Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage
I doubt that anyone who doesn’t know Tennessee William’s life as well as I do can have as much fun as I did in reading these two books, or can feel quite so much dismay. Or depression. Not that the books are alike. They are, in fact, so different that an innocent reader coming upon them together might well arrive at the conclusion that there isn’t a word of truth in either.
Bruce Smith’s book amounts to little more than voyeurism; a dramatized account by a journalist collecting “copy,” posing as an intimate. Maria St. Just’s book is quite a different kettle of fish, or perhaps I should say a horse of a different color, since there is a certain Wizard of Oz quality to much recorded in it. As there is an Alice in Wonderland madness to the statement on the jacket of Smith’s book that it is “less bitchy and not as depressing as other books” on Williams’s later years, since it is largely an account of his shooting up with morphine; or whatever, downing martinis when “not drinking,” paranoiacally planning pre-opening promotion the afternoon of first night, and bitching everybody in the book except those characters the author bitches with equal unrestraint.
I am not an uninvolved observer. I met Maria, as Tennessee did, in 1948. From reading Smith’s book, I discovered that I even saw him once with Tennessee and Maria. It was the week that Clothes for a Summer Hotel opened on Broadway in March 1980. I was walking down Fifth Avenue with Sandy Campbell, who lived with me and had played the young collector in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway with Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando. At Fifty-sixth Street, Maria and Tennessee passed with a third person. Sandy was wearing a visored cap, more or less like a train conductor’s, similar to one Truman Capote had recently adopted after a face lift and a hair transplant. Turning, both Maria and Tennessee shouted, “Truman! Truman!” Since Capote’s appearance at that time was not such that it would please you to be mistaken for him, even by someone you were on good terms with, as we were not with Tennessee and Maria, Sandy glared at them in silence. Maria hissed in a stage whisper to Tennessee, “It isn’t Truman!” They then made a giggling about-face. And, lo and behold, here the encounter is in Smith’s book, presented as a meeting with Capote, who for reasons unexplained, looks vaguely at the three of them as though he has never seen them before and passes on.
The name is Smith’s game; making sense doesn’t count. Earlier on, Costly Performances devotes the better part of a page to Tennessee’s telling Smith how Tallulah Bankhead wanted to appear in a revival of Streetcar and how he refused to allow her to; she was too old and the idea was absurd. “No, I told her, let’s not go into it. Just no. I had no wish to insult her but the occasion made it unavoidable and that was the end of that.”
And that is the end of Smith’s anecdote. Does he not know, or does he think it doesn’t need to be said, that Bankhead did appear in a revival of Streetcar? And that the revival (a production that Campbell, who repeated his original role in it, recorded in a brief but vivid book, B: Twenty-nine Letters from Coconut Grove) brought about the real drama between Bankhead and Tennessee? And that it ended in a heated exchange between them of letters in The New York Times in which she had the last word, writing that his behavior “forever scuttled the ancient legend, in vino veritas“? (Tennessee’s main tool for antagonizing Bankhead, incidentally, was the then Maria Britneva.)
Even when Smith has an anecdote that has meaning, he doesn’t know how to relate it. Tennessee tells him that one day in the Gotham Book Mart in New York Helen Hayes came up to him and said, “I know I can’t act, Tennessee. You may put yourself at rest on the matter. I own up to the matter freely.” Since I have wondered for years if Miss Hayes simply took lying down the series of unkind remarks Tennessee wrote about her in Memoirs, including that her lack of acting ability made the London production of The Glass Menagerie a disaster, it is fun of a sort to learn that she didn’t. But for the reader who hasn’t that question in his mind, there isn’t a word in Costly Performances to reveal what she was talking about. Nothing.
Five O’Clock Angel is far from nothing. It has hundreds of pages of Tennessee’s letters and other writings. Since Maria St. Just’s game is to connect anything and everything that happened to Tennessee after June 1948 to herself, she presents his writings, which appear sandwiched between his letters and her comments, always as “given to” or “dedicated to Maria.” (One is a beautiful prose poem that begins, “The animal is the comforter and the betrayer.”) Well, they could be. He did dedicate poems to her. And, in any case, Tennessee would probably approve; this is the kind of performance he enjoyed from Maria.
When Tennessee met her at a party in London given by John Gielgud, Maria Britneva, as she was then, was a delightful young mischief maker. He took to her right away. After Italy, where he had been for six months, and the Italians, he was appalled by the unattractiveness of London and the soigné youngish men around Gielgud, who was directing Helen Hayes in the British production of The Glass Menagerie. “Christ, what a dull town and what stuffy people!” he wrote to me, still in Italy. “It is ‘Haute Bohème’ in which there are only middle-aged fags who still think they are young and pretty.”
Maria’s lively and undisguised forwardness, like a wicked child’s, was a relief. She was here, there, and everywhere from the start, shopping for him, looking after his laundry, but best of all rattling off stories with a colorful stock of sharptongued phrases that were new to him. Her gleeful opportunism delighted him, even when he was its object, for she was too good-natured to go too far.
And he probably would be just as delighted at the performance she is putting on in Five O’Clock Angel, a title as good as one of his. For, although she is doing her best to work up an idealized portrait of herself, rather than a veracious one, she is so wrapped up in her picture of herself, like a little girl parading before a mirror in fancy clothes, pretending to be a queen, that she makes very little effort really to deceive anyone who doesn’t want to be—wisely knowing, perhaps, that most people want to be deceived. And so the Wizard of Oz element enters.
She starts off without an iota of caution, describing the party at Gielgud’s at which she met Tennessee. “I’ve no idea why I was invited.” As soon as anyone who knew Maria and Tennessee in those days reads this sentence, he thinks: Well, I can tell her why she was invited; she was invited because she would not leave Gielgud alone until he invited her, so she could meet Tennessee Williams. But now she doesn’t like this picture of herself—the self Tennessee liked—and this is her version of their encounter, at this party where Tennessee was the guest of honor and where Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Noel Coward, and most of the other important people in the British theater had been invited to meet him.
She sees an unassuming and vulnerable little man, wearing one blue and one red sock, sitting alone on a sofa, ignored by everybody, looking like an understudy and genuinely surprised that even she will speak to him. She offers him a drink and, since he looks hungry, arranges to meet him the next day at his hotel and take him home to her mother’s for a meal. Which she does, still all unaware that this shy man with whom she felt an immediate rapport is Tennessee Williams.
The fun is that she doesn’t do a thing to make this fantasy credible. Neither about the party or afterward. It comes out immediately that his hotel was the Savoy, one of the most posh in London. And instead of trying in any way to lend credibility to her picture of Tennessee as the mismatched socks Tennessee of five years earlier, only a few pages further on she includes a photograph of him that year with Gore Vidal in Rome, in the full sartorial splendor that he consistently sported after the success of Streetcar, quite as spiffy as a model in today’s Ralph Lauren’s Polo ads.
The photographs are one of the book’s pleasures. There are a great many of them and they are well reproduced. But they, too, help give away Maria’s pretensions. She writes a sharptongued, amusing description of Audrey Wood’s husband, William Liebling; but when he turns up in one of the photographs reproduced, she labels him “unidentified.”
Tennessee and Maria shared feelings that they recognized and appreciated in each other. Maria had a talent of making her loneliness, or your loneliness, a bond between you. And Tennessee by his nature, not by a lack of people who cared for him, was always lonely. But what Tennessee soon appreciated in her most was that to please him she was willing to express for him feelings he was leery to express. The year after they met, and she had followed him to New York, he wrote her from Rome, where he had returned, that she hadn’t heard from him before because he was cross with her. “You are a very naughty person, you know: at least the vocal part of you is astonishingly active. You seem to say all the things that discreet people only think. Oh, that tongue of yours!”
And in letter after letter, you can see him carefully guiding her into the part he likes to see her play. Edith Evans is “not long for this world. That will please you.” Truman Capote wears a Bronzini scarf. “I once told him he was going to die like Isadora Duncan who also wore one of those things and it got caught in the wheel of a car in which she was making a very grand departure and it promptly broke her neck. Ha ha! I knew that would please you, darling.” He meets a rich woman in Rome. “Everybody had to go up and kiss her hand. I wish you had been there to bite it. Perhaps you could have bitten off one of her diamonds.”
Maria and Tennessee needed something from each other; and she grew in his friendship because, with the affability of someone who knows in what a defenseless position the world can put her, she answered his needs with a combination of flattery and mockery, good humor and slyness—and the intelligence not to omit Tennessee himself entirely from her sharp remarks.
I should be writing about Tennessee’s letters, but it is hard to. There are so many; and neither Maria nor her editor (or editors—the editorial comments jump, quite as nervously as a cat on a hot tin roof, from first to third person, sometimes as many as half a dozen times on a page) makes an effort to connect the epistolary flood to any understanding of Tennessee’s character and work. When you need some illumination about what lies behind a certain letter, you get only snippets about Maria’s relatives, or identification of theatrical production dates and people. There is no hint of what is real and what fantasy in what Tennessee says, which Maria must often know. And increasingly after her marriage to Lord St. Just in 1956, the references are not only to Maria’s own family, but to her husband, Peter, and her daughters, Natasha and Pulcheria.
The results are often bizarre:
In the spring of 1979 Tennessee worked on revisions to Goforth, a new version of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, for the English Theatre in Vienna. The production never took place.
Maria and Peter were planning a dance at Wilbury Hall on July 7 for Franco Zeffirelli, whose film The Champ was opening in London, and for their daughters’ coming of age.
On April 30, 1981, Audrey Wood suffered a massive stroke which left her in a coma until her death in December 1985.
In May, Pulcheria’s daughter Natalia was born.
The letters themselves cover the years in which Tennessee wrote all of his plays after Summer and Smoke, through his last decade of increasingly desperate efforts to coordinate and have produced everything from the first version of The Two-Character Play to A House Not Meant to Stand. In Five O’Clock Angel, all these are discussed; but it is the people he is falling in and out with, hiring and firing, that are the main text; and his voice is sufficiently intimate to give this book, too, a touch of voyeurism. The effect is of a close-up of the “copy” the public already knows: the names of all the people and all the places Tennessee frequented, a cast of characters overlapping with Dorothy Kilgallen’s The Voice of Broadway: Gossip in Gotham, from which Maria proudly quotes—about herself.
And in the last decade, as the neurotic fleeings from everywhere and everyone, the denouncings of everyone, increase, it is ever more difficult to know what is imaginary and what true. Which gets me back to the innocent reader of both Bruce Smith’s Costly Performances and Five O’Clock Angel. In his book, during the production of Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which is where their stories overlap, he is Tennessee’s only comfort and protector, while Maria is, for Tennessee, a “hard case,” with a hatchet face and blatant self-concern, whom Tennessee doesn’t want to be alone with. In hers, she is Tennessee’s only comfort and protector, while Smith is merely “the latest travelling companion,” so unable to contain his malice that Tennessee kicks him out of the opening-night party and never sees him again. Maria is the quicker sicario of the two; for while she persists in Smith’s book for fifty pages, he enters hers, unnamed, and exits, all in one sentence.
The letters are the important thing in Five O’Clock Angel. But by their very importance they bring up a question. Maria was so close to Tennessee for so long—with him and Frank Merlo in Paris in the summer of 1949, with Tennessee at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington in the winter of 1979—why should she want to be closer in make-believe? Nevertheless, she does. Her version of meeting Tennessee at Gielgud’s party is just the beginning. A few pages further on, she transfers Tennessee’s trip to Sicily, to watch Luchino Visconti filming La Terra Trema, from early 1948, before she met him, to a year later so she can tell it as her story. Well, a romance doesn’t have to be factual. Everyone makes up things and fakes appearances. At the Tony Award ceremonies they have stand-ins to take the nominees’ places when they go to the stage so there’ll never be an empty seat in the house.
And what are facts, anyway, in dealing with a person like Tennessee? In his letters to Maria, he says that Franco Zeffirelli’s script for Camille is “painful” to read on one page, “a beautiful script” on the next. Facts aren’t the truth, even if the two overlap. Besides, the truth isn’t easy; it is not a porcelain cat, like the one Carl van Vechten kept in his living room when he could no longer face the death of a new loved pet; it is alive, enticing, fleeing, affectionate, indifferent, attacking—and it often leaves you not knowing where you stand. Also, it isn’t good “copy”; it is too complicated; it always needs an other shade of distinction, another degree of distinctiveness. And it doesn’t sell. Bringing “facts” in, as I have heard before, and no doubt will hear again, is “sour grapes.” And, unfortunately, I haven’t Gore Vidal’s enviable ability to leave the reader laughing with a genial, “But magnum of sour grapes to one side.” So, enough of this.
If Maria St. Just wants make-believe, well, some people would rather remain in Oz and be the Wizard than go home to Kansas.
A footnote on the photographs: The Wicked Witch of the North, or whoever put together the illustrations for Five O’Clock Angel, should be ashamed, in a book that makes and quotes only unpleasant remarks about Jo Healy, who was a good friend of Tennessee’s for many years, to have made use of a double-page spread of the photographs Jo Healy took at the opening-night party for Summer and Smoke and then to have credited them only as “courtesy of the Estate of Tennessee Williams.” Tennessee, as Maria well knows, wrote unpleasant things about all of his friends in letters to all the others; and Maria’s was one of the names I-cut from Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940–65, to spare people’s feelings.