The Magazine

The Tennessee Waltz

Dancing with genius and despair.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By JOHN SIMON
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Now I'm back "home." Which isn't quite true. . . . The whole world is really my home--not my single cramped unhappy place. . . . I hate brick and concrete and the hissing of garden hoses. I hate streets with demure or sedate little trees and the awful screech of trolley wheels and polite, constrained city voices. I want hills and valleys and lakes and forests around me! I want to lie dreaming and naked in the sun! I want to be free and have freedom all around me. I don't want anything tight or limiting or strained.

In the fall of 1937 he takes stock:

My virtues--I am kind, friendly, modest, sympathetic, tolerant and sensitive--

Faults--I am ego-centric, introspective, morbid, sensual, irreligious, lazy, timid, cowardly--

But if I were God I would feel a little bit sorry for Tom Williams [he was not yet Tennessee] once in a while--he doesn't have a very ["gay" crossed out--what irony!] easy time of it and he does have guts of a sort even though he is a stinking sissy!

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:

I do not suffer much. I have diverted myself with the most extraordinary amount of sexual license I have ever indulged in. New lover every night, barely missing one, for a month or more. I love no one. [By October:] Love life resumed with a vengeance last night--2 in the night, 1 in the morning. Enjoyed it the first couple. Then a bit sordid. The blue devils [his name for attacks of depression] sort of squatted dumbly at the foot of the stairs as it were.

There follows this reflection:

Love is what makes it still seem nice after the orgasm. This is when sex becomes an art. . . . one must be an artist to keep it from falling to pieces uglily--Up till then it is simply craftsmanship of a pretty crude and simple kind.

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:

[A] passionate physical love affair for a few months--(last winter)--it ended very badly--I was thrown over by the beloved bitch [a fellow student at the University of Iowa]--but the experience was valuable.

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."