Dotson Rader, long-time friend of playwright Tennessee Williams, wrote an authorized memoir about the legend in 1985 called Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. I was fortunate enough to run across the book in an antique store last week, and I couldn’t put it down once I finally started reading it a few days ago. Much like I wrote about Steve Jobs in my last blog, there’s nothing I can say about Tennessee Williams that hasn’t already been said before. Like many writers, particularly the Southern ones, Williams let alcohol (and speed and sleeping pills and many other vices) bring him to his breaking point. Capote and Faulkner were also raging alcoholics and are mentioned in the book as such, especially after their careers stalled a bit. In the above picture, it’s safe to say that Mr. Williams and Miss Bankhead are both drunk, or at least very buzzed. It’s heartbreaking to imagine such talents dulled to near parodies of their former selves towards the end of both their lives. But then one realizes there was no such thing as rehab back then; in fact, Tennessee’s brother had him forcibly locked away in a sanitarium, complete with a padded room, to dry him out and get him off all the pills he was on in the late 60s. I’m reminded of Valerie Harper’s take on Bankhead in the play Looped, which I saw on Broadway last year. Tallulah had been told she was killing herself, and she ceased to care. She entertained all her vices until her dying day at the age of 66. (She managed to live longer than Capote and Faulkner, who died at 59 and 62 respectively.)
Tennessee lived to be 71, but much of his spirit died years earlier, according to Dotson Rader. Williams felt like a failure for the last 15 or so years of his life, as play after play of his bombed on Broadway, or even before they made it there from Chicago or elsewhere. Towards the end of his life, he was entertaining offers such as $240 to mimic William Faulkner on a radio show. (He ended up not doing it, mainly because he knew he wouldn’t get Faulkner’s voice just right.) To say he fell from grace would be very harsh; instead, he fell out of fashion. But he still got up early most every morning to write, hoping that whatever play he was working on would be the next Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. Due mostly to all the pills he could never quite give up, he became paranoid that everyone was against him (a common side effect of amphetamines). He accused his long-time agent of conspiring to sell the rights to all his famous characters to ABC once he died, so that a so-called “World of Williams” soap opera would line her pockets even more. He couldn’t stand being alone; he kept a revolving roster of handsome young men around as paid companions. Dotson Rader was one of many of these companions, but one of the few who he could truly call a friend.
A few noteworthy things about the book: Rader dedicated it to Patricia Kennedy Lawford, a mutual friend of Williams’ who produced a few of his plays, and who was the one to inform Rader about Williams’ death in 1983. Though he found love a few times, Williams died alone and drugged in a NYC hotel room after choking on an eye drop bottle cap. (The paid companion in the next room claimed he didn’t hear him choking in the bathroom.) Reading between the lines, it seems like he was a genuinely nice guy who loved to boisterously laugh at inappropriate moments and who was very generous to those he held dear, especially his lobotomized sister Rose. Rader had Williams’ permission to tape many of their conversations, and Tennessee said this a few years before he died:
I wouldn’t want to be young again and have to go through the *@#% all over again! But yes, I would be a writer [given the choice] because that is what I am. There isn’t any choice, is there? You know that. If young people are meant to be writers, they’ll write. There’s nothing that can stop them. It may kill them. They may not be able to stand the terrible indignities, humiliations, privations, shocks that attend the life of an American writer. They may not. Yet they may have some sense of humour about it, and manage to survive.
Ironically, the only jobs Williams had before making it as a writer were menial ones in a shoe factory, waiting tables, etc. He’d had two nervous breakdowns by the time he was 24, so it was fortunate he was able to follow his calling as a writer, since he’d loathed all his jobs up until that point. Did Tennessee Williams die happy? I don’t think so. Did he know God? Yes. He even claimed there would be no need in heaven for booze and pills, because we’d all be too busy singing all the old gospel hymns to be bothered with any of those other things. RIP, Tennessee.