The Tennessee Waltz
Dancing with genius and despair.
Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOHN SIMON
The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams is really two books. On the verso pages we get Williams's text in rather fine print. On the facing recto pages, in minuscule print, are Margaret Bradham Thornton's annotations plus illustrations, and what annotations and illustrations they are! There are explications, quotations, cross references, biographical and historical notes (generous information about, say, George S. Kaufman and Ernest Dowson and the Spanish Civil War, which we may find supererogatory). There are long excerpts from letters by and to Williams, with sometimes only marginal bearing on him, and frequent passages from the plays, stories, poems, and his Memoirs.
There are useful corrections of his atrocious misspellings, even of the names of people with whom he was closely connected. And then the illustrations: Profuse reproductions of Williams's handwriting at all stages, typescripts without even handwritten corrections, the covers of the 30 notebooks wherein these journals were kept, and countless photographs of their pages.
Numerous photos also of Williams at all ages, even in the nude, of relatives close and distant, of persons he had even the slightest contact with--though not, of course, of the innumerable young men who were his almost nightly (or daily) pickups. Further, photographs of the sundry Williams habitations, including hotels in the many towns he stayed in. Also townscapes and copious reproductions of Williams's rather undistinguished paintings.
If nothing else, they reduce the space for the annotations, which, especially in that diminutive, hard-to-read print, are, however useful, a trifle fulsome. Do we need to know whether some fleeting figure in Tennessee's life supplied his or her name to this or that, often quite minor, character in one of the many stories or plays, some of them unproduced?
Thornton's notes are almost archival rather than merely editorial. Who, one wonders, is this editor of whom we are told only that she is "a writer and independent scholar in Bedminster, New Jersey"? Of the writer, we know nothing further; of the independent scholar, we get rather too much. Life must be very uneventful in Bedminster, and heaven only knows how many years of it she expended on this mammoth project.
In other words, unless you are an independent Williams scholar, or a rabid fan, you may want to read the book selectively. You certainly get Williams warts and all, with him supplying the warts and Thornton the all. Fortunately, some of the pictures crowding the note pages overflow into the text pages, thus shortening those as well. Even more fortunately, although Williams's life dates are 1911 to 1983, the notebooks cover only 1936 to 1981, and feature a hefty lacuna from 1958 to 1979, for which years no journals have been found. As Dr. Johnson delicately observed about Paradise Lost, "None ever wished it longer than it is."
What do we get here? Williams suffered from some real ailments, but still more from psychological and hypochondriacal ones. The notebooks are full of detailed aches and pains, his fears of going mad like his beloved sister Rose, and dread of imminent death thanks to a bad heart, which in fact he didn't have.
Next, paranoia. He saw enemies everywhere, sometimes even in his close friends, including Audrey Wood, his devoted agent, who performed wonders for him. "I'm a lonely person," he writes, "lonelier than most people. I have a touch of schizophrenia in me and in order to avoid madness I have to work." And he did toil like a madman, usually on several works simultaneously. When, however, he was blocked, he also loafed like a lunatic, bemoaning his inability to work.
There is also dromomania, Williams's inability to stay put anywhere for long. We find him ceaselessly traveling in search of renewal to various parts of Italy and Spain, to Paris and Vienna, to Mexico and North Africa, more rarely to Scandinavia and Germany. His chief American hangouts were in New York, New Orleans, and Key West, but he also spent time with his family in St. Louis and on trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In Key West he eventually owned a house; everywhere else he kept changing addresses like shirts, if not more often. Thornton produces pictures of even his least abiding abodes. As he writes during a 1936 stay in St. Louis:
In the fall of 1937 he takes stock:
Thornton is to be commended for reproducing Williams's shaky grammar, crossed-out words, frequent but often faulty forays into foreign languages (e.g., Bon nuit), and ubiquitous, spectacular misspellings. Over and over he butchers even the names of persons and places close to him, such as his agency ("Leibling" for Liebling Wood) or his recurrent Roman address ("Via Venuto" for Veneto). He makes up words out of ignorance, not inventiveness: devigation, punity, quotidinal, imbecilics, etc.
He was also an erotomaniac. His proclaimed only-true-love for, and longtime relationship with, Frank Merlo (nicknamed Little Horse by him for his long teeth), an up-and-down affair to shame a rollercoaster, did not preclude his customary nocturnal forays into designated pickup streets and bars for one-night stands. Sometimes he picked up two at once, or shared one with a homosexual friend.
On June 22, 1941, he notes:
There follows this reflection:
Thus with the steadier lovers; the overnight ones were unceremoniously dismissed. Tennessee liked to refer to these sexual bouts as "nightingales singing." Sometimes they would even "concertize." And he dutifully records whether the nightingale song was good, bad, somewhere in between, or, exceptionally, outstanding. Occasionally he comments on the faces or bodies of his partners; more rarely on the exact nature of the sexual acts.
In April 1938 he ruminated about his only consummated heterosexual episode:
In June it is, "Wish I could get things started again with Bette." Then nothing more about sex with women until this reflection in 1949: "Perhaps only a woman could love me, but I can't love a woman. Not now. It's too late."
The first--bad--encounter with homosexuality came 10 years earlier: "Rather horrible night with a picked up acquaintance Doug whose amorous advance made me sick at the stomach--Purity--Oh God--It's dangerous to have ideals." Successful homosexual experiences followed fairly soon, but ambivalence sometimes dogged him: "I demand of life some violence even when I run to peace." And again: "I'd like to live a simple life--with epic fornications." As late as 1953 he is bothered by bought sex: "The whole thing is offensive to the inextinguishable Puritan in me still."
The biggest and most valuable part of Notebooks concerns Williams's struggle with his work, which often came very hard. There were years of sporadic publications of stories, poems, and one-act plays. But this and an occasional minor prize or subsidy were as nothing compared with the rejections upon rejections. There were, to be sure, teachers, friends, and theatrical folk who encouraged Tom, but finally it was his dogged perseverance, his stubborn efforts, that prevailed. The steady rewritings and re-rewritings, the false starts and major revisions, make fascinating reading, but unfortunately cannot be conveyed through brief, quotable passages.
There were setbacks for every slender success, and frequent faltering and rebounding. Take this, from 1953:
Repeatedly, he concludes with his optimistic motto: En avant! Then there are the absorbing accounts of relations with agents, producers, directors--even Hollywood, where an attempt at a screenplay for Lana Turner bombed.
After several disheartening near-breakthroughs, success finally came with The Glass Menagerie. But even a string of successes couldn't guarantee smooth sailing. "I don't get along with normal men," he complains; but luckily for him, there weren't too many of those in the theater. Particularly interesting is the well-documented relationship with Elia Kazan, whose directorial talent and commercial sense helped put Williams across, even if sometimes at the cost of loss in art.
We learn about Williams's taste in writers. His perennial favorites were Chekhov and Hart Crane, sometimes joined by Lawrence, Kafka, Strindberg, Proust, and Joyce. But there was mutability. So Sons and Lovers had to yield to Lady Chatterley's Lover (misspelled as "Chatterly") as Lawrence's best on June 24, 1955. Two days later, however, "Lady C. bores me this time."
A constant thread running through the journals, besides alcohol, is the steady ingestion of drugs, both medicinal and hallucinogenic. Among the sundry barbiturates, Seconal takes pride of place, as remedy for both insomnia and fear of flying, which Tennessee never quite conquered. There were flights when Seconal had to be seconded by alcohol, though even this wasn't always palliative enough.
Some close friendships enliven the journals, although they sometimes crumbled, as did the ones with his fellow writers Paul Bowles and Donald Windham. The latter, an early Williams lover and collaborator on the Lawrence-based play You Touched Me!, elicited Tennessee's wrath by publishing their correspondence with an unpleasant afterword. Whereupon he becomes "my old friend Donald Windham, a consummate liar and betrayer in his dealings with me."
Two great friendships with women proved steadfast: With the married Marion Vaccaro, even if he misspelled her as "Marian," and with the Russian-born British actress Maria Britneva, later, by marriage, Lady St. Just, and, after his death, Williams's literary executrix. No less lasting were the misspellings; thus one of the late plays, Kirche, Kutchen und Kinder, never got the error in its title corrected: The German for kitchen is Küche, not "Kutchen."
Critics provided some dependable bugbears, chiefly George Jean Nathan, Robert Brustein, and I. So, in a very late diary entry, Tennessee declares, "I recognize them as potential assassins, before, now, and later." Thornton quotes some of my late, unfavorable reviews, but not my enthusiastic ones for the vastly superior earlier plays.
The writing in the Notebooks is generally quite mundane, not meant for publication. Even so, there are bright, witty, and even lyrical passages, as when Tennessee feels like "a piece of toast forgotten in the toaster," or remarks, "I think I have discovered my first grey hair, but hope it is just a blond one."
My own contact with Tennessee Williams came about when he gave a talk--really just a Q & A--at Harvard and was asked what he thought about existentialism, then all the rage. He said he knew little about it, but maybe someone in the audience could enlighten him. A brash graduate student, I volunteered, which later earned me an invitation to lunch at his hotel, the Ritz Carlton. He received me in his pajamas, and I, becoming suspicious, talked about nothing but women.
What struck me most about the great man was the triteness of his conversation, as it also did Kenneth Tynan during a long interview: "He says nothing that is not candid and little that is not trite." Our lunch was on a frigid Armistice Day, and Tennessee, seeing through the window soldiers shivering atop armored vehicles waiting to join the parade, observed, "Those poor boys, they must be cold as a witch's teat." Raving to me about Greta Garbo, he remarked, "She seemed to be walking on air." Many years later, when his genius had forsaken him, he sat at a restaurant table next to mine and, understandably not recognizing me, leaned over to ask what time it was. I resisted saying, "Later than you might think."
Let me not shortchange him. For a man who had known extreme poverty, sometimes going hungry ("I have exactly one dime--and that borrowed"), often forced to take menial jobs (anything from work on a pigeon ranch--"killed and picked sixty squabs yesterday"--to getting promptly fired as an elevator operator), he did not, having become affluent, prove stingy to others, as many do. He was generous to all, and spent lavishly on good lifelong care for his beloved institutionalized sister.
Toward the end, days darkened with premonition. In a letter to a woman friend, he wrote, "I don't understand my life, past or present, nor do I understand life itself. Death seems more comprehensible to me." That was on May 31, 1982. On February 25, 1983, he was found dead, asphyxiated by mistakenly swallowing in the night the small, bell-shaped plastic cap of an eye-drop bottle.
I remember him gratefully for the pleasure his best works have given me. And sometimes with melancholy, when I listen to Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, one of them the setting of a poem by Theodor Storm, which, in translation, begins, "It happens that the nightingale / Has sung the whole night through," and ends, "From its sweet sound / Echoing and re-echoing, / The roses have burgeoned."
What beauty Williams was able to cull from his messy life.
John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.