The Real Camino

Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage

by Bruce Smith
Paragon House, 262 pp., $19.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.