in him not only of his maternal grandfather—a minister exhorting his parishioners to spiritual aspirations—but his father as well, a man who had a chunk of his ear bitten off in a poker fight and ended up a drunk, ostracized from his own home, like his son years later.
Houses, homes, are important in Williams’ plays, Lahr claims, and the latter is what, amid his considerable travels, he was always looking for. He had one for a while in Key West while living with Frank Merlo, his lover of thirteen years. But after he broke up with Merlo he was essentially homeless; toward the end he was paying young men to travel with him while lamenting that he was so old he did not want anyone to see him undressed. Still, it was heart-breaking, he said, to hear his paid companion lock the door connecting their hotel bedrooms at night.
At the very end he was quite alone. As Lahr describes it, he had moved from the family drama of The Glass Menagerie to plays in which his subject was his own unbearable solitude—a conscious cannibalization of the self as subject matter. After The Night of the Iguana, it was all downhill in terms of reviews, despite the numerous honors and assurances that he was America’s greatest playwright. His failures on Broadway ate away at him. He had always been afraid that his imagination, his gift, his Muse, would desert him some day; it’s astonishing how early in his career this note of panic was sounded.
In fact, dealing with Williams was difficult, one of his last agents reported, because Williams was crazy. For much of his life he thought he was dying of cancer or heart disease, or running out of inspiration. Once he was famous and powerful, however, there was no one to say No to him. It’s like reading about Caligula. The letter from the agent telling Williams off is frankly satisfying; but all Williams did was fire him and get another. He was at that point beyond anyone’s power of reprimand. The firing of his devoted agent Audrey Wood, the paranoid fantasy that Elia Kazan had made him falsify Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with a more commercial ending, seem to have been incidents in what he called his “continual contest with madness.”
Indeed, in this telling, there appears to be only one short period when life for Williams was both artistically fertile and domestically happy: when Merlo, Williams, and Williams’ beloved (and probably gay) grandfather were living together in Key West. There was only one problem: an imbalance between Merlo’s position and Williams’ career—a gap that finally sabotaged the “sad little wish to be loved” that, Lahr argues, characterized Williams’ life. “My name for him is Little Horse,” wrote Williams in a poem about Merlo. “I wish he had a name for me.” But then, what could that have been, given Williams’ insane paranoia?
There was also the intense self-absorption, the essential loneliness, of the artist. “The real fact is that no one means a great deal to me,” Williams said in what Lahr calls “his first-ever, unguarded interview,” which was given to The New York Times on April 22, 1945: “I’m gregarious and like to be around people, but almost anyone will do. … I prefer people who can help me in some way or another, and most of my friendships are accidental.” Three hundred pages later we get: “To know me is not to love me. It is, at best, to tolerate me.” Six hundred pages later, it’s Gore Vidal, speaking of the Lady St. Just, who says: “he was a very solitary cat. He appreciated what she did for him, which was just kind of looking after him. But I don’t think he ever had any affection for anybody.”
“He was not a very good person, really,” said the director of The Night of the Iguana. “He became very much the monster of the theatre, the man who was at the top.” Reading Lahr’s book, I began jotting down words applied to Williams: shy (the young Williams, his agent warned people about to meet him, would not look at you when spoken to), paranoid, self-loathing, unfair, self-pitying, gloomy, hard, a man full of “elemental rage,” a diva, and, finally, a hysteric. At the end he was not, surely, what he was at the beginning—that 34-year-old man who, after the tumultuous opening of The Glass Menagerie, instead of going to the celebratory party, chose to walk for hours around Manhattan with his friend Donald Windham. (Ten years later, after the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he went to the party but left to ride around with Marlon Brando on his motorcycle. After the disastrous Clothes for a Summer Hotel, at the apartment on Sutton Place where his friends had gathered, he tried to jump off the balcony.)
Yet many people wanted to love Williams, to use, to own, to befriend him, even if he seems to have wanted violent companions, chaos, and craziness. He created terrible scenes, disrupted plays and parties, fell asleep at readings, fell down in bars and restaurants—during what he called his “stoned sixties”—when the shots of speed he was getting from a New York doctor were combined with drinking. (People were always picking him up in the ’60s, he wrote in his Memoirs, while the critics were putting him down.) Yet throughout all of it Williams retained not only his unique gift for the English language but an extraordinary wit: a dark, delicately camp sense of humor that walks a fine line between Victorian gentility (his mother) and ribald humor (his father), suffuses every book by and about him and makes him so infinitely quotable and entertaining.
Gore Vidal claimed that Williams shuffled the same cards of the same deck over and over again—and learned absolutely nothing. But what he did know he kept secret. One of the jokes in Williams’ Memoirs is his dismissal of any expectation that he was going to discuss playwriting, and even in Lahr’s book we never learn how the plays came to him. We know that he first wrote a short story and the story sometimes became a play; and that he wrote so many scenes, over and over again, that he would hand them to the director and ask him to choose. Indeed, after a while Williams did not so much structure his plays (Kazan was very good at that) as assemble them as a collage (encouraging news to writers who can’t plot). But he kept the wellspring of his creativity a mystery, no doubt because he so feared its drying up.
“The Catastrophe of Success” was the title of one of the graceful essays Williams would publish in the Times before a play opened to soften up the critics (to whom he also wrote thank you letters when a review was good); and success proved to be just that. But it’s what he wanted. Williams was extremely competitive, aware that his protégé William Inge was having one hit after another when he was dry, not to mention the writers whose more minimalist style displaced his own: Edward Albee, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter. He was like Hemingway (whom he met in Cuba but did not get on with very well) in his desire to be on top; which may be why, when both men hit old age, they destroyed themselves.
For the death, we learn here, was not the accidental suffocation caused by a bottle cap as we’ve been led to believe, but an overdose of Seconals. The bottle cap, the coroner eventually revealed, was found in his mouth, not stuck in his throat; and there were thirteen bottles of prescription drugs on the table in the hotel room where he perished (along with a copy of a James Purdy short story about a boy who dies of a broken heart). Lahr skillfully details the preparation for Williams’ final trip to New York: how he gave away the typewriter on which he’d written Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to a young writer he’d just met in a restaurant in Key West (so sad); and how, before going to the airport, he kissed the woman who had cleaned his house all those years and gave her a bonus, though she knew something was wrong because he had never kissed her and was traveling for the first time by himself. It seems clear in Lahr’s version that Williams was going to New York to end his life.
There had been previous suicide attempts. Once he arrived at Maureen Stapleton’s home for a party and told her he had taken an overdose, and she gave him mustard diluted in warm water to make him throw up.
Why might he have killed himself? When the friend with whom he’d been fag-bashed in Key West asked Williams, after they got home, who the bullies were, Williams replied: “They were New York drama critics!” And in a sense the critics did kill him: a revival of Vieux Carré Off Broadway was not even reviewed; the Times sent no one to review A House Not Meant to Stand in Chicago.
Of course, we’ll never know if the overdose was intentional. But the end, as Lahr writes it, is shiveringly sad. It is also somewhat judgmental: “He had not so much transcended his wounded self, as been trapped by his attempts to escape it. His life depended on his writing; his writing fed off his life, and his life had become attenuated by his wayward habit of being.” What does “wayward habit of being” mean? I’m not sure: the booze, the drugs, the inability to stay in one place? The implication is that he checked out when he could no longer produce a Broadway hit.
That he saw life in terms of success and failure is not gone into here. That he saw it in terms of salvation, of spirit versus flesh, that he thought he’d lost his virtue (“I want to get my goodness back,” he told Merlo when he broke up with him) makes all of this very heady reading, however. Yet there’s an uneasy feeling that Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is too good a story. This is a theatrical book by a theatrical writer about a theatrical man. In Leverich we see Williams in the world; in Lahr we seem to be enclosed in Williams’ head—or at some perpetual rehearsal in a theater, in which all that changes is the play.
The problem with that—with so many books about Williams—is that we may all have fallen for what must have been, in part, a performance. It’s telling that one of Williams’ last plays, Out Cry, is about two actors alone in a theater. In Leverich we see an ambitious, middle-class boy from St. Louis, a college graduate and fraternity member who worked hard and never stopped working and knew just what effect he was having on people. But that practical, competent, disciplined, and shrewd Williams is so often inundated by the rest of his life. In the scathing review Vidal wrote of Dotson Rader’s 1985 memoir of Williams, Vidal remembers a moment at the beach in Key West when Williams turned to him and said, “I like my life.” I’m sure he did. “What do I want?” Williams wrote in his notebooks in 1938. “I want love and creative power!—Eh bien! Get it!”
He did, even if neither could be sustained forever.
Andrew Holleran has contributed several pieces on Tennessee Williams to these pages over the years.