Tennessee Williams Is Dead at 71
By MEL GUSSOW
Tennessee Williams, whose innovative drama and sense of lyricism were a major
force in the postwar American theater, died yesterday at the age of 71. He was
found dead about 10:45 A.M. in his suite in the Hotel Elysee on East 54th
Officials said that death was due to natural causes, and that he had been under
treatment for heart disease. An autopsy is scheduled for today.
Author of more than 24 full-length plays, including ''The Glass Menagerie,'' ''A
Streetcar Named Desire,'' ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' - Tennessee Williams was the
most important American playwright after Eugene O'Neill. The latter two won
Pulitzer Prizes - and ''The Night of the Iguana,'' he had a profound effect on
the American theater and on American playwrights and actors. He wrote with deep
sympathy and expansive humor about outcasts in our society. Though his images
were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.
Plays Intensely Personal
His works, which are among the most popular plays of our time, continue to
provide a rich reservoir of acting challenges. Among the actors celebrated in
Williams roles were Laurette Taylor in ''The Glass Menagerie''; Marlon Brando
and Jessica Tandy in ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' (and Vivien Leigh in the movie
version), and Burl Ives in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.''
''The Glass Menagerie,'' his first success, was his ''memory play.'' Many of his
other plays were his nightmares. Although seldom intentionally autobiographical,
the plays were almost all intensely personal -torn from his own private
anguishes and anxieties.
He once described his sister's room in the family home in St. Louis, with her
collection of glass figures, as representing ''all the softest emotions that
belong to recollection of things past.'' But, he remembered, outside the room
was an alley in which, nightly, dogs destroyed cats.
Mr. Williams's work, which was unequaled in passion and imagination by any of
his contemporaries' works, was a barrage of conflicts, of the blackest horrors
offset by purity. Perhaps his greatest character, Blanche Du Bois, the heroine
of ''Streetcar,'' has been described as a tigress and a moth, and, as Mr.
Williams created her, there was no contradiction.
His basic premise, he said, was ''the need for understanding and tenderness and
fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance.'' Just as his work
reflected his life, his life reflected his work. A monumental hypochondriac, he
became obsessed with sickness, failure and death. Several times he thought he
was losing his sight, and he had four eye operations for cataracts. Constantly
he thought his heart would stop beating. In desperation, he drank and took pills
He was a man of great shyness, but with friends he showed great openness, which
often worked to his disadvantage. He was extremely vulnerable to demands - from
directors, actresses, the public, his critics, admirers and detractors.
He feigned disinterest in reviews, but he was deeply disturbed by them.
Unfavorable ones could devastate him. Favorable ones might corrupt him. The most
successful serious playwright of his time, he did not write for success but, as
one friend said, as a ''biological necessity.''
Frightened by Success
Success struck him suddenly in 1945, with the Broadway premiere of ''The Glass
Menagerie,'' and it frightened him much more than his failure.
He was born as Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Miss., on March 26, 1911. His
mother, the former Edwina Dakin, was the puritanical daughter of an Episcopal
rector. His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a violent and aggressive
traveling salesman who later settled down in St. Louis as manager of a show
company. There was an older daughter, Rose (memorialized as Laura in ''the Glass
Menagerie''), and in 1919 another son was born, Walter Dakin.
''It was just a wrong marriage,'' the playwright wrote. The familial conflict is
made clear by instances from the son's art. His mother was the model for the
foolish but indomitable Amanda Wingfield in ''The Glass Menagerie,'' his father
for the blustering, brutish Big Daddy in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.''
Acted Out Fantasies
While his father traveled, Tom was mostly brought up, and overprotected, by his
mother - particularly after he contracted diphtheria at the age of 5. By the
time the family moved to St. Louis, the pattern was clear. Young Tom retreated
into himself. He made up and told stories, many of them scary.
In the fall of 1929 he went off to the University of Missouri to study
journalism. When his childhood girlfriend, Hazel Kramer, also decided to enroll
at Missouri, his father said he would withdraw him, and succeeded in breaking up
the incipient romance. It was his only known romantic relationship with a woman.
In a state of depression, Tom dropped out of school and, at his father's
instigation, took a job as a clerk in a shoe company. It was, he recalled,
To survive, every day after work he retreated to his room and wrote - stories,
poems, plays - through the night. The strain finally led to a nervous breakdown.
Sent to Memphis to recuperate, the young Mr. Williams joined a local theater
group. Back in St. Louis, he became friendly with a group of poets at Washington
University, particularly Clark Mills McBurney who, among other things,
introduced Mr. Williams to the poems of Hart Crane. Crane became his idol.
In 1937, Mr. Williams re-enrolled as a student, this time at the University of
Iowa. There and in St. Louis he wrote an enormous, and uncounted, number of
plays, some of which were produced on campus. In 1938, nine years after he had
entered college, he graduated.
Success seemed paired with tragedy. His sister lost her mind. The family allowed
- with subsequent recriminations - a prefrontal lobotomy to be performed, and
she spent much of her life in a sanitarium.
Life in New Orleans
At 28, Thomas Williams left home for New Orleans, where he changed his style of
living, as well as his name. He offered several reasons for the name change. It
was a reaction against his early inferior work, published under his real name.
It was a college nickname. It was because his father was from Tennessee. It was
In New Orleans he discovered new netherworlds, soaking up the milieu that would
appear in ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' He wrote stories, some of which later
became plays, and entered a Group Theater playwriting contest. He won $100 and
was solicited by the agent Audrey Wood, who became his friend and adviser.
''Battle of Angels,'' a play he wrote during a visit of several months to St.
Louis, opened in Boston in 1940 and was a disaster. It closed in two weeks and
did not come to New York.
Mr. Williams, however, brought it back in a revised version in 1957 as ''Orpheus
Descending'' and as the Marlon Brando-Anna Magnani movie, ''The Fugitive Kind,''
and in 1973 it was presented at the Circle Repertory Company.
To his amazement, Audrey Wood got him a job in Hollywood writing scripts for
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at $250 a week for six months. He wrote a Lana Turner
picture, worked briefly on a Margaret O'Brien picture and, disdainfully, began
writing an original screenplay, which was rejected.
Still under contract, in a house at Malibu, he began turning the screenplay into
a play titled ''The Gentleman Caller,'' which slowly evolved into ''The Glass
Menagerie.'' On March 31, 1945, five days after its author became 34, it opened
on Broadway and changed Mr. Williams's life, and the American theater..
He was inundated with success -the play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle
award - and he fought to keep afloat. ''Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of
a life without struggle,'' he wrote, ''you are equipped with the basic means of
salvation.'' His art was his salvation. Apprehending, he wrote his second
masterpiece, ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''
Opening in December, 1947, ''Streetcar'' was an even bigger hit than ''The Glass
Menagerie.'' It won Mr. Williams his second Drama Critics' award and his first
Never Stopped Revising
For many years after ''Streetcar,'' almost every other season there was another
Williams play on Broadway (and a one-act play somewhere else). Soon there was a
continual flow from the stage to the screen. And he never stopped revising his
finished work. For more than 35 years, the stream was unabated. He produced an
enormous body of work, including more than two dozen full-length plays, all of
them produced - a record unequaled by any of his contemporaries.
There were successes and failures, and often great disagreement over which was
which. In 1948 there was ''Summer and Smoke,'' which he wrote on Nantucket while
sharing his house with his friend Carson McCullers (at his encouragement she was
dramatizing ''The Member of the Wedding''). It failed on Broadway, was a huge
success in a revival Off Broadway and made a star of Geraldine Page, one of many
magnificent leading ladies in Mr. Williams's works (Laurette Taylor, Jessica
Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani).
There followed ''The Rose Tattoo,'' ''Camino Real'' (a flop in 1953, but revived
as a classic at Lincoln Center in 1970), ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' (his third
Drama Critics' prize, his second Pulitzer), ''Orpheus Descending,'' ''Garden
District,'' ''Sweet Bird of Youth.'' Most of these plays have been seen again in
In addition to the plays, he wrote two novels, ''The Roman Spring of Mrs.
Stone'' and ''Moise and the World of Reason''; short stories, such as ''One
Arm'' and ''Hard Candy''; a book of poetry, ''In the Winter of Cities,'' the
film ''Baby Doll'' and his ''Memoirs.'' In his ''Memoirs,'' for the first time
he wrote in detail about his homosexuality but, as usual, he was restrained in
dealing with his creative life, explaining that his art was ''private.''
As he became more and more successful, Mr. Williams lost his look of boyish
innocence and became somewhat portly and seedy. Gradually he found it more and
more difficult to write. The turning point, as he saw it, was 1955, and after
''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' there was a noticeable decline in his work. To keep
going, he began relying on a ritualistic combination of ingredients -strong
coffee, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
In the late 1950's, Mr. Williams undertook psychoanalysis, explaining, ''If I am
no longer disturbed myself, I will deal less with violent material.'' His first
postanalysis work was the 1960 ''Period of Adjustment,'' a comedy that by common
critical agreement was one of the slightest of his works.
He went back to his nightmares and reached further out for subject matter. In
terms of subject and theme, he was a pioneer, working with dark, theater of the
absurd or the theater of cruelty was fashionable.
''The Night of the Iguana,'' which won a fourth Drama Critics' award for Mr.
Williams in 1961, was considered a return to his earlier important work. As it
turned out, it was his last major success.
Converted to Catholicism
After ''Iguana,'' Mr. Williams went searching and seemed to fall apart. But at
the same time he discovered religion. In 1968 he was converted to Roman
Catholicism. And his last plays, though still dealing with grotesques, also
dealt with salvation.
''The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore,'' which failed in successive years
on Broadway and as an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie entitled ''Boom!'',
was an allegory about a Christlike young man and a dying dowager. His next three
plays, ''Slapstick Tragedy,'' ''The Seven Descents of Myrtle'' and ''In a Bar in
a Tokyo Hotel,'' also had minuscule runs.
Recovering from an illness, he plunged back to work, writing and rewriting. In
the 70's he was, characteristically, prolific, but success continued to elude
him. ''Small Craft Warning'' had a comfortable run Off Broadway in 1972, and at
one point, the author himself made his professional debut as an actor in his own
play, assuming a small role.
''Out Cry'' was a quick failure on Broadway in 1973 and ''The Red Devil Battery
Sign'' closed in Boston, although it was subsquently presented in London. ''Vieux
Carre'' had a brief Broadway run in 1979 (and will be revived next month at the
WPA). Of his later plays, his most popular was the poignant ''A Lovely Sunday at
Creve Coeur'' in 1979.
His last Broadway play was ''Clothes for a Summer Hotel,'' a drama about Scott
and Zelda Fitzgerald that proved to be one of his biggest failures. Though
wounded by the critical reception, he continued writing, in his last years
working with noncommercial institutional theaters.
''Something Cloudy, Something Clear'' was produced Off Off Broadway at the Jean
Cocteau Theater in 1981, and last year his final play, ''A House Not Meant to
Stand,'' had its premiere at the Goodman Theater of Chicago. That play,
subsequently presented at the New World Festival of the Arts in Miami, deals
with the physical and emotional disintegration of an older married couple in
In recent years, Mr. Williams divided his time between his apartment in New York
at the Elysee and his house in Key West. He also kept an apartment in the French
Quarter of New Orleans, the scene of ''A Streetcar Named Desire.''
Several weeks ago Mr. Williams had come to New York from Key West. According to
a close friend, ''He complained constantly of being exhausted and overworked and
he said he was suffering with a shoulder condition.''
Mr. Williams's secretary, John Uecker, who shared the playwright's two-room
hotel suite, said that at about 11 P.M. Thursday he heard a noise from Mr.
Williams's room, but did not investigate. Yesterday morning at approximately
10:45 he entered the room and found him lying next to his bed.
Mr. Williams is survived by his brother, Dakin, a Collinsville, Ill. attorney,
and by his sister, Rose, who is in a nursing home in Westchester County.
''I always felt like Tennessee and I were compatriots,'' said Marlon Brando.
''He told the truth as best he perceived it, and never turned away from things
that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death.''
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Drama: Tennessee Williams ... BIOGRAPHY Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). Thomas
Lanier Williams was born
in Columbus, Mississippi, but grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. ...
"A Streetcar Name Desire " ... The famous playwright, poet, and fiction writer
Tennessee Williams, born Thomas
Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911.He was born in Columbus, Tennessee.His focus
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Tennessee Williams Image Information. Tennessee Williams. Tennessee Williams
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The Tennessee Williams Page …Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). Tennessee Williams.
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Born Today - March 26 ... "I always said little Truman had a voice so high it
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playwrights. He was born Thomas
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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Author Biography ... Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams on
March 26, 1911) was the second
child of a genteel southern belle and a traveling salesman who came from a ...
Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) ... Thomas Lanier Williams was born on March 26, 1911 in
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Williams met and fell in love with Frank Merlo in 1947 while living in New ...
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