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Tenn’s Best Friend

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

There can scarcely be a better-documented dramatist in the Western world than Tennessee Williams. His most recent, and best, biographer, John Lahr, counts forty books written about him since his death in 1983.1 Not that he was exactly unknown during his lifetime. After his epoch-making Broadway debut in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie and his subsequent and precipitate anointment as the savior of the modern American theater, his progress both as a writer and as a man was closely interrogated by the usual authorities. In this process Williams, like many a guileless artist before him, colluded, responding with a running commentary on the phenomenon of himself; in his startling essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” published in The New York Times in November 1947, just before the opening of his second Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire, he unsparingly describes what happened to him after the triumph of The Glass Menagerie. “I was snatched,” he said,

out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth.

From then until the day he died, in a series of newspaper articles, interviews in print and on television, and his lurid stream-of-consciousness Memoirs (1972), he freely shared his hopes, his doubts, his lusts—his self-assessment, in fact—with the American public. The plays themselves, it was widely understood, were often explicitly, always implicitly, autobiographical. And from a very early point, reviewers of his work—which encompassed not just theater pieces but poetry, short stories, and novels—addressed the Tennessee Williams problem. He was, he said, “a victim of the false intensities” that seemed to follow “on the transformation of a creative writer to a public figure.” Whither Williams? asked the critics. Almost from the beginning, encouraged by him, they ceased reviewing his work, preferring, as Orson Welles remarked of himself, to review him. It is astonishing, in these circus-like circumstances, that he produced so much extraordinary and enduring work.

All these matters have been discussed exhaustively in the vast Williams bibliography. Is there really room for more? Astonishingly, there is. The Luck of Friendship ( “Four Decades of One of the Most Unlikely Friendships in American Literature,” as Peggy L. Fox’s introduction splendidly puts it) is a most welcome addition, not simply because Williams was a world-class correspondent, but because it reveals an aspect of him that is rarely examined: his life as a working writer. Moreover, his epistolary partner, the publisher James Laughlin, was, in his very different way, also a titan—an unusually quiet one, to be sure, but unquestionably one of the central figures of American letters of the last century.

As his biographer Ian MacNiven writes in “Literchoor Is My Beat, Laughlin, the founder of New Directions,

courted the art of self-effacement. But even as he practiced disappearance, a behind-the-scenes master rather than a public figure, he, more than any other person of the twentieth century, directed the course of American writing and crested the waves of American passions and preoccupations.2

One of the principal justifications for that substantial claim is that he was Tennessee Williams’s publisher. “It was James Laughlin in the beginning and it remains James Laughlin now,” Williams wrote in a tribute to his old friend in 1983, forty years after their first meeting. Their relationship is superbly documented in The Luck of Friendship, which presents a double portrait of these two utterly different men involved in the particular emotional relationship that occasionally prevails between publisher and author: it is that rare thing, a publishing romance.

When it began, the patrician and strikingly handsome Laughlin, 6'6", twenty-eight years old, a champion and pioneering skier, intimate of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, had been running the firm he founded while still at Harvard for seven years, and it was already beginning to make waves: his first publication, New Directions in Prose and Poetry (1936), included contributions from William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and E.E. Cummings. Williams, at thirty-one, had had some half-dozen plays produced by amateurs, with just one professional production, Battle of Angels, in Boston, a major flop that never came to New York. A compulsive scribbler since childhood, he had also written a number of stories and a great deal of verse. They met at Lincoln Kirstein’s apartment. “I saw off in an adjacent room this little man,” said Laughlin. “He was hunched over, wearing a sweater and dirty gray pants. And I said to myself, there’s someone who needs company.” And immediately they were off, talking about their favorite poets.

Laughlin himself wrote verse, but had lost confidence after his mentor Pound said, “Jaz, you’re never gonna be any good as a poet. Why doncher take up somethin’ useful…why doncher assassernate Henry Seidel Canby?” “I’m not smart enough,” answered Laughlin. “I wouldn’t get away with it.” “You’d better become a publisher,” Pound had told him. “You’ve prob’ly got enough brains fer that.” That night at Kirstein’s, Laughlin and Williams discovered a common passion for the jagged, dense work of Hart Crane, which gave them an immediate bond; shortly afterward, Williams wrote to Laughlin, offering to send him his poems, short and long:

With a sensitive poet in the grand manner, such a business might be a violent ordeal but with me I promise you it would be extremely simple and we would inevitably part on good terms even if you advised me to devote myself exclusively to the theatre for the rest of my life.

He need not have worried. “I am very excited with the poems you sent,” replied Laughlin. “It seems to me you ARE a poet. Some of the stuff is rough, to be sure, but it’s studded with nuggets. You have,” he added, “some of the wonderful quality of Éluard—strange insights that reduce to highly poetic images.” Laughlin promised to publish his poems in the next New Directions poetry anthology. “I am crazy about Jay,” wrote Williams, understandably, in his journal. “He has become my little shiny God. Why does he bother with me? It is so easy to ignore a squirt like me.” Laughlin became Williams’s pin-up, literally: “I have a little picture gallery in my office of persons of importance in my life…. As my first real publisher, I would like to include one of you…preferably on skis.”

The year was 1943. The next year, The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago, causing a modest stir; the following year it came to Broadway, and Williams would never again be short of money. But in those last days before the catastrophe of success struck, he was hanging by a thread financially, working as an usher in the Strand Theatre movie palace on 47th Street (“a colorful little world of its own”). Laughlin approached the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters on behalf of his new author, informing them that he was the “most talented and promising young writer whom we publish,” a remarkable enough statement in itself, but even more extraordinary given that Laughlin had only read some of his poems and a few short stories. The academy coughed up $1,000, “a small convenience,” wrote Williams with delicate understatement, “that I could use.”

More important to him was Laughlin’s belief in him, allied to his precise understanding of the work. “You are my literary conscience,” wrote Williams, after they had known each other for no more than a year, “the only one outside of myself.” Without hesitation he committed himself to New Directions and its publisher: “I would like all my shy intrusions on the world of letters to be through N.D.” And so they were, right to the very end, with rare exceptions. No doubt he was referring initially to his poems and short stories, which properly belong to the “world of letters,” but all of Williams’s plays, too, were published by New Directions, once The Glass Menagerie had been prized back from Random House’s Bennett Cerf, who shimmers through this collection of letters like a gray reef shark, snapping up writers and books, all too often having no idea what to do with them.

This development proved a remarkable shift: to begin with Laughlin was Williams’s benefactor, but very soon it was the other way around. The plays’ sales were enormous: the paperback of A Streetcar Named Desire sold 310,000 copies in a single year—unheard of for a play—and it made possible New Directions’ investment in new writers and in the avant-garde, which was always Laughlin’s primary focus. Williams was delighted by this turn of events: “I want no part of any commercial publishers now or ever! Not as long as I am eating without them. Once you get tied up with one you become, for better or for worse, a professional writer, which shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

He paid keen attention to the physical appearance of his books, reacting passionately, for example, against the lavender jacket for A Streetcar Named Desire: it must, he insisted, be red. He was right, too; in that form it became a classic. The great graphic artist Alvin Lustig produced one memorable image after another for the plays. And then there were the special editions. Even before The Glass Menagerie, Williams and Laughlin excitedly conspired over the special edition of his then-unproduced play about D.H. Lawrence, I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix, created by, as Laughlin put it, “those boys who do that gorgeous hand printing up at the Cummington Press in Massachusetts.”

A number of Williams’s works came out in this form, lovingly supervised by Laughlin. Their pursuit of the book beautiful was another manifestation of the romantic feeling about publishing the two men shared, but it had an additional advantage for Williams. Alarmed that his emotionally asphyxiating mother might stumble upon his more sexually explicit works, he wanted to make them less readily available to the general public. Laughlin happily colluded, even proposing that some of these under-the-counter volumes be discreetly distributed to a subscription list; in the case of one story, Kingdom of Earth (“clean dirt,” Laughlin called it), he felt that it was so explicit that it could only be published in Paris, under the imprint of the notorious Maurice Girodias, of Olympia Press fame.

From an early stage in their relationship, Williams was perfectly candid about his sexual proclivities—and, indeed, activities. As a latecomer to sex, he gave himself over for the rest of his life to catching up; no candid friendship could have failed to take his private life into account. Laughlin was perfectly at ease with it. Heterosexual, emotionally restrained, focused, he would seem to have been Williams’s polar opposite. But, as MacNiven notes, “he had long realized that he was attractive to men as well as to women, and there was an uncanny reciprocal understanding between J and the gay dramatist, an empathy that sustained their friendship.”

Laughlin’s own private life was complicated, with mistresses and wives constantly overlapping. His letters, meanwhile, are full of cheery greetings to Williams’s consort of the moment. Williams, in return, offers glimpses of this aspect of his life. “I love the Italians more every day,” he writes, “and even more every night. They are better than Mexicans!” Sometimes, the glimpses he offers are alarming: on one occasion he is picked up in Central Park for not having his registration card on him; he spends the night in jail—“the Federal Pen”—which, though “fearful,” was redeemed by his making some “good friends” at the FBI. “They are really very gentlemanly,” he tells Laughlin, as if he were Blanche DuBois herself, which, to a certain degree, he was, though by no means, alas, always able to depend on the kindness of strangers.

He makes no apology, ever: “The evils of promiscuity are exaggerated,” he tells Laughlin. “Somebody said it at least had the advantage of making you take more baths…of course you pay for it with something—perhaps a cumulative distrust of what is called ‘real love.’” This was not Laughlin’s world. He learned to avoid seeing Williams in the evening. “You had to see Tennessee by lunch,” he said. “Then these unpleasant hangers on would come in…a scroungy bunch.”

Their personal lives dramatically and eventually hilariously intersected when Williams introduced Laughlin to the colorful, alarming, Anglo-Russian would-be actress Maria Britneva, who, having realized early on that any hope of a carnal relationship with Williams was doomed, became deeply enamored of Laughlin. He was unexpectedly swept off his feet by her, though he knew that they could never work together, as she had hoped:

There is absolutely nothing in our line that she is qualified to do. She can’t even type. Even if I put her at something like filing addresses, I’m afraid that that terrific voltage of Russian emotion, which she gives off all the time, would set the place half on its ear.

Williams did everything he could to encourage the match, and it got so far as an engagement. But enough warning voices were raised to frighten Laughlin off. “James,” said Drue Heinz, “I forbid you to marry that woman.”

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
James Laughlin and Tennessee Williams with the writer Ruth Walgreen Stephan at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, May 1969

Without telling anyone, Laughlin abruptly took off for India, where he remained for some months—not noble behavior, perhaps, but probably the only way to solve a problem like Maria. The Britneva episode is evidence that Laughlin may not have been quite as stable and balanced as he appeared. In 1971 he was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, a family predisposition; he was prescribed lithium, which he took until his death, twenty-five years later, at the age of eighty-three. It worked perfectly. He never mentioned this to Williams, who, dealing with the same condition, spent most of his life on a big dipper of alcohol, psychiatric surgical procedures, and drugs, prescription and recreational. At the end, it was an overdose of Seconal, intentional or not, which did for him; he was seventy-one.

Laughlin and Williams never lost touch with each other through all their personal vicissitudes; practical publishing business kept them in contact. But that was the least of it, though the train-train journalier is rendered more interesting by Laughlin’s nicely relaxed style, interspersed with droll turns of phrase: asking Williams for some “story angles” on the forthcoming publication of his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, he remarks, “Publicity, as you know, snaps at all kinds of flies.” As the years rolled by, they shared with each other their growing despair at the world’s dégringolade: “All the people at the controls are opportunists or gangsters,” laments Williams as early as 1947. “The sweetness of reason died out of our public life with FDR. There doesn’t even seem to be a normal intelligence at work in the affairs of the nation. Aren’t you frightened by it?!” Laughlin feels that they are living through a period of “moral goiter.”

Later, in the early 1960s, he despairs of JFK: “I must say I am disgusted with Kennedy…as far as I can see he’s just a politician, and next thing will be trying some crazy stunt in Cuba…” Enraged by all this, he urges Williams to

pour out all your resentments at the state of things, a bellow of thunderous rejection…attacks, jabs, punches, cries of rage…a contemporary Maldoror, if you will, a non-dead who has seen it, had it, to the gills, and now is spitting back out at them, hate and love intermingled.

But then he realizes that he may be trying to impose on Williams what he would like to do himself “if only I had the talent to even begin to attempt it. I suppose I’m still a would-be thwarted writer….”

Writing is, naturally, at the heart of these letters, and it is both fascinating and moving to note Laughlin’s unwavering conviction that Williams is, at heart, a poet, though his work in that medium was generally dismissed by the critics. “Your poems,” Laughlin told him, “have a way of getting right into the marrow of life. They are charged with authentic emotion and they tell a story which people can understand and identify themselves with.” Getting Williams to write more poetry becomes a bit of a crusade with him. In 1951, by which time Williams had written The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, and The Rose Tattoo, Laughlin writes to him:

That is good news that you are working on another play, though, as you know, I would probably rather see you writing poetry. I always enjoy the plays—they are wonderful—but I still feel that essentially you are a poet, and that in the end you will do your greatest work in that field.

Williams did not disagree. In his 1983 tribute to Laughlin, he remarks:

By nature I was meant more for the quieter and purer world of poetry than for the theatre into which necessity drew me…. I know that it is the poetry that distinguishes the writing when it is distinguished, that of the plays and the stories, yes, that is what I had primarily to offer you.

They were using the word “poetry” in different ways. Laughlin meant verse; Williams, intensity and fullness of expression. He was after what he called “the Plastic Theatre,” an enhanced form that transcended the words, which were, as he writes in his production notes on The Glass Menagerie, simply “a net to catch beauty.” While writing a play, he told Laughlin, “you are impatient with words. They seem the most unreal things a man can work with. Sometimes a storm blows up and enormous birds rush over—that’s what you are waiting and enduring for.”

Laughlin was a man who was never impatient with words. But as the years passed, he learned how to assess a play. He was among the first to read them in finished form, and was generally knocked sideways by them. Of The Rose Tattoo he wrote that “the wonderful dreaming quality of Menagerie is not here. But there is no reason that it should be. A creative artist need not repeat himself. You are breaking here into new ground.” Emboldened, he continued:

This work must be judged in the proper historical perspective. This is in the romantic, not the classical tradition. This grows out of the Elizabethan plays of violence and comes up through the tradition of the Romantic movement where passion rules and not reason…the thing packs a wallop, and you must not have misgivings about it.

Lucky the writer who has such a publisher. Laughlin dealt exquisitely with Williams’s anxieties—notably his sense of enslavement to the work, the constant need to produce yet another masterpiece. As early as 1947, before he had completed Streetcar, Williams was telling Laughlin, “I think this play will be last effort to write for Broadway. From now on I shall write for a non-existent art-theatre.” This was part of a basic tension, there almost from the beginning: he refused to be a machine, which is what Broadway always was and always will be. When his agent Audrey Wood told him that The Rose Tattoo had “the making of a great commercial vehicle,” his immediate reaction was to want to give up the business. “What I want,” he told Laughlin, “is to continue to write honest works with poetic feeling but am haunted by the fear that I am repeating myself, now, have totally exploited my area of sensibility and ought to retire, at least publicly, from the field.” Laughlin wrote back, fiercely rebutting him, “Don’t think of yourself as a literary figure, and try to see what others see in you. Just go on living your life by your own standards, which are the right ones for you, and write what comes.”

At least another seven major works were to come before Williams took another turn, writing the experimental plays for which he was damned with ever fainter praise; a review of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963) was headed “Mistuh Williams he dead.” The final paragraph of Laughlin’s letter after the review came out deserves to be printed in full:

Well, Tenn, as somebody said once: Keep Breathing. Inhale and exhale, don’t neglect your food and have some good swims. These dark days will pass, even though at the moment things look black. You’ve had a rough life, not the glamorous ease that is supposed to go with success, but look at the wonders that have come out of it. And I don’t just mean the great plays and the beautiful poems and the stories that cut through to the truth, but also the hundreds of kind things you have done for people, and can still do. You are a good human being, Tenn, and don’t forget it. You mean a lot to a lot of us, as well as the public, and we want you around for a long time.

Part of the kindness Laughlin referred to was encouraging his own reemergence as a poet. Laughlin’s poem “In the Snow,” almost a haiku, seems to distill the essence of a man of extraordinarily precise sensibility: “The track of the ermine/The track of the mouse/tracks of a deer in the/snow and my track that/wanders and hesitates.” His was a quiet, a laconic voice. But its shy insistence over the course of this collection is infinitely touching.

Williams, in the piece he wrote, already quoted, for Laughlin’s 1983 tribute at the National Arts Club, observed that there was “never a disruption or moment of misunderstanding in a friendship and professional relationship that has now lasted for forty years or more.” A few years earlier, he had written of Laughlin’s collection In Another Country:

This distillation of your poetry has been a great joy to me…. You’ve never shown an adequate confidence in the unique quality and beauty of your work. Please recognize it and take deserved joy in it as I always have…. Very briefly and truly, I want to say this. You’re the greatest friend that I have had in my life, and the most trusted.

With love, Tennessee.

As it happens, Williams died the night before Laughlin’s tribute night. When he was told, Laughlin holed himself up in his office and wrote the poem that he read at the event. It starts, “Tennessee/called death the sudden subway and now he has taken that train/but there are so many good things to remember,” and it ends, “so many fine things to remember/that I can live again in my mind/until it is my turn to join him on the sudden subway.” When she was doing the research for this collection, Peggy Fox asked Laughlin to recite the poem, and when he did, he, a man never known to cry, wept. As did I.

  1. 1

    John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton, 2014); see Geoffrey O’Brien’s review in these pages, October 23, 2014. 

  2. 2

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014; see Charles Simic’s review in these pages, April 2, 2015.