The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams
Tennessee: Cry of the Heart
Although poetry is no longer much read by anyone in freedom’s land, biographies of those American poets who took terrible risks not only with their talents but with their lives, are often quite popular; and testimonies, chockablock with pity, terror, and awe, provide the unread poet, if not his poetry, with a degree of posthumous fame. Ever since Hart (“Man overboard!”) Crane dove into the Caribbean and all our hearts, the most ambitious of our poets have often gone the suicide route:
There was an unnatural stillness in the kitchen which made her heart skip a beat; then she saw Marvin, huddled in front of the oven; then she screamed: the head of the “finest sestina-operator of the Seventies” [Hudson Review, Spring 1971] had been burned to a crisp.
If nothing else, suicide really validates, to use lit-crit’s ultimate verb, the life if not the poetry; and so sly Marvin was able to die secure in the knowledge that his emblematic life would be written about and that readers who would not have been caught dead, as it were, with the work of the finest sestina-operator of the Seventies will now fall, like so many hyenas, on the bio-bared bones of that long agony his life: High school valetudinarian. Columbia. The master’s degree, written with heart’s blood (on Rimbaud in translation). The awakening at Bread Loaf; and the stormy marriage to Linda. Precocious—and prescient—meteoric success of “On First Looking Into Delmore Schwartz’s Medicine Cabinet” (Prairie Schooner, 1961). The drinking. The children. The pills. Pulitzer lost; Pulitzer regained. Seminal meeting with Roethke at the University of Iowa in an all-night diner. What conversation! Oh, they were titans then. But—born with one skin too few. All nerves; jangled sensibility. Lithium’s failure is Lethe’s opportunity. Genius-magma too radioactive for leaden human brain to hold. Oh! mounting horror as, one by one, the finest minds of a generation snuff themselves out in ovens, plastic bags, the odd river. Death and then—triumphant transfiguration as A Cautionary Tale.
By and large, American novelists and playwrights have not had to kill themselves in order to be noticed: there are still voluntary readers and restless playgoers out there. But since so many American writers gradually drink themselves to death (as do realtors, jockeys, and former officers of the Junior League), these sodden buffaloes are now attracting the sort of Cautionary Talespinner that usually keens over suicide-poets. Although the writer as actor in his time is nothing new, and the writer as performing self has been examined by Richard Poirier as a phenomenon ancillary to writer’s writing, for the first time the self now threatens to become the sole artifact—to be written about by others who tend to erase, in the process, whatever writing the writer may have written.
Scott Fitzgerald, that most self-conscious of writers, made others conscious of himself and his crack-up through the pages known as The Crack-Up. Ever since then, American journalists and academics have used him as our paradigmatic Cautionary Tale on the ground that if you are young, handsome, talented, successful, and married to a beautiful woman, you will be destroyed because your life will be absolutely unbearable to those of us who teach and are taught. If, by some accident of fate, you are not destroyed, you will have a highly distressing old age like Somerset Maugham’s which we will describe in all its gamy incontinent horror. There is no winning, obviously. But then the Greeks knew that. And the rest is—Bruccoli. Today the writer need not write his life. Others will do it for him. But he must provide them with material; and a gaudy descent into drink, drugs, sex, and terminal name dropping.
As Tennessee Williams’s powers failed (drink/drugs/age), he turned himself into a circus. If people would not go to his new plays, he would see to it that they would be able to look at him on television and read about him in the press. He lived a most glamorous crack-up; and now that he is dead, a thousand Cautionary Tales are humming along the electrical circuits of a thousand word processors en route to the electrical circuits of thousands upon thousands of brains already overloaded with tales of celebrity-suffering, the ultimate consolation—and justification—to those who didn’t make it or, worse, didn’t even try.
In these pages, I reviewed Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs (February 5, 1976). We had been friends from the late Forties to the early Sixties; after that, we saw very little of each other (drink/drugs), but I never ceased to be fond of what I called the Glorious Bird. Readers of these pages, who have waited, I hope patiently, nine years to find out Tennessee’s reaction to my review of Memoirs, should know that when next we met, he narrowed his cloudy blue eyes and said, in tones that one of these biographers would call “clipped,” “When your review appeared my book was number five on the nonfiction best-seller list of The New York Times. Within two weeks of your review, it was not listed at all.”
I last saw him three or four years ago. We were together on a televised Chicago talk show. He was in good form, despite a papilla on the bridge of his nose, the first sign, ever, of that sturdy rubbery body’s resentment of alcohol. There were two or three other guests around a table; and the host. Abruptly, the Bird settled back in his chair and shut his eyes. The host’s habitual unease became panic. After some disjointed general chat, he said, tentatively, “Tennessee, are you asleep?” And the Bird replied, eyes still shut, “No, I am not asleep but sometimes I shut my eyes when I am bored.”
Two testimonials to the passion and the agony of the life of Tennessee Williams have just been published. One is a straightforward biography of the sort known as journeyman; it is called The Kindness of Strangers (what else?) by Donald Spoto. The other is Tennessee: Cry of the Heart (whose heart?) by a male sob sister who works for Parade magazine.
The first book means to shock and titillate in a responsible way (drink, drugs, “wildly promiscuous sex”); that is, the author tries, not always successfully, to get the facts if not the life straight. The second is a self-serving memoir with a Capotean approach to reality. In fact, I suspect that Crier of the Heart may indeed be the avatar of the late Caravaggio of gossip. If so, he has now taken up the fallen leper’s bell; and we need not ask ever for whom it tolls.
Crier tells us that he lived with Williams, from time to time, in the Seventies. He tells us that Williams got him on the needle for two years; but that he bears him no grudge. In turn, he “radicalized” Williams during the Vietnam years. Each, we are told, really and truly hated the rich. Yet, confusingly, Crier is celebrated principally for his friendships with not one (1) but two (2) presidential sisters, Pat Kennedy Lawford and the late Ruth Carter Stapleton. He is also very much at home in counterrevolutionary circles: “A year before Tennessee died, I visited Mrs. Reagan at the White House and we had a long conversation alone in the Green Room after lunch. She asked about Tennessee, and Truman Capote, among others….” Oh, to have been a fly on that Green wall! But then when it comes to the rich and famous, Crier’s style alternates between frantic to tell us the very worst and vatic as he cries up what to him is plainly the only game on earth or in heaven, Celebrity, as performed by consenting adults in Manhattan.
Since most of Crier’s references to me are wrong, I can only assume that most of the references to others are equally untrue. But then words like “true” and “false” are irrelevant to this sort of venture. It is the awful plangency of the Cry that matters; and this one’s a real hoot, as they used to say on the Bird Circuit.
On the other hand, responsible Mr. Spoto begins at the beginning, and I found interesting the school days, endlessly protracted, of Thomas Lanier Williams (he did not use the name Tennessee until he was twenty-eight). The first twenty years of Williams’s life provided him with the characters that he would write about. There is his sister Rose, two years older than he, who moved from eccentricity to madness. There is the mother, Edwina, who gave the order for Rose’s lobotomy, on the best medical advice, or so she says; for Rose may or may not have accused the hard-drinking father, Cornelius, at war with sissy son, Tom, and relentlessly genteel wife, of making sexual advances to her, which he may or may not have made. In any case, Tom never ceased to love Rose, despite the blotting out of her personality. Finally, there was the maternal grandfather, the Reverend Dakin; and the grandmother, another beloved Rose, known as Grand.
In 1928, the Reverend Dakin took the seventeen-year-old Williams to Europe. Grandson was grateful to grandfather to the end, which did not come until 1955. Many years earlier, the reverend gave his life savings to unkind strangers for reasons never made clear. The Bird told me that he thought that his grandfather had been blackmailed because of an encounter with a boy. Later, the reverend burned all his sermons on the lawn. In time, Tennessee’s sympathies shifted from his enervating mother to his now entirely absent father. These are the cards that life dealt Williams; and he played them for the rest of his life. He took on no new characters, as opposed to male lovers, who tend either to appear in his work as phantoms or as youthful versions of the crude father, impersonated, much too excitingly, by Marlon Brando.
A great deal has been made of Williams’s homosexual adventures; not least, alas, by himself. Since those who write about him are usually more confused about human sexuality than he was, which is saying a lot, some instruction is now in order.
Williams was born, 1911, in the heart of the Bible belt (Columbus, Mississippi); he was brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, a town more Southern than not. In 1919, God-fearing Protestants imposed Prohibition on the entire United States. Needless to say, in this world of fierce Christian peasant values anything pleasurable was automatically sin; and to be condemned. Williams may not have believed in God but he certainly believed in sin; he came to sex nervously and relatively late—in his twenties; his first experiences were heterosexual; then he shifted to homosexual relations with numerous people over many years. Although he never doubted that what he liked to do was entirely natural, he was obliged to tote the usual amount of guilt of a man of his time and place and class (lower-middleclass WASP, Southern-airs-and-graces division). In the end, he suffered from a sense of otherness, not unuseful for a writer.
But the guilt took a not-so-useful turn: he became a lifelong hypochondriac, wasting a great deal of psychic energy on imaginary illnesses. He was always about to die of some dread inoperable tumor. When I first met him (1948), he was just out of a Paris hospital; and he spoke with somber joy of the pancreatic cancer that would soon cause him to fall from the perch. Years later I discovered that the pancreatic cancer for which he had been hospitalized was nothing more than a half-mile or so of homely tapeworm. When he died (not of “an unwashed grape” but of suffocation caused by the inhaling of a nasal-spray top), an autopsy was performed and the famous heart (“I have suffered a series of cardiac seizures and arrests since my twelfth year”) was found to be in fine condition, and the liver that of a hero.
Just as Williams never really added to his basic repertory company of actors: Cornelius and Edwina, Reverend Dakin and Rose, himself and Rose, he never picked up much information about the world during his half-century as an adult. He also never tried, consciously at least, to make sense of the society into which he was born. If he had, he might have figured out that there is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, and what anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance.
So why all the fuss? In order for a ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions. Of all prohibitions, sexual taboo is the most useful because sex involves everyone. To be able to lock up someone or deprive him of employment because of his sex life is a very great power indeed, and one seldom used in civilized societies. But although the United States is the best and most perfect of earth’s societies and our huddled masses earth’s envy, we have yet to create a civilization, as opposed to a way of life. That is why we have allowed our governors to divide the population into two teams. One team is good, godly, straight; the other is evil, sick, vicious. Like the good team’s sectarian press, Williams believed, until the end of his life, in this wacky division. He even went to an analyst who ordered him to give up both writing and sex so that he could be transformed into a good-team player. Happily, the analyst did not do in the Bird’s beak, as Freud’s buddy Fliess ruined the nose of a young lady, on the ground that only through as assault on the nose could onanism be stopped in its vile track. Also, happily, the Bird’s anarchy triumphed over the analyst. After a troubling session on the couch, he would appear on television and tell Mike Wallace all about the problems of his analysis with one Dr. Kubie, who not long after took down his shingle and retired from shrinkage.
Both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire opened during that brief golden age (1945–1950) when the United States was everywhere not only regnant but at peace, something we have not been for the last thirty-five years. At the beginning, Williams was acclaimed by pretty much everyone; only Time magazine was consistently hostile, suspecting that Williams might be “basically negative” and “sterile,” code words of the day for fag. More to the point, Time’s founder, Henry Luce, had been born in China, son of a Christian missionary. “The greatest task of the United States in the twentieth century,” he once told me, “will be the Christianization of China.” With so mad a proprietor, it is no wonder that Time-Life should have led the press crusade against fags in general and Williams in particular.
Although Williams was able to survive as a playwright because he was supported by the reviewers of The New York Times and Herald Tribune, the only two newspapers that mattered for a play’s success, he was to take a lot of flak over the years, often from Jewish journalists who employed—and employ—the same language in denouncing fags that sick Christians use to denounce Jews. After so much good-team propaganda, it is now widely believed that since Tennessee Williams liked to have sex with men (true), he hated women (untrue); as a result, his women characters are thought to be malicious caricatures, designed to subvert and destroy godly straightness.
But there is no actress on earth who will not testify that Williams created the best women characters in the modern theater. After all, he never ceased to love Rose and Rose; and his women characters tended to be either one or the other. Faced with contrary evidence, the antifag brigade promptly switch to their fallback position. All right, so he didn’t hate women (as real guys do—the ballbreakers!) but, worse, far worse, he thought he was a woman. Needless to say, a biblical hatred of women intertwines with the good team’s hatred of fags. But Williams never thought of himself as anything but a man who could, as an artist, inhabit any gender; on the other hand, his sympathies were always with those defeated by “the squares”; or by time, once the sweet bird of youth is flown. Or by death, “which has never been much in the way of completion.”
Finally, in sexual matters (the principal interest of the two Cautionary Tales at hand), there seems to be a double standard at work. Although the heterosexual promiscuity of Pepys, Boswell, Byron, Henry Miller, and President Kennedy has never deeply upset any of their fans, Williams’s (“feverish”) promiscuity quite horrifies Mr. Spoto, and even Crier from the Heart tends to sniffle at all those interchangeable pieces of trade. But Williams had a great deal of creative and sexual energy; and he used both. Why not? And so what?
Heart’s Crier describes how I took Williams to meet another sexual athlete (good-team, natch) Senator John F. Kennedy. Crier quotes the Bird, who is speaking to Mrs. Pat Lawford, Kennedy’s sister and Crier’s current friend: “Gore said he was invited to a lunch by Mr. Kennedy and would I like to come along? Of course I did, since I greatly admired your brother. He brought such vitality to our country’s life, such hope and great style. He made thinking fashionable again.” Actually, the Bird had never heard of Kennedy that day in 1958 when we drove from Miami to Palm Beach for lunch with the golden couple, who had told me that they lusted to meet the Bird. He, in turn, was charmed by them. “Now tell me again,” he would ask Jack, repeatedly, “what you are. A governor or a senator?” Each time, Jack, dutifully, gave name, rank, and party. Then the Bird would sternly quiz him on America’s China policy; and Jack would look a bit glum. Finally, he proposed that we shoot at a target in the patio.
While Jackie flitted about, taking Polaroid shots of us, the Bird banged away at the target; and proved to be a better shot than our host. At one point, while Jack was shooting, the Bird muttered in my ear, “Get that ass!” I said, “Bird, you can’t cruise our next president.” The Bird chuckled ominously: “They’ll never elect those two. They are much too attractive for the American people.” Later, I told Jack that the Bird had commented favourably on his ass. He beamed. “Now, that’s very exciting,” he said. But, fun and games to one side, it is, of course, tragic that both men were, essentially, immature sexually and so incapable of truly warm mature human relations. One could weep for what might have been.
Crier from the Heart has lots and lots of scores to settle in the course of his lament and he brings us bad news about all sorts of famous people who may have offended him. Certainly, he wears if not his heart his spleen on his sleeve. Mary Hemingway confessed to him that she and her husband Ernest were “never lovers. Mr. Hemingway was beyond that by then.” Bet you didn’t know that! As for the rich whom he and Tennessee so radically hate, they are finally incarnated not by the Rockefellers or by the Mellons but by a couple of hard-working overachievers called de la Renta, whose joint fortune must be a small fraction of the Bird’s. To be fair, Crier has his compassionate side. A piece of trade had no money; and Tennessee was passed out. So Crier took the Bird’s checkbook and “wrote out a check for six hundred dollars made out to cash, and took it downstairs to the hotel desk and had it cashed. I went back upstairs, handed Chris the money, and kissed him goodbye.”
“It was the only time I ever forged Tennessee’s name to a check, and I do not regret it.” For such heroic continence, canaille oblige.
Thirty-seven years ago this March, Tennessee Williams and I celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday in Rome, except that he said that it was his thirty-fourth birthday. Years later, when confronted with the fact that he had been born in 1911 not 1914, he said, serenely, “I do not choose to count as part of my life the three years that I spent working for a shoe company.” Actually, he spent ten months not three years in the shoe company, and the reason that he had changed his birth date was to qualify for a play contest open to those twenty-five or under. No matter. I thought him very old in 1948. But I was twenty-two in the spring of annus mirabilis when my novel The City and the Pillar was a best seller (Mr. Spoto thinks the book was published later) and his play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was taking the world by storm; as it still does.
I must say I was somewhat awed by Tennessee’s success. Of course, he went on and on about the years of poverty but, starting with The Glass Menagerie (1944), he had an astonishingly productive and successful fifteen years: Summer and Smoke (1947), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Sweet Bird of Youth (1956), Suddenly Last Summer (1958). But even at that high moment in Rome, the Bird’s eye was coldly realistic. “Baby, the playwright’s working career is a short one. There’s always somebody new to take your place.” I said that I didn’t believe it would happen in his case, and I still don’t. The best of his plays are as permanent as anything can be in the age of Kleenex.
All his life, Tennessee wrote short stories. I have just finished reading the lot of them, some forty-six stories.* The first was written when Tom was seventeen: a sister avenges her brother in lush prose in even lusher Pharaonic Egypt; and published in Weird Tales. The last is unpublished. “The Negative” was written when Tennessee was seventy-one; he deals, as he so often came to do, with a poet, losing his mind, art; at the end, “as he ran toward this hugely tolerant receiver, he scattered from his gentleman’s clothes, from their pockets, the illegibly scribbled poetry of his life.”
To my mind, the short stories, and not his Memoirs, are the true memoir of Tennessee Williams. Whatever happened to him, real or imagined, he turned into prose. Except for occasional excursions into fantasy, he sticks pretty close to life as he experienced or imagined it. No, he is not a great short story writer like Chekhov but he has something rather more rare than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice that is wholly convincing. In this, he resembles Mark Twain, a very different sort of writer (to overdo understatement); yet Hannibal, Missouri, is not all that far from St. Louis, Missouri. Each is best at comedy and each was always uneasy when not so innocently abroad. Tennessee loved to sprinkle foreign phrases throughout his work, and they are always wrong. As Henry James said of Whitman: “Oh, yes, a great genius; undoubtedly a very great genius! Only one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.”
Tennessee worked every morning on whatever was at hand. If there was no play to be finished or new dialogue to be sent round to the theater, he would open a drawer and take out the draft of a story already written and begin to rewrite it. I once found him revising a short story that had just been published. “Why,” I asked, “rewrite what’s already in print?” He looked at me, vaguely; then he said, “Well, obviously it’s not finished.” And went back to his typing.
In Paris, he gave me the story “Rubio y Morena” to read. I didn’t like it. So fix it, he said. He knew, of course, that there is no fixing someone else’s story (or life) but he was curious to see what I would do. So I reversed backward-running sentences, removed repetitions, eliminated half those adjectives and adverbs that he always insisted do their work in pairs. I was proud of the result. He was deeply irritated. “What you have done is remove my style, which is all that I have.”
Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it. This is common. To start with, there would be, let us say, a sexual desire for someone. Consummated or not, the desire (“something that is made to occupy a larger space than that which is afforded by the individual being”) would produce reveries. In turn, the reveries would be written down as a story. But should the desire still remain unfulfilled, he would make a play of the story and then—and this is why he was so compulsive a working playwright—he would have the play produced so that he could, at relative leisure, like God, rearrange his original experience into something that was no longer God’s and unpossessable but his. The Bird’s frantic lifelong pursuit of—and involvement in—play productions was not just ambition or a need to be busy; it was the only way that he ever had of being entirely alive. The sandy encounters with his first real love, a dancer, on the beach at Provincetown and the dancer’s later death (“an awful flower grew in his brain”) instead of being forever lost were forever his once they had been translated to the stage where living men and women could act out his text and with their immediate flesh close at last the circle of desire. “For love I make characters in plays,” he wrote; and did.
I had long since forgotten why I called him the Glorious Bird until I reread the stories. The image of the bird is everywhere in his work. The bird is flight, poetry, life. The bird is time, death: “Have you ever seen the skeleton of a bird? If you have you will know how completely they are still flying.” In “The Negative” he wrote of a poet who can no longer assemble a poem: “Am I a wingless bird?” he writes; and soars no longer.
Although the Bird accepted our “culture’s” two-team theory, he never seriously wanted to play on the good team, as poor Dr. Kubie discovered on prime-time television. He went right on having sex; he also went right on hating the “squares” or, as he put it, in the story “Two on a Party” (1954), where Billy (in life the poet Oliver Evans) and Cora (Marion Black Vaccaro) cruise sailors together:
It was a rare sort of moral anarchy, doubtless, that held them together, a really fearful shared hatred of everything that was restrictive and which they felt to be false in the society they lived in and against the grain of which they continually operated. They did not dislike what they called “squares.” They loathed and despised them, and for the best of reasons. Their existence was a never-ending contest with the squares of the world, the squares who have such a virulent rage at everything not in their book.
The squares had indeed victimized the Bird but by 1965, when he came to write The Knightly Quest, he had begun to see that the poor squares’ “virulent rage” is deliberately whipped up by the rulers in order to distract them from such real problems as, in the Sixties, the Vietnam War and Watergate and Operation Armageddon then—and now—under way. In this story, Tennessee moves Lyndon Johnson’s America into a near future where the world is about to vanish in a shining cloud; and he realizes, at last, that the squares have been every bit as damaged and manipulated as he; and so he now writes an elegy to the true American, Don Quixote, an exile in his own country: “His castles are immaterial and his ways are endless and you do not have to look into many American eyes to suddenly meet somewhere the beautiful grave lunacy of his gaze.” Also, Tennessee seems to be trying to bring into focus the outlandish craziness of a society which had so wounded him. Was it possible that he was not the evil creature portrayed by the press? Was it possible that they are wrong about everything? A light bulb switches on: “All of which makes me suspect that back of the sun and way deep under our feet, at the earth’s center, are not a couple of noble mysteries but a couple of joke books.” Right on, Bird! It was a nice coincidence that just as Tennessee was going around the bend (drink, drugs, and a trip to the bin in 1969), the United States was doing the same. Suddenly, the Bird and Uncle Sam met face to face in The Knightly Quest. Better too late than never. Anyway, he was, finally, beginning to put the puzzle together.
“I cannot write any sort of story,” said Tennessee to me, “unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.”
In story after story there are handsome young men, some uncouth like Stanley Kowalski; some couth like the violinist in “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin.” Then, when Tennessee produced A Streetcar Named Desire, he inadvertently smashed one of our society’s most powerful taboos (no wonder Henry Luce loathed him): he showed the male not only as sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object for something never before entirely acknowledged by the good team, the lust of women. In the age of Calvin Klein’s steaming hunks, it must be hard for those under forty to realize that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes, a shirt and tie, shined leather shoes, and a gray felt hat. If he was thought attractive, it was because he had a nice smile and a twinkle in his eye. In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a torn sweaty T-shirt, there was an earthquake; and the male as sex object is still at our culture’s center stage and will so remain until the likes of Boy George redress, as it were, the balance. Yet, ironically, Tennessee’s auctorial sympathies were not with Stanley but with his “victim” Blanche.
I have never known anyone to complain as much as the Bird. If he was not dying of some new mysterious illness, he was in mourning for a dead lover, usually discarded long before the cancerous death, or he was suffering from the combination of various cabals, real and imagined, that were out to get him. Toward the end, he had personified the ring-leaders. They were a Mr. and Mrs. Gelb who worked for The New York Times. Because they had written a book about Eugene O’Neill, the Bird was convinced that the Gelbs were using the Times in order to destroy him so that they could sell more copies of their book about O’Neill who would then be America’s numero uno dramatist. Among Crier’s numerous errors and inventions is the Eugene O’Neill letter, “the only one he ever wrote to Tennessee,” who “read it to me, first explaining that he had received it after the opening of The Glass Menagerie…. It was a very moving and a very sad letter, and I don’t know what became of it.” The letter was written not after Menagerie but Streetcar, and Tennessee never read it to Crier or to anyone else because neither Tennessee nor I, in Rome 1948, could make head or tail of it. O’Neill was suffering from Parkinson’s disease; the handwriting was illegible. The Bird and I had a running gag over the years that would begin, “As Eugene O’Neill wrote you….” Except for O’Neill, the Bird’s sharp eye saw no dangerous competition. Once, at a function, where the guests were asked to line up alphabetically, Thornton Wilder approached the Bird and said, “I believe Wilder comes before Williams.” To which the Bird responded, “Only in the alphabet.”
I did not see much of him in the last years. I don’t recall when he got into the habit of taking barbiturates (later, speed; and worse). He certainly did his mind and body no good; but he was tough as they come, mind and body. The current chroniclers naturally emphasize the horrors of the last years because the genre requires that they produce a Cautionary Tale. Also, since the last years are the closest to us, they give us no sense at all of what he was like for most of his long life. Obviously, he wasn’t drunk or drugged all that much because he lived to write; and he wrote, like no one else.
I remember him best one noon in Key West during the early Fifties (exact date can be determined because on every jukebox “Tennessee Waltz” was being mournfully sung by Patti Page). Each of us had finished work for the day. We met on South Beach, a real beach then. We made our way through sailors on the sand to a terraced restaurant where the Bird sat back in a chair, put his bare feet up on a railing, looked out at the bright blue sea, and, as he drank his first and only martini of the midday, said, with a great smile, “I like my life.”
Caring for the Bird August 15, 1985
A volume of the collected stories will be published by New Directions in October. ↩