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Immortal Bird

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.”

Letters

Caring for the Bird August 15, 1985

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