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Immortal Bird

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.

2.

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.”

  1. *

    A volume of the collected stories will be published by New Directions in October.

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