“I particularly like New York on hot summer nights when all the…uh, superfluous people are off the streets.” These were, I think, the first words Tennessee addressed to me; then the foggy blue eyes blinked, and a nervous chuckle filled the moment’s silence before I said whatever I said.
Curtain rising. The place: an apartment at the American Academy in Rome. Occasion: a party for some newly arrived Americans, among them Frederic Prokosch, Samuel Barber. The month: March, 1948. The day: halcyon. What else could a March day be in the golden age?
I am pleased that I can remember so clearly my first meeting with the Glorious Bird, as I almost immediately called him for reasons long since forgotten (premonition, perhaps, of the eventual take-off and flight of youth’s sweet bird?). Usually, I forget first meetings, excepting always those solemn audiences granted by the old and famous when I was young and green. I recall vividly every detail of André Gide’s conversation and appearance, including the dark velvet beret he wore in his study at I bis rue Vaneau. I recall even more vividly my visits to George Santayana in his cell at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. He looked eerily like my grandmother, gone dramatically bald…. All these audiences, meetings, introductions took place in that anno mirabilis 1948, a year that proved to be the exact midpoint between the end of World War II and the beginning of what looks to be a permanent cold war. At the time, of course, none of us knew where history had placed us.
At that first meeting I thought Tennessee every bit as ancient as Gide and Santayana. After all, I was twenty-two. He was thirty-seven; but claimed to be thirty-three on the sensible ground that the four years he had spent working for a shoe company did not count. Now he was the most celebrated American playwright. A Streetcar Named Desire was still running in New York when we met that evening in a flat overlooking Rome: in those days a quiet city where hardly anyone was superfluous unless it was us, the first group of American writers and artists to arrive in Europe after the war.
In 1946 and 1947 Europe was still out-of-bounds for foreigners. But by 1948 the Italians had begun to pull themselves together, demonstrating once more their astonishing ability to cope with disaster which is so perfectly balanced by their absolute inability to deal with success.
Rome was strange to all of us. For one thing, Italy had been sealed off not only by war but by fascism. From the early Thirties on few English or American artists knew Italy well. There was mad Ezra, gentle Max, spurious B. B., and, of course, the Anglo-American historian Harold (now Sir Harold) Acton, in stately residence at Florence. By 1948 Acton had written supremely well about the Bourbons of Naples and the Medici of Florence; unfortunately, he was—is—prone to the writing of memoirs. And so, wanting no doubt to flesh out yet another chapter in the ongoing story of a long and marvelously uninteresting life, Acton came down to Rome to look at the new invaders. What he believed he saw and heard, he subsequently published in a little volume called More Memoirs of an Aesthete, a work to be cherished for its quite remarkable number of unaesthetic misprints and misspellings.
“After the First World War American writers and artists had emigrated to Paris; now they pitched upon Rome.” So Acton begins. “According to Stendhal, the climate was enough to gladden anybody, but this was not the reason: one of them explained to me that it was the facility of finding taxis, and very little of Rome can be seen from a taxi. Classical and Romantic Rome was no more to them than a picturesque background. Tennessee Williams, Victor [he means Frederic] Prokosch and Gore Vidal created a bohemian annexe to the American Academy….” Liking Rome for its many taxis is splendid stuff and I wish I had said it. Certainly whoever did was putting Acton on since the charm of Rome—1948—was the lack of automobiles of any kind. But Acton is just getting into stride. More to come.
Toward the end of March Tennessee gave a party to inaugurate his new flat in the Via Aurora (in the golden age even the street names were apt). Somehow or other, Acton got himself invited to the party. I remember him floating like some large etiolated fish through the crowded room; from time to time, he would make a sudden lunge at this or that promising bit of bait while Tennessee, he tells us, “wandered as a lost soul among the guests he assembled in an apartment which might have been in New York…. Neither he nor any of the group I met with him spoke Italian, yet he had a typically Neapolitan protégé who could speak no English.”
At this time Tennessee and I had been in Rome for only a few weeks and French, not Italian, was the second language of the reasonably well-educated American of that era. On the other hand, Prokosch knew Italian, German, and French; he also bore with becoming grace the heavy weight of a Yale doctorate in Middle English. But to Acton the author of The Asiatics, the translator of Hölderlin and Louise Labé was just another barbarian whose works “fell short of his perfervid imagination, [he] had the dark good looks of an advertiser of razor blades….” Happily, “Gore Vidal, the youngest in age, aggressively handsome in a clean-limbed sophomore style, had success written all over him…. His candour was engaging but he was slightly on the defensive, as if he anticipated an attack on his writings or his virtue.” Well, the young G. V. wasn’t so dumb: seeing the old one-two plainly in the middle distance, he kept sensibly out of reach.
A pudgy, taciturn, moustached little man without any obvious distinction”: thus Acton describes Tennessee. He then zeroes in on the “protégé” from Naples, a young man whom Acton calls “Pierino.” Acton tells us that Pierino had many complaints about Tennessee and his friends, mostly due to the language barrier. The boy was also eager to go to America. Acton tried to discourage him. Even so, Pierino was enthralled. “‘You are the first galantuomo who has spoken to me this evening.’” After making a date to see the galantuomo later on that evening, Pierino split. Acton then told Tennessee, “as tactfully as I could, that his young protégé felt neglected…. [Tennessee] rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said nothing, a little perplexed. There was something innocently childish about his expression.” It does not occur to the memoirist that Tennessee might have been alarmed at his strange guest’s bad manners. “Evidently he was not aware that Pierino wanted to be taken to America and I have wondered since whether he took him there, for that was my last meeting with Tennessee Williams.” It must be said that Acton managed to extract quite a lot of copy out of a single meeting. To put his mind at rest, Tennessee did take Pierino to America and Pierino is now a married man and doing, as they say, well.
“This trifling episode illustrated the casual yet condescending attitude of certain foreigners towards the young Italians they cultivated on account of their Latin charm without any interest in their character, aspirations or desires.” This sentiment or sentimentality could be put just as well the other way around and with far more accuracy: Italian trade has never had much interest in the character, aspirations, or desires of those to whom they rent their ass. When Acton meditates upon The Italian Boy, a sweet and sickly hypocrisy clouds his usually sharp prose and we are in E. M. Forster-land where the lower orders (male) are worshiped, and entirely misunderstood. But magnum of sour grapes aside, he is by no means inaccurate. Certainly he got right Tennessee’s indifference to place, art, history. The Bird seldom reads a book and the only history he knows is his own; he depends, finally, on a romantic genius to get him through life. Above all, he is a survivor, never more so than now in what he calls his “crocodile years.”
I picked up Tennessee’s Memoirs with a certain apprehension. I looked myself up in the index; read the entries: some errors but nothing grave. I started to read; was startled by the technique he had chosen. Some years ago, Tennessee told me that he had been reading (that is to say, looking at) my “memoir in the form of a novel” Two Sisters. In this book I alternated sections describing certain events in 1948 with my everyday life while writing the book. Memory sections I called Then. The day-by-day descriptions I called Now. At the time Tennessee found Two Sisters interesting because he figured in it. He must also have found it technically interesting because he has serenely appropriated my form and has now no doubt forgotten just how the idea first came to him to describe the day-to-day life of a famous beleaguered playwright acting in an off-Broadway production of the failing play Small Craft Warnings while, in alternating sections, he recalls the early days not only of Tennessee Williams but of one Thomas Lanier Williams, who bears only a faint familial resemblance to the playwright we all know from a thousand and one altogether too candid interviews.
There is a foreword and, like all forewords, it is meant to disarm. Unfortunately, it armed me to the teeth. During the 1973 try-out of a play in New Haven, Tennessee was asked to address some Yale drama students. Incidentally, the style of the foreword is unusually seductive, the old master at his most beguiling: self-pity and self-serving kept in exquisite balance by the finest comic style since S. L. Clemens.
“I found myself entering (through a door marked EXIT) an auditorium considerably smaller than the Shubert but containing a more than proportionately small audience. I would say roughly about twoscore and ten, not including a large black dog which was resting in the lap of a male student in the front row…. The young faces before me were uniformly inexpressive of any kind of emotional reaction to my entrance….” I am surprised that Tennessee was surprised: the arrogance and self-satisfaction of drama students throughout Academe are among the few constants in a changing world. Any student who has read Sophocles in translation is, demonstrably, superior to Tennessee Williams in the untidy flesh. These dummies reflect of course the proud mediocrity of their teachers, who range, magisterially, through something called “world drama” where evolution works only backward. Teachers and taught are to be avoided.
“I am not much good at disguising my feelings, and after a few moments I abandoned all pretense of feeling less dejection than I felt.” The jokes did not work. So “I heard myself describing an encounter, then quite recent, with a fellow playwright in the Oak Room Bar at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel.” It was with “my old friend Gore Vidal. I had embraced him warmly. However, Mr. Vidal is not a gentleman to be disarmed by a cordial embrace, and when, in response to his perfunctory inquiries about the progress of rehearsals…I told him…all seemed a dream come true after many precedent nightmares, he smiled at me with a sort of rueful benevolence and said ‘Well, Bird, it won’t do much good, I’m afraid, you’ve had too much bad personal exposure for anything to help you much anymore.’
“Well, then, for the first time, I could see a flicker of interest in the young faces before me. It may have been the magic word Vidal or it may have been his prophecy of my professional doom.” Asked if the prognosis was accurate, Tennessee looked at the black dog and said, “Ask the dog.”
An unsettling anecdote. I have no memory of the Plaza meeting. I am also prone, when dining late, to suffer from what Dorothy Parker used grimly to refer to as “the frankies,” or straight talk for the other person’s good like frankly-that-child-would-not-have-been-born-mongoloid-if-you-hadn’t…. An eyewitness, however, assures me that I did not say what Tennessee attributes to me. Yet his paranoia always has some basis in reality. I have an uncomfortable feeling that I was probably thinking what I did not say and what he later thought I did say. When it comes to something unspoken, the Bird has a sharp ear.
It is hard now to realize what a bad time of it Tennessee used to have from the American press. During the Forties and Fifties the anti-fag battalions were everywhere on the march. From the high lands of Partisan Review to the middle ground of Time magazine, envenomed attacks on real or suspected fags never let up. A Time cover story on Auden was killed when the managing editor of the day was told that Auden was a fag. From 1945 to 1961 Time attacked with unusual ferocity everything produced or published by Tennessee Williams. “Fetid swamp” was the phrase most used to describe his work. But in time, all things will come to pass. The Bird is now a beloved institution.
Today, at sixty-four, Tennessee has the same voracious appetite for work and for applause that he had at twenty-four. More so, I would suspect, since glory is a drug more addictive than any other as heroes have known from Achilles on (a roman à clef about Tennessee bore the apt title The Hero Continues). But fashions in the theater change. The superstar of the Forties and Fifties fell on bad times, and that is the burden of these memoirs. In sharp detail we are told how the hero came into being. Less sharply, Tennessee describes the bad days when the booze and the pills caused him to hallucinate; to slip out of a world quite bad enough as it is into nightmare land. “I said to my friend Gore, ‘I slept through the Sixties,’ and he said, ‘You didn’t miss a thing.’ ” Tennessee often quotes this exchange. But he leaves out the accompanying caveat: “If you missed the Sixties, Bird, God knows what you are going to do with the Seventies.”
But of course life is not divided into good and bad decades; it is simply living. For a writer, life is, again simply, writing and in these memoirs the old magician can still create a world. But since it is hardly news to the Bird that we are for the night, the world he shows us is no longer the Romantic’s lost Eden but Prospero’s island where, at sunset, magicians often enjoy revealing the sources of their rude magic, the tricks of a trade.
Not that a magician is honor-bound to tell the whole truth. For instance: “I want to admit to you that I undertook this memoir for mercenary reasons. It is actually the first piece of work, in the line of writing, that I have undertaken for material profit.” The sniffy tone is very much that of St. Theresa scrubbing floors. Actually, Tennessee is one of the richest of living writers. After all, a successful play will earn its author a million or more dollars and Tennessee has written quite a few successful plays. Also, thirteen of his works have been made into films.
Why the poor-mouthing? Because it has always been the Bird’s tactic to appear in public flapping what looks to be a pathetically broken wing. By arousing universal pity, he hopes to escape predators. In the old days before a play opened on Broadway, the author would be asked to write a piece for the Sunday New York Times drama section. Tennessee’s pieces were always thrilling; sometimes horrendous. He would reveal how that very morning he had coughed up blood with his sputum. But, valiantly, he had gone on writing, knowing the new play would be his last work, ever…. By the time the Bird had finished working us over, only Kronenberger at Time had the heart to attack him.
But now that Tennessee’s physical and mental health are good (he would deny this instantly; “I have had, in recent days, a series of palpitations of the variety known as terminal”), only the cry of poverty will, he thinks, act as lightning conductor and insure him a good press for the Memoirs. Certainly he did not write this book for the $50,000 advance. As always, fame is the spur. Incidentally, he has forgotten that in the past he did write for money when he was under contract to MGM and worked on a film called Marriage Is a Private Affair, starring Lana Turner (unless of course Tennessee sees in this movie that awesome moral grandeur first detected by the film critic Myra Breckinridge).
The Memoirs start briskly. Tennessee is a guest at a country house in Wiltshire near Stonehenge. On the grounds of the estate is a “stone which didn’t quite make it to Henge.” He looks himself up in Who’s Who. Broods on his past; shifts back and forth in time. Now and Then. The early days are fascinating to read about even though the Williams family is already known to every playgoer not only from The Glass Menagerie but also from the many other plays and stories in which appear, inexorably, Rose the Sister, Edwina the Mother, Dakin the Brother, Cornelius the Father, Reverend Dakin the Grandfather, as well as various other relations now identified for the first time. He also tells us how he was hooked by the theater when some St. Louis amateurs put on a play he had written. “I knew that writing was my life, and its failure would be my death….”
I have never known any writer with the exception of the artistically gifted and humanly appalling Carson McCullers who cared so much about the opinion of those condemned to write for newspapers. Uneasily confronting a truly remarkable hunger for absolute praise and total notice, Tennessee admits that, when being interviewed, he instinctively “hams it up in order to provide ‘good copy.’ The reason? I guess a need to convince the world that I do indeed still exist and to make this fact a matter of public interest and amusement.” Fair enough, Bird. But leave your old friends out.
This book is a sort of catharsis of puritanical guilt feelings, I suppose. “All good art is an indiscretion.” Well, I can’t assure you that this book will be art, but it is bound to be an indiscretion, since it deals with my adult life….
Of course I could devote this whole book to a discussion of the art of drama, but wouldn’t that be a bore?
It would bore me to extinction, I’m afraid, and it would be a very, very short book, about three sentences to the page with extremely wide margins. The plays speak for themselves.
A wise choice: the plays do speak for themselves and Tennessee’s mind is not, to say the least, at home with theory. Most beautifully, the plays speak for themselves. Not only does Tennessee have a marvelous comedic sense but his gloriously outrageous dramatic effects can be enormously satisfying. He makes poetic (without quotes) the speech of those half-educated would-be genteel folk who still maintain their babble in his head. Only on those rare occasions when he tries to depict educated or upper-class people does he falter. Somewhat reproachfully, he told me that he had been forced several times to use a dictionary while reading Two Sisters.
What, I asked, was one of the words you had to look up? “Solipsistic,” he said. Tennessee’s vocabulary has never been large (I note that he still thinks “eclectic” means “esoteric”). But then he is not the sort of writer who sees words on the page; rather he hears them in his head and when he is plugged into the right character, the wrong word never sounds.
Life that winter in Rome: a golden dream, and I don’t just mean Raffaello [Acton’s “Pierino”] and the mimosa and total freedom of life. Stop there: What I do mean is the total freedom of life and Raffaello and the mimosa….” That season we were all of us, symbolically, out of jail. Tennessee, free of poverty and hack work, had metamorphosed into the Glorious Bird while I had behind me three years in the wartime army and a near-fatal bout of hepatitis. So it was, at the beginning of that golden dream, we met.
Tennessee’s version: “[Gore] had just published a best-seller, called The City and the Pillar, which was one of the first homosexual novels of consequence. I had not read it but I knew that it had made the best-seller lists and that it dealt with a ‘forbidden subject.’ ” Later, Tennessee actually read the book (the only novel of mine he has ever been able to get through) and said, “You know you spoiled it with that ending. You didn’t know what a good book you had.” Fair comment.
“Gore was a handsome kid, about twenty-four [sic], and I was quite taken by his wit as well as his appearance.” Incidentally, I am mesmerized by the tributes to my beauty that keep cropping up in the memoirs of the period. At the time nobody reliable thought to tell me. In fact, it was my impression that I was not making out as well as most people because, with characteristic malice, Nature had allowed Guy Madison and not me to look like Guy Madison.
“We found that we had interests in common and we spent a lot of time together. Please don’t imagine that I am suggesting that there was a romance.” I don’t remember whether or not I ever told Tennessee that I had actually seen but not met him the previous year. He was following me up Fifth Avenue while I, in turn, was stalking yet another quarry. I recognized him: he wore a blue bow tie with white polka dots. I was in no mood for literary encounters. I gave him a scowl and he abandoned the chase just north of Rockefeller Center. I don’t recall how my own pursuit ended. We walked a lot in the golden age.
“I believe we also went to Florence that season and were entertained by that marvelous old aesthete Berenson.” No, that was someone else. “And then one afternoon Gore took me to the Convent of the Blue Nuns to meet the great philosopher and essayist, by then an octogenarian and semi-invalid, Santayana.” I had to drag Tennessee to meet Santayana. Neither had heard of the other. But Tennessee did stare at the old man with great interest. Afterward, the Bird remarked, “Did you notice how he said ‘in the days when I had secretaries, young men?’ ”
In the Memoirs Tennessee tells us a great deal about his sex life, which is one way of saying nothing about oneself. Details of this body and that body tend to blur on the page as they do in life. Tennessee did not get around to his first homosexual affair until he was well into his twenties, by which time he had achieved several mature as well as sexually meaningful and life-enhancing heterosexual relationships. Except he wasn’t really all that enhanced by these “mature” relationships. Lust for the male set his nerves to jangling. Why was he such a late-developer? Well, this was close to half a century ago, and Tennessee was the product of that Southern puritan environment where all sex was sin and unnatural sex was peculiarly horrible.
I think that the marked difference between my attitude toward sex and that of Tennessee made each of us somewhat startling to the other. I never had the slightest guilt or anxiety about what I always took to be a normal human appetite. He was—and is—guilt-ridden, and although he tells us that he believes in no after-life, he is still too much the puritan not to believe in sin. At some deep level Tennessee truly believes that the homosexualist is wrong and that the heterosexualist is right. Given this all-pervading sense of guilt, he is drawn in both life and work to the idea of expiation, of death.
Tennessee tells of his affair with a dancer named Kip. But Kip left him; got married; died young. Then Tennessee was drawn to a pseudonymous lover in New Orleans; that affair ended in drink and violence. For a number of years. Tennessee lived with an Italo-American, Frank Merlo. Eventually they fell out. They were reunited when Frank was dying of cancer. Frank’s last days were sufficiently horrifying to satisfy any puritan’s uneasy conscience while, simultaneously, justifying the romantic’s extreme vision of the world: “I shall but love thee better after death.”
The other line running through Tennessee’s emotional life is what I call the Monster Women. Surrogate mothers one might say if Tennessee’s own mother, Miss Edwina, were not so implacably in this world, even as I write these lines. Convinced that the blacks signal to one another during the long St. Louis nights by clanging the lids of the trash cans, Miss Edwina is every inch the Amanda of The Glass Menagerie. In fact, so powerful is Tennessee’s creation that in the presence of Miss Edwina one does not listen to her but only to what he has made of her.
“I had forty gentlemen callers that day,” she says complacently. We are having dinner in the restaurant of the Robert Clay Hotel in Miami. Delicately she holds a fork with a shrimp on it. Fork and shrimp proceed slowly to her mouth while Tennessee and I stare, hypnotized not only by the constant flow of conversation but by the never-eaten shrimp for, just as she is about to take the first bite, yet another anecdote wells up from deep inside her…ah, solipsistic brain and the fork returns to the plate, the shrimp untouched. “Tom, remember when that little dog took the hat with the plume and ran all ’round the yard…?” This is also from The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee nervously clears his throat. Again the shrimp slowly rises to the wide straight mouth which resembles nothing so much as the opening to a miniature letter box—one designed for engraved invitations only. But once again the shrimp does not arrive. “Tom, do you remember…?”
Tennessee clears his throat again. “Mother, eat your shrimp.”
“Why,” counters Miss Edwina, “do you keep making that funny sound in your throat?”
“Because, Mother, when you destroy someone’s life you must expect certain nervous disabilities.”
Yet Tennessee went on adding even more grotesque ladies than Miss Edwina to his life. I could never take any of them from Carson McCullers to Jane Bowles to Anna Magnani. Yes, yes, yes, they were superb talents all. Part of the artistic heritage of the twentieth century. I concede their talent, their glory, their charm—for Tennessee but not for me. Carson spoke only of her work. Of its greatness. The lugubrious Southern sing-song voice never stopped: “Did ya see muh lovely play? Did ya lahk muh lovely play? Am I gonna win the Pew-litzuh prahzz?” Jane (“the finest writer of fiction we have in the States”) Bowles was more original. She thought and talked a good deal about food and made powerful scenes in restaurants. The best that one could say of Magnani was that she liked dogs. When Brando agreed to act with her in the film of Tennessee’s Orpheus Descending, he warned, “When I do a scene with her, I’m going to carry a rock in each hand.”
I don’t know what Tennessee gets from the Monster Women, but if they give him solace nothing else matters. Certainly he has a huge appetite for the grotesque not only in art but in life. In fact, he is dogged by the grotesque. Once, in the airport at Miami, we were stopped by a plump middle-aged man who had known Tom from the old days in St. Louis. The man seemed perfectly ordinary. He talked to Tennessee about friends they had in common. Then I noticed that the man was carrying a large string bag containing what looked to be two roast turkeys and a half dozen loaves of bread. “What,” I asked, “is that?” The man gave us a knowing wink. “Well, I got me two roast turkeys in there. And also these loaves of bread because you know about the food in Miami.” Then he was gone. It would seem that the true artist need never search for a subject; the subject always knows where to find him.
It is curious how friends actually regard one another—or think they do—when memoir-time rolls around, and the boneyard beckons. A figure of some consequence in our far-off golden age was the composer-novelist Paul Bowles. From time to time over the years, Tennessee has bestowed a number of Walter Winchellish Orchids on Paul as well as on Jane (I fear that a lifetime on Broadway has somewhat corrupted the Bird’s everyday speech and prose although nothing, happily, can affect the authenticity of those voices in his head). Certainly Bowles was an early hero of Tennessee’s.
But now let us see what Bowles makes of Tennessee in his memoir Without Stopping. “One morning when we were getting ready to leave for the beach” (this was Acapulco, 1940), “someone arrived at the door and asked to see me. It was a round-faced, sun-burned young man in a big floppy sombrero and a striped sailor sweater, who said his name was Tennessee Williams, that he was a playwright, and that Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild had told him to look me up. I asked him to come in and installed him in a hammock; explaining that we had to hurry to the beach with friends. I brought him books and magazines and rum and coke, and told him to ask the servants for sandwiches if he got hungry. Then we left. Seven hours later we got back to the house and found our visitor lying contentedly in the hammock, reading. We saw him again each day until he left.”
It was Paul Bowles who once told a young music critic not to intrude his personal opinions when he wrote music criticism. “The words that you use to describe what you’ve heard will be the criticism.” Bowles on Tennessee demonstrates this master of the understated at his best. Needless to say, Tennessee read what Bowles had written about him. Now watch the Bird as he strikes….
“It was there in Acapulco that summer that I first met Jane and Paul Bowles. They were staying at a pension in town and Paul was, as ever, upset about the diet and his stomach. The one evening that we spent together that summer was given over almost entirely to the question of what he could eat in Acapulco that he could digest, and poor little Janie kept saying, ‘Oh, Bubbles, if you’d just stick to cornflakes and fresh fruit!’ and so on and so on. None of her suggestions relieved his dyspeptic humor.
“I thought them a very odd and charming couple.” I think I give Tennessee that round, on points. But Bowles’s prose still remains the perfect model for judgment by indirection even though, like Tennessee, he occasionally gets the facts wrong. Bowles writes: “Gore had just played a practical joke on Tennessee and Truman Capote which he recounted to me in dialect, as it were. He had called Tennessee on the telephone and, being a stupendous mimic, had made himself into Truman for the occasion. Then, complete with a snigger, he induced Tennessee to make uncomplimentary remarks about Gore’s writing.”
This is a curious variation on the actual story. A number of times I would ring Tennessee, using Capote’s voice. The game was to see how long it would take him to figure out that it was not Capote. One day I rang and spoke to what I thought was Tennessee. But it was Frank Merlo, newly installed in the flat. I had not got beyond my imitable whine, “This is Truman,” when Frank began to attack Tennessee. I broke the connection. Frank never knew whether or not I had repeated his complaints to Tennessee. I did not. But years later I did tell Bowles the story.
Back to 1948: “In those days Truman was about the best companion you could want,” writes Tennessee. “He had not turned bitchy. Well, he had not turned maliciously bitchy. But he was full of fantasies and mischief.” That summer Capote arrived in Paris where Tennessee and I were staying at the Hôtel de l’Université (“A raffish hotel but it suited Gore and me perfectly as there was no objection to young callers”), and Capote would keep us entranced with mischievous fantasies about the great. Apparently, the very sight of him was enough to cause lifelong heterosexual men to tumble out of unsuspected closets. When Capote refused to surrender his virtue to the drunken Errol Flynn, “Errol threw all my suitcases out of the window of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel!” I should note here that the young Capote was no less attractive in person than he is today.
When Tennessee and I would exchange glances during these stories, Capote would redouble his efforts. Did we know that Albert Camus was in love with him? Yes, Camus! Madly in love. Recently Capote’s biographer told me that the Capote-Camus connection might well prove to be a key chapter. No doubt it will also provide a startling footnote to the life story of Camus, a man known until now as a womanizer. Then Capote showed us a gold and amethyst ring. “From André Gide,” he sighed. Happily, I was able to check that one out. A few days later I called on Gide in the company of my English publisher. “How,” I asked in my best Phillips Exeter French, “did you find Truman Capote?” “Who?” Gide asked. I suspect that it was then, in the fabulous summer of ’48, that the nonfiction novel was born.
To return again to 1948, I have a bit more to report on that season.
Frankie and I had been out late one evening and when we returned to the apartment the transom on the front door was open and from within came the voice of Truman Capote, shrill with agitation…. In the apartment were Truman, Gore Vidal, and a female policeman…. It seemed that Truman and Gore, still on friendly terms at this point, had got a bit drunk together and had climbed in through the transom of the apartment to wait for me and Frankie.
Before this story petrifies into literary history, let me amend the record. Tennessee, an actress, and I came back to Tennessee’s flat to find Capote and a friend in the clutches of the law. They had indeed been caught entering the flat. But by the time we arrived, Capote had matters well under control. Plainclotheswoman and plainclothesman were listening bug-eyed to Capote, who was telling them everything about the private lives of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chaplin.
Tennessee’s asides on the various personages who have come his way are often amusing, sometimes revelatory. He describes a hilarious dinner with that strenuously untalented Russian performer Yevtushenko who saw fit to lecture Tennessee on commercialism, sexual perversion, and the responsibilities of art while swilling expensive wine. Tennessee admired Dylan Thomas until he actually met him and received “this put-down: ‘How does it feel to make all that Hollywood money?’ ” There was also the snub from Sartre. Tennessee gave a party at the Hôtel de l’Université, hoping that Sartre would come. But Sartre would not come. Instead he sat a few blocks away at a café, and for several hours did not come to the party despite the pleas of various emissaries.
Tennessee omits to mention a splendid lunch given us at the Grand Véfour by Jean Cocteau, who wanted the French rights to A Streetcar Named Desire for Jean Marais to act in. I came along as translator. Marais looked beautiful but sleepy. Cocteau was characteristically brilliant. He spoke no English but since he could manage an occasional “th” sound as well as the final “g,” he often gave the impression that he was speaking English. Tennessee knew no French. He also had no clear idea just who Cocteau was, while Cocteau knew nothing about Tennessee except that he had written a popular American play with a splendid part in it for his lover Marais. Between Tennessee’s solemn analyses of the play and Cocteau’s rhetoric about theater (the long arms flailed like semaphores denoting some dangerous last junction), no one made any sense at all except Marais who broke his long silence to ask, apropos the character Stanley Kowalski, “Will I have to use a Polish accent?”
Although Marais and Cocteau broke up soon afterward, Cocteau did the play without Marais. Cocteau’s adaptation was, apparently, a gorgeous mess. Naked black youths writhed through beaded curtains while Arletty, miscast as Blanche, struck attitudes among peacock feathers.
The situation of a practicing playwright in the United States is not a happy one, to understate (or bowles) the matter. Broadway is more and more an abandoned parcel of real estate. Except for a native farce or two and a handful of “serious” plays imported from the British Isles, Broadway is noted chiefly for large and usually bad musicals. During the theater season of 1947-1948 there were 43 straight plays running on Broadway. In 1974-1975 there were 18. Adventurous plays are now done off-Broadway and sometimes off-off…where our memoirist ended up as a performer in Small Craft Warnings.
Unique among writers, the American playwright must depend upon the praise of journalists who seldom know very much about anything other than the prejudices of their employers. With the collapse of a half dozen newspapers in the last third of a century, the success of a play now depends almost entirely upon the good will of the critic for The New York Times. The current reviewer is an amiable and enthusiastic Englishman who knows a good deal about ballet but not so much about the social and political nuances of his adopted land. Yet at sixty-four, Tennessee Williams is still trying to curry favor with the press. Of Small Craft Warnings, “Clive Barnes” (in The New York Times) “was cautiously respectful. With the exception of Leonard Harris, I disregard TV reviews. I suppose they were generally negative.”
Then Tennessee has second thoughts. And a new paragraph: “To say that I disregard TV reviews is hardly the total truth. How could I disregard any review which determines the life or death of a production?” How indeed? Yet after thirty years of meaningless praise and equally meaningless abuse, it is no wonder that Tennessee is a bit batty. On those rare occasions when Tennessee’s literary peers have got around to looking at his work, the result has been depressing: witness Mary McCarthy’s piece “A Streetcar Named Success.”
There have been complaints that these Memoirs tell us too much about Tennessee’s sex life and too little about his art. Personally, I find the candor about his sex life interesting if not illuminating. At the worst, it will feed that homophobia which is so much a part of the national psyche. Yet perhaps it is better to write this sort of thing oneself rather than leave it to others to invent.
Recently a venerable vendor of book-chat wrote, “Vidal gets more literary mileage out of his sex life than anyone since Oscar Wilde and Jean Cocteau.” This struck me as breathtakingly wrong. First, neither Wilde nor Cocteau ever exploited his sex life for “mileage.” Each was reticent in public. Eventually the law revealed the private life of the first, while friends (and an ambiguous sort of unsigned memoir) revealed the life of the second. The book-chat writer does mention the admittedly too many interviews I’ve lately given to magazines like Playboy where sex is always a Solemn and Sacred subject and where I, too, am Solemn but never personal. As evidence of my seeking mileage he quotes the rather lame “In youth I never missed a trick…. I tried everything…. I could no more go to bed with somebody whose work I admired than I could…well, make love to a mirror. Fame in others switches off desire.” Not, I would say, the most prurient of give-away lines. Except in Two Sisters, a memoir done with mirrors, I have not used myself as a subject for private analysis on the ground that since we live in a time where the personality of the writer is everything and what he writes is nothing, only a fool would aid the enemy by helping to trivialize life, work.
A columnist reports that Tennessee was obliged to cut his Memoirs in half because of the “filth.” I hope that we are given that other half one day; and I doubt that there will be much “filth,” only indiscretions which ought to be interesting. After all, Tennessee has known or come across a great many of our time’s movers and shakers. I say “come across” because for a long period he was…well, inattentive. Sometimes the stupefying combination of Nembutal and vodka (now abandoned) addled him. I was present when Edna Ferber (yes, Edna Ferber) came over to our table at a restaurant and introduced herself. With considerable charm, she told Tennessee how much she admired him. He listened to her with eyes that had narrowed to what Miss Ferber would have described as “mere slits.” As she walked away, the Bird hissed, “Why is that woman attacking me?”
Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes. Constantly he plays and replays the same small but brilliant set of cards. I am not aware that any new information (or feeling?) has got through to him in the twenty-eight years since our Roman spring. In consequence, we have drifted apart. “Gore no longer receives me,” said the Bird to one of the innumerable interviewers; and put this down to my allegedly glamorous social life. But the reason for the drifting apart is nothing more than difference of temperament. I am a compulsive learner of new things while the Bird’s occasional and sporadic responses to the world outside the proscenium arch have not been fortunate. “Castro was, after all, a gentleman,” he announced after an amiable meeting with the dictator. Tell that to the proscribed fags of Cuba.
Tennessee’s much publicized conversion to Roman Catholicism took place during the time of his great confusion. Shortly after the Bird was received into the arms of Mother Church, a Jesuit priest rang him up and asked if he would like an audience with the Pope? a meeting with the head of the Jesuit order? Oh yes. Yes! Tennessee was delighted. The next morning the priest arrived to take Tennessee to the Vatican where, presumably, the Pope was waiting on tenterhooks to examine the Church’s latest big haul. Unfortunately, Tennessee had forgotten all about the audience. He would have to beg off, he said; he was just not up to the Pope that day. The priest was stunned. The Pope’s reaction has not been recorded.
The Jesuits, however, are made of tougher material. The secretary of the Black Pope rang to say that since a cocktail party had been arranged, Mr. Williams was going to be there or else. The Bird was there, and began to ham it up about God. Now if there is anything a Jesuit likes less than chat of God, it is having to listen to the religious enthusiasms of a layman. Trying to deflect Tennessee from what was fast turning into a Billy Graham exhortation about God and goodness, one of the Jesuits asked, “How do you start to write a play, Mr. Williams?” The Bird barely paused in his glorious ascent. “I start,” he said sharply, “with a sentence.” He then went on to tell the assembled members of the Society of Jesus how ever since he’d become a Roman Catholic he had felt a divine presence constantly with him. The Jesuits shifted uneasily at this. Like the old trouper he is, the Bird then paused abruptly in mid-flight in order to see just what effect he was having. After a moment of embarrassed silence, one of the Jesuits asked, timidly, “Is this presence a warm presence?”
“There is,” said the Bird firmly, “no temperature.”
But despite the “conversion,” Tennessee now writes, “I am unable to believe that there is anything but permanent oblivion after death…. For me, what is there but to feel beneath me the steadily rising current of mortality and to summon from my blood whatever courage is native to it, and once there was a great deal.” As he ends the Memoirs, he thinks back upon Hart Crane, whose legend has always haunted him. But though a romantic, Tennessee is no Crane. For one thing, it is too late to choose an abrupt death at sea. For another, art is too beguiling and difficult: “life is made up of moment-to-moment occurrences in the nerves and the perceptions, and try as you may, you can’t commit them to the actualities of your own history.”
But Tennessee continues to try. Now he has invited the world to take a close look at him, more or less as he is (the lighting of course has been carefully arranged, and he is not one to confuse an Entrance with an Exit). The result should be gratifying. The Glorious Bird has been not only recognized but applauded in the streets. When he came to sign copies of the Memoirs in a large Manhattan bookstore, nearly a thousand copies were sold and the store had to be shut because of overcrowding. The resemblance to the latter days of Judy Garland would be disquieting were it not for the happy fact that since Tennessee cannot now die young he will probably not die at all (his grandfather lived for almost a century). In any case, artists who continue to find exhilarating the puzzles art proposes never grow bored and so have no need of death.
As for life? Well, that is a hard matter. But it was always a hard matter for those of us born with a sense of the transiency of these borrowed atoms that make up our corporeal being.
“I need,” Tennessee writes with sudden poignancy, “somebody to laugh with.” Well, don’t we all, Bird? Anyway, be happy that your art has proved to be one of those stones that really did make it to Henge, enabling future magicians to gauge from its crafty placement not only the dour winter solstice of our last days but the summer solstice, too—the golden dream, the mimosa, the total freedom, and all that lovely time unspent now spent.
February 5, 1976