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.