Blow Out Your Candles: An Elegy for Rose Williams
December 5, 2013 | by Susannah Jacob
Some memory of Rose Williams underpins all of Tennessee Williams’s plays, but it was with the 1944 premiere of The Glass Menagerie that he both immortalized his sister and launched his Broadway career. Rose is the basis for Laura Wingfield, the withdrawn high school dropout who passes her days listening to old phonograph records and caring for her collection of glass animals while the world closes in around her. Williams based Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, on himself. The play depicts real events, up to a point; years before he wrote Menagerie, now in a successful run on Broadway, Williams left home to pursue his own writing ambitions. During that time, Rose descended into violent insanity. “To escape from a trap,” Williams wrote in Menagerie’s production notes about Tom Wingfield, “he has to act without pity.”
The Williams family moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918. Prior to that, Rose and Tom lived “agreeable children’s lives under garden hoses in the hot summer,” according to Williams’s 1975 Memoirs. Nine-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Tom danced in the living room to music playing on the Victrola. The records were gifts from Cornelius Williams, their itinerant father, who was, like Laura and Tom’s father in Menagerie, a traveling salesman.
When Edwina Williams, Tennessee’s mother, became pregnant with her third child, Dakin, Cornelius accepted an office job at International Shoe’s St. Louis branch. The family moved into a small house, not nearly as squalid as the tenement apartment the Wingfields occupy onstage, but the tension between Williams’ parents made the atmosphere even more explosive. Cornelius, like the character of Tom and Laura’s father, was restless, alcoholic, and abusive. After the family moved to St. Louis, he was, however, not absent. Edwina and Cornelius’s marriage reeked of dysfunction; she withheld sex to punish his infidelity and abrasive presence. Williams recalled hearing his mother’s screams, futile protestations as his father cornered her in their bedroom. Tom, Rose, and Dakin would run out of the house and to the neighbors’ to escape.
As a teenager in St. Louis, Rose fought constantly with her parents and her life seemed constantly under cloud cover. Williams writes in Memoirs that Rose was a popular girl in high school, “but only for a brief while.” Her beauty was “mainly in her expressive green-gray eyes and in her curly auburn hair.” But her narrow shoulders and “state of anxiety when in male company inclined her to hunch them so they looked even narrower,” and her “strong-featured, very Williams head” looked too large for her small body. When on a date, Rose “would talk with an almost hysterical animation which few young men knew how to take.” The family moved so Rose could enter Soldan High, which is the name of the school Laura Wingfield attends in the play. But Rose dropped out, and Edwina enrolled her daughter in boarding school in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Her diagnosis of schizophrenia was still ten years off, but around this time Rose began to experience difficulty with life’s daily expectations. In a 1926 letter to her grandmother from boarding school, stored in Williams’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Rose writes, “I don’t know what was the matter with me except that I was so nervous that I couldn’t hold the glass to take my medicine in. I stayed in bed all day long and had a big dose of calomel and I feel better but still weak. I just had finished a music lesson, and Miss Butell nearly drove me wild. It makes me nervous as a cat.” It was a letter Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire could have written.
After several months of erratic behavior and poor academic performance, Rose returned home in 1927. Cornelius sent her to Knoxville for several weeks, where his two sisters lived. “With a few inexpensive party dresses,” one which Williams describes in his memoirs as “just as green as the cat’s eyes,” Rose made her debut at a series of thrown-together social gatherings. In Knoxville, her brother remembered, Rose fell in love with “a young man who did not altogether respond in kind,” not unlike what happens to Laura Wingfield in Menagerie.
Rose made increasingly frequent trips to the doctor’s office, seeking relief from chronic stomach pain. The Williams family would not face their daughter’s underlying psychiatric disorder; a family friend and physician finally made a connection between her behavior and her apparent digestive ailments. “It’s not very pleasant to look back on that year and to know Rose knew she was going mad and to know, also that I was not too kind to my sister,” Williams would recall. “You see, for the first time in my life, I had become accepted by a group of young friends and my delighted relations with them preoccupied me to such an extent that I failed to properly observe the shadow falling on Rose.”
One night, when their parents took a weekend trip to the Ozarks, Williams threw a party. Rose, shocked by the drinking and prank phone calls, told their parents what happened. Williams recalled passing her on the staircase, “turning on her like a wildcat” and hissing, “I hate the sight of your ugly old face.”
By this point Williams had published his first story in The Smart Set, and had begun his drawn-out college career. He spent nine years a student, enrolled at the University of Missouri, the University of Washington, and the University of Iowa, with gap years in between. All the while, he wrote short stories, poems, and plays. In 1932, after he failed ROTC, Cornelius, who sharply favored Williams’s more conventional younger brother Dakin, removed his oldest from school and installed him as a clerk typist and errand boy at his shoe company’s downtown warehouse. Williams based Tom Wingfield’s story on those three years, before suffering his own nervous breakdown. Days after he returned home from the hospital, Williams remembers Rose walked into his bedroom “like a sonambulist” and announced, “We must all die together,” days after he returned from the hospital. “God damn it I was in no mood to consider group suicide with the family, not even at Rose’s suggestion—however appropriate the suggestion may have been,” Williams wrote in his memoirs.
Williams became aware of changes in Rose’s behavior, “little eccentricities” she had developed. Rose was now very quiet and would set a pitcher of ice water on the floor outside her door each night before bed. She would clutch the family dog, a Boston terrier named Jiggs, and Edwina would snap, “Rose, put Jiggs down, he wants to run about.” One time, driving her brother and his friends, Rose blanched when they began to make fun of a person they knew who was losing his mind. “You must never make fun of insanity,” Rose said, “it’s worse than death.”
Into the 1930s, when Tennessee Williams was still writing letters to agents and struggling to publish his short stories and produce his plays in university theaters, Rose’s hospital stays grew in number and length. In a 1937 letter to her own parents, Edwina Williams described visiting her daughter in the hospital: “Rose looked so yellow and bloated and she was so full of delusions, the visit made Tom ill so I can’t take him to see her again. I can’t have two of them there.”
In June, doctors finally diagnosed Rose with schizophrenia. In late July, she became violent, insinuating that her father tried to rape her and threatening to kill him, and the Williams installed their only daughter in St. Vincent’s Catholic Sanitarium in St. Louis, though shortly after she was transferred to the state hospital in Farmington.
By then, Williams had moved to California, where he landed work as an MGM scriptwriter. He lived at the Hotel Bel-Air “in great luxury at the expense of Warner Brothers,” he reports in a letter home, now in his archive at Columbia University. In Los Angeles, Williams began “a beautiful new story” that became Menagerie.
In 1943, Rose’s fitful, hysterical fantasies grew worse. In one of the first surgeries of its kind, doctors performed a frontal lobotomy. “I’m trying not to die, making every effort possible not to do so,” Rose wrote to Williams from the hospital bed after her lobotomy. “If I die you will know that I miss you twenty-four hours a day.” She added, “I want some black coffee, ice-cream on a chocolate bar, a good picture of you, Your devoted sister, Xxx Rose. P.S. Send me one 1 dollar for ice cream.”
The Glass Menagerie previewed in Chicago one year after Rose’s surgery; at the time she was still a ward of the state. The play ran for thirteen weeks before opening in New York to great critical acclaim. Williams wrote in a 1947 essay about fame’s corrupting influence; it was an event, he wrote, “which terminated one part of my life and began another as different in all external circumstances as could well be imagined.”
In the ensuing years, from Paris, Havana, Key West, Rome, and London, while navigating his own difficulties, Williams sent money and letters inquiring about Rose’s health and finances. At one point he brought her to New York to visit with his famous friends. In interviews, he made frequent references to his intentions to move his sister out of an institutional existence and into a Key West house he purchased for her in Coconut Grove. In an interview at the end of his life, before he choked fatally on a medicine bottle cap while alone in the Hotel Elysée in New York, Williams described driving Rose to Stoney Lodge in Ossining. “A lovely retreat where she has a pleasant room to herself with flowered wallpaper.” About his efforts on Rose’s behalf he said in an interview, “This is probably the best thing I’ve done with my life, besides a few bits of work.”
Privately, he acknowledged his debt to Rose. In 1942, writing to his agent Audrey Wood about a character who he hoped to yet again enliven with his sister’s mental paralysis, Williams wrote that “The great psychological trauma of my life was my sister’s tragedy, who had the same precarious balance of nerves that I have to live with, and who found it too much and escaped.”
Williams created indelible female characters by quoting directly from his mother and sister. “They talked with great charm. In most of my writings I try to recapture the charm of the way they talked,” he said in a 1965 interview. But it was Rose’s “charm,” shared by her mother, that led to her irreversible detachment from reality. The discrepancy between their fortunes caused him lifelong guilt. In the summer of 1938, when Rose went intractably insane, Williams wrote in his diary, “God must remember and have pity some day on one who loved as much as her little heart could hold—& more! Who should be there, little Rose? And me, here.”