Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

An Easy Spring Walk in Central Park: From the Museum of Natural History to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Easter Sunday April 20, 2014 11:20 a.m. Central Park, New York On Easter Sunday, I had arranged to meet a friend on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at noon for an excursion around the galleries, an experience I dubbed "high church."  Easter Sunday April 20, 2014 11:24 a.m. Central Park, New York I live on the west side now, about as far up Manhattan as you can go, but I find the A and the C trains extremely useful in taking me downtown to the well-visited parts of "the city." For example, the 81st Street stop (American Museum of Natural History) on the C also offers quick access to the New-York Historical Society (corner of 77th and the park) and Central Park West. Easter Sunday April 20, 2014 11:42 a.m. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue, New York So, in anticipation of Sunday's event, I took the train downtown to W. 81st to start my walk to the other side of the park. Walking to the east si

Visiting New York on a Monday

Mondays are OK. Let's have a look at some of the museums open Mondays - • American Museum of Natural History • Jewish Museum • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) • National Museum of the American Indian • Neue Galerie • Guggenheim Museum • South Street Seaport Museum Any of these museums could be paired with a nearby restaurant or bar, making a complete full afternoon or day in New York. Monday is especially good for a museum visit, because the crowds tend to be thinner, and restaurants, too, tend to be less busy than on a weekend. A fun museum and bistro walk on the Upper West Side would be a combination of the American Museum of Natural History and the nearby Cafe Lalo on W. 83rd St. I also would suggest a pairing of the Neue Galerie with a nearby cafe, but the two cafes inside the musuem are so good, why go anywhere else? Image above: The Guggenheim on left and Beaux-Arts townhouse on right. View from E. 88th St. by Walking Off the Big Apple.