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New York Scenes in the Life and Death of Tennessee Williams

March 26 is the birthday of American playwright Tennessee Williams, whose centennial we are celebrating all year. As anyone who has followed the life and work of the playwright of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and many other famous plays, the author was a restless soul, never content to stay in any one place. But New York was the home of the theater, and so his work brought him here. And New York is where he died. Here are a few notes on Tennessee Williams's life and fitful relationship with the city, taken from biographies and letters, arranged as scenes. Imagine them set to music.

Scene One
In July 1928, when he was 17, Thomas "Tom" Lanier Williams (born March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Miss.) stopped in New York City on his way to Europe with a church group led by his grandfather, Reverend W. E. Dakin. The two stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, a luxury hotel next to Grand Central Terminal. While in New York, the teenager and his grandfather visited Grant's Tomb, Saint Paul's and Trinity Church, and they saw Florence Ziegfeld's production of Show Boat. Tom was like any other tourist. (from Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich. Brown Publishers, 1995. pps. 89-91)

Scene Two
Seeking success as a playwright, Tom, becoming "Tennessee," traveled to New York in September of 1939 to pursue a career in the theater. According to his recollection, he "arrived in New York broke, unshaven and looking 'pretty disreputable,'" but he headed straight away to Rockefeller Center to meet with Audrey Wood, his talent agent. To make it in the theater in 1939, succeeding on Broadway was mandatory. In letters to family, he expressed a loathing for New York. He moved several times within that city that fall. (Leverich, p. 326)

Scene Three
In March 1940, Tennessee was living at the YMCA, 5 West 63rd St. He was taking classes under John Gassner at the New School, located down in the Village on W. 12th Street.

March 19, 1940, in a letter to his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams -

"Spring is here today, I went out without a topcoat as the streets were quite warm and sunny. I suppose New York will be more pleasant now. I hope so as I have grown tired of it in the last few weeks. The people here are all living such artificial lives - Indians would be a great relief!" (The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Volume 1, New Directions, 2002, pps. 240-241)

Scene Four
In August 1940, Tennessee was living at 151 E. 37th St.

To Joseph Hazan,

"Manhattan seems empty. Full of the most horrible little worm-like people who merely seem to occupy space but who are no doubt very real to themselves and to their little circle of contiguous lives.

I haven't discovered that exciting quality which Emily finds here in the summer. I think it is some beautiful quality in Emily's soul that isn't mine at the present moment."
(Selected Letters, p. 263)

Soon after, Tennessee returned to Mexico where he could live cheaper than in New York. Then it was on to Macon, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Fl, among other locales. He was still short on funds but found it preferable to be broke there than in New York City.

Scene Five
By December 1942, Tennessee had changed his tune a bit.

Writing to his parents -

"The air in New York is very bracing after Florida. I think it is really healthier up here in the winter, at least I always feel better than I do in the South." (Selected Letters, p. 424)

On March 31, 1945, The Glass Menagerie opened at Playhouse Theatre, W. 48th St.

INTERMISSON

Scene Six
From the Algonquin Hotel, Sept. 20, 1947 - Tennessee writes to his brother, Walter Dakin Williams, that he is moving to an apartment in October. Rehearsals were about to begin for his new play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

"It is just one room with a kitchenette and bath but it's the best available. It is right off Park avenue on 36th street, one of the few blocks in New York that have real trees. Living at the Algonquin is a strain as the place is infested with actors looking for jobs." (from The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, 1945-1957, Volume 2, New Directions, 2004, p. 125)

The address was 108 East 36th St. (now demolished).

Dec 3, 1947. A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. He took the stage at curtain ovations after the audience cried for an appearance of the author.

Scene Seven
In November 1953, he found a two-room apartment, at 323 E. 58th St. and spent money furnishing it. Rent was low even then, $150 per month.

Mar 24, 1955. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened at the Morosco Theatre

Scene Eight
During the years 1961-1962, Tennessee lived in an apartment in the E. 60s, working on The Night of the Iguana. He was 50 years old, and he had been in a long relationship with Frank Phillip Merlo, an actor who would die from lung cancer in 1963. Tennessee expressed interest in the experimental world of Off-Broadway. He told interviewers from Theatre Arts, "I think my kind of literary or pseudo-literary style of writing for the theatre is on its way out." But he was enthusiastic in supporting the work of new playwrights, especially Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.(‪Conversations with Tennessee Williams‬ By Tennessee Williams, Albert J. Devlin, University Press of Mississippi, 1986, p. 99)

Scene Nine
In 1967, he was restless, moving from hotel to hotel. He increasingly battled depression and drug use. In 1968 he converted to Roman Catholicism. His later plays are marked by themes of salvation and redemption.

with Andy. see notes at end of post.

March 26, 1980. Clothes for a Summer Hotel, his last Broadway play, opens. It closed after 15 performances.

Scene Ten
February 1983. For several years, Tennessee Williams had divided his time living in his house in Key West, his apartment on New Orleans, and his suite at the Hotel Elysée (60 East 54th Street) in New York. He maintained his own apartment in New York but preferred the Elysée, so very like in name to Elysian Fields, the street of Streetcar. That's where his secretary found his body on the morning of February 25, 1983. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia, as a small cap of an eyedrop bottle had become lodged in his throat. He had also taken the powerful barbiturate secobarbital. He was 71. At the time of his death he was in talks for an Off-Broadway revival of his play Vieux Carré, a critical failure in its original Broadway debut in May of 1977. He was buried in St. Louis, though he had many time expressed the wish to friends to be buried out to sea near the spot where his favorite poet, Hart Crane, had perished in 1932.

"The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass."
— Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie)

Note: This year, the Wooster Group staged a successful experimental version of Vieux Carré, a play set in a New Orleans boarding house during the Great Depression. The production will tour European cities this spring.

Read the related post: Capote, Taylor, Warhol, Williams.

Images: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c28957. Orland Fernandez, World Telegram staff photographer. 1965. and Andy Warhol (left) and Tennessee Williams (right) talking on the S.S. France, with Paul Morrissey in the background. World Journal Tribune photo by James Kavallines. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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