Issue 81, Fall 1981
In Chicago, Williams was hard at work on the production of a new play being done at the Goodman Theater. It was a humorous and moving work called A House Not Meant to Stand, the title of which was his comment on the state of American civilization.
I interviewed Williams in his suite at the Radisson Hotel on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was a huge, four-bedroom penthouse decorated in a 1930s mock Moroccan style: fake stone walls, iron chandeliers, a massive fireplace, a staircase and balcony, all of it reminiscent of the interior design especially popular about the time, 1943, that Williams had been a contract writer at the film studios in Hollywood. For that reason he had dubbed the place “The Norma Desmond Suite,” after the role played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
It was Williams’s seventieth birthday, and he followed the routine he has adhered to most of his adult life. He got up at dawn and went to his typewriter and worked. Then he swam in the hotel’s pool. He returned to his suite and glanced through a pile of mail, mostly birthday greetings from friends. He opened several presents and a box containing a literary prize just presented to him by Italy for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He found this somewhat puzzling because, he explained, when the novel and movie first appeared the Italians were angered by his story of a Roman gigolo romancing an older woman.
He finally sat down and talked with me for several hours. Williams was dressed in a loose embroidered shirt, beige slacks, and soft canvas shoes. He was tanned, having spent most of the winter at his home in Key West, Florida. He looked ten years younger than his age. He was in an unusually happy mood, in part because the play was going well, but also because he had around him a number of close friends, among them Jane Smith, the actress and widow of artist Tony Smith. Also in Chicago was Williams’s brother Dakin, with his wife and two adopted daughters.
Three weeks later, after flying to Key West from Chicago, Williams came to New York. While he kept an apartment in the city, he rarely used it. Instead, as was his habit for many years, he stayed at the Hotel Elysée on East Fifty-fourth Street. He had come to New York to visit his sister Rose, who is a resident at a private sanatorium upstate, near West Point. He was also in New York to conduct some business. He consulted with his editors about three forthcoming books: a collection of short fiction tentatively entitled It Happened the Day the Sun Rose; a volume of five of his screenplays, among them The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Boom!, One Arm, and All Gaul Is Divided; and an autobiographical work, My Life in the American Theater: An Interpretive World. Additionally, Williams had three full-length plays in various preproduction stages, and was contending with movie producers on a possible remake of the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The night before I interviewed him in New York, Williams, along with the painter Vassilis Voglis and myself, spent a night on the town. We had an early dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then went to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform at City Center. We ended at a bar called Rounds, which boasts a somewhat piss-elegant decor and a clientele consisting largely of male hustlers and those who employ them.
Around noon the next day, I completed the interview with Tennessee Williams in his suite at the Elysée. He was tired from the night before, and perhaps because of that he was more subdued than he had been in Chicago, and the interview was more reflective. Williams very much disliked talking about his work and the process through which he created his art. But in New York, on that dreary, gray day, he was open to it and told me what he could about how he writes.
THE GENESIS OF WRITING
I was a born writer, I think. Yes, I think that I was. At least when I had this curious disease affecting my heart at the age of eight. I was more or less bedridden for half a year. My mother exaggerated the cause. She said I swallowed my tonsils! Years later, when I had the Time cover story, and she was quoted, doctors looked it up and said, “A medical impossibility!”
But I do think there was a night when I nearly died, or possibly did die. I had a strange, mystical feeling, as if I were seeing a golden light. Elizabeth Taylor had the same experience. But I survived that night. That was a turning point, and I gradually pulled out of it. But I was never the same physically. It changed my entire personality. I’d been an aggressive tomboy until that illness. I used to beat up all the kids on the block. I used to confiscate their marbles, snatch them up!
Then that illness came upon me, and my personality changed. I became a shut-in. I think my mother encouraged me to be more of a shut-in than I needed to be. Anyway, I took to playing solitary games, amusing myself. I don’t mean masturbation. I mean I began to live an intensely imaginative life. And it persisted that way. That’s how I turned into a writer, I guess. By the age of twelve, I started writing.
MOTHER AND MISS ROSE
My mother—everyone calls her Miss Edwina—was essentially more psychotic than my sister Rose. Mother was put away once, you know. She was put away long before she was old, in the early part of the decade of the fifties. I was on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and she called me up.
“Tom, guess where I am?” she said.
“Why, Mother, aren’t you at home?”
“No, Tom, they put me away!”
She was living alone, and I guess her fantasies got the best of her. She thought the blacks were planning an uprising in St. Louis, and they were exchanging signals by rattling the garbage pails. She called the family doctor over to tell him about these threatening aspects of life, and he took her right to the bughouse! So I left St. Thomas and sprung her.
Later, when I was in St. Louis, the phone rang and she picked it up. There was no one at the other end. After a while, she said, “I know who you are! I’m here waiting! Unafraid!”
Mother chose to have Rose’s lobotomy done. My father didn’t want it. In fact, he cried. It’s the only time I saw him cry. He was in a state of sorrow when he learned that the operation had been performed.
I was at the University of Iowa, and they just wrote me what happened. I didn’t know anything about the operation. I’d never heard of a lobotomy. Mother was saying that it was bound to be a great success. Now, of course, it’s been exposed as a very bad procedure that isn’t practiced anymore. But it didn’t embitter me against my mother. It saddened me a great deal because my sister and I cared for each other. I cared for her more than I did my mother. But it didn’t embitter me against Miss Edwina. No, I just thought she was an almost criminally foolish woman.
Why was the operation performed? Well, Miss Rose expressed herself with great eloquence, but she said things that shocked Mother. I remember when I went to visit her at Farmington, where the state sanatorium was. Rose loved to shock Mother. She had great inner resentment towards her, because Mother had imposed this monolithic puritanism on her during adolescence. Rose said, “Mother, you know we girls at All Saints College, we used to abuse ourselves with altar candles we stole from the chapel.” And Mother screamed like a peacock! She rushed to the head doctor, and she said, “Do anything, anything to shut her up!” Just like Mrs. Venable, you know, except that Mother wasn’t as cruel as Mrs. Venable, poor bitch. Whatever Mother did, she didn’t know what she was doing.
She was terrified of sex. She used to scream every time she had sex with my father. And we children were terrified. We’d run out in the streets and the neighbors would take us in.
A year or so before Mother died, she believed she had a horse living with her in her room. She didn’t like its presence at all, and she complained bitterly about this imaginary horse that moved into the place with her. She’d always wanted a horse as a child. And now that she finally had one, she didn’t like it one bit.
At the end, she changed her name. Miss Edwina dropped the a from her name and became Edwin Williams. That’s how she signed herself. It’s strange to have a mother who at ninety-four decides to call herself Edwin.
Miss Rose smokes too much. She enters a restaurant and asks, “How many packs of Chesterfields do you have? I’ll take them all!” Or she’ll ask in a store, “How many bars of Ivory soap do you have? That all you got? Well, I need at least twenty!”
One night Rose went with me to Mrs. Murray Crane’s as a dinner guest. She had a huge reticule with her. Do you know what that is? It’s a huge embroidered bag. Rose was very sly, as schizophrenics often are. All during dinner, after each course, or even while people were eating, she would turn to Mrs. Crane, this stately dowager to her right, and say, “Have a cigarette, dear?” And Mrs. Crane would reply, “Oh, I don’t smoke, Miss Williams. I do not smoke! And I fear that you’re smoking too much, Miss Williams!”
Well, Miss Rose took umbrage at that. So after dinner she excused herself. There were four or five lavatories in this duplex apartment, and Rose was gone for a remarkably long time. When she came back her reticule was absolutely packed like Santa Claus’s bag. She’d cleared the house completely out of soap and toilet paper! It was the biggest haul since the James Brothers. Needless to say, we didn’t get a return engagement there.
She’s very nervous, you know. When she was in Key West while you were there, she was trying not to smoke so she tried to keep herself busy. She took it upon herself to water all the trees and plants, and there are a great many. Rose would take a glass of water from the house, water a plant with it, return and fill the glass, and go out again, all day long. I find that touching, how she tried to occupy her time.
She has curious misapprehensions about things. Richard Zoerink was so kind to her. They would go walking in Key West along the water. He’d buy her an ice-cream cone, something she loves. One day, I asked Rose where she’d been that afternoon, and she said that she and Richard had taken a walk along the Mediterranean Sea, and she had enjoyed the view of Italy. Lovely Miss Rose. She thinks she’s Queen of England, you know. She once signed a photograph of herself to me, “Rose of England.”
I love her, you know. For a person like Rose who spent many years in a state asylum, as she had to do before I got any money, living is constantly a defensive existence. The stubbornness, the saying “No!” flatly to things is almost an instinctive response. If I say to Rose, “Don’t you think it’s time for you to get some rest?” her instinct is just to say, “No!”
Once in Key West some people dropped by, and they began telling some very bawdy jokes. Rose didn’t approve. So she got up and stood in a corner with her hands clasped in prayer. My cousin Stell, who was taking care of her, said, “Rose, why are you standing like that?”
Rose replied, “I’m praying for their redemption!”
It all began for me in Chicago in 1944. I’ve had some of the happiest times of my life here. We were in Chicago for three and a half months with The Glass Menagerie. We opened in late December, and played until mid-March. And I had a lovely time. I knew a lot of university students, you know?
So I associate the success of Menagerie with the Chicago critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens. They really put it over. The opening night audience had never seen this kind of theater before, and their response was puzzlement. And I suppose the play would have died here if Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens hadn’t kept pushing and pushing and pushing. They compared Laurette Taylor to Duse, which was a good comparison, I think. Miss Cassidy is very elderly now, but her mind’s as sharp as a whistle!
Menagerie got to New York in 1945. It was sold out three and a half months before it opened. People would stop off in New York to see it because they knew it was a new kind of theater, and they knew about Laurette’s incredible performance, though the rest of the cast was pretty run-of-the-mill.
The sudden success? Oh, it was terrible! I just didn’t like it. If you study photographs taken of me the morning after the huge reception it got in New York, you’ll see I was very depressed.
I’d had one eye operation, and I went into the hospital for another one I needed. Lying in the hospital, unable to move for several days, people came over and read to me, and I recovered some sense of reality.
Then, after Menagerie, I went to Mexico and had a marvelously happy time. I went alone. Leonard Bernstein was there. He introduced me to Winchell Mount, who gave weekly Saturday night dances. All male. And I learned how to follow! I was the belle of the ball because I could always dance well, but I gave up that career for writing.
Before the success of Menagerie I’d reached the very, very bottom. I would have died without the money. I couldn’t have gone on any further, baby, without money, when suddenly, providentially, The Glass Menagerie made it when I was thirty-four. I couldn’t have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a teletype operator. None of this stuff was anything I could have held for long. I started writing at twelve, as I said. By the time I was in my late teens I was writing every day, I guess, even after I was in the shoe business for three years. I wrecked my health, what there was of it. I drank black coffee so much, so I could stay up nearly all night and write, that it exhausted me physically and nervously. So if I suddenly hadn’t had this dispensation from Providence with Menagerie, I couldn’t have made it for another year, I don’t think.
WHERE PLAYS COME FROM
The process by which the idea for a play comes to me has always been something I really couldn’t pinpoint. A play just seems to materialize; like an apparition, it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. It’s very vague at first, as in the case of Streetcar, which came after Menagerie. I simply had the vision of a woman in her late youth. She was sitting in a chair all alone by a window with the moonlight streaming in on her desolate face, and she’d been stood up by the man she planned to marry.
I believe I was thinking of my sister, because she was madly in love with some young man at the International Shoe Company who paid her court. He was extremely handsome, and she was profoundly in love with him. Whenever the phone would ring, she’d nearly faint. She’d think it was he calling for a date, you know? They saw each other every other night, and then one time he just didn’t call anymore. That was when Rose first began to go into a mental decline. From that vision Streetcar evolved. I called it at the time Blanche’s Chair in the Moon, which is a very bad title. But it was from that image, you know, of a woman sitting by a window, that Streetcar came to me.
Of course, the young man who courted my sister was nothing like Stanley. He was a young executive from an Ivy League school. He had every apparent advantage. It was during the Depression years, however, and he was extremely ambitious. My father had an executive position at the time with the shoe company, and the young man had thought perhaps a marriage to Rose would be to his advantage. Then, unfortunately, my father was involved in a terrible scandal and nearly lost his job. At any rate, he was no longer a candidate for the board of directors. He had his ear bit off in a poker fight! It had to be restored. They had to take cartilage from his ribs, and skin off his ass, and they reproduced something that looked like a small cauliflower attached to the side of his head! So any time anybody would get into the elevator with my father, he’d scowl, and people would start giggling. That was when the young man stopped calling on Rose. He knew the giggling had gone too far and gotten into the newspapers.
The idea for The Glass Menagerie came very slowly, much more slowly than Streetcar, for example. I think I worked on Menagerie longer than any other play. I didn’t think it’d ever be produced. I wasn’t writing it for that purpose. I wrote it first as a short story called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which is, I believe, one of my best stories. I guess Menagerie grew out of the intense emotions I felt seeing my sister’s mind begin to go.
What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov!
As a dramatist? Chekhov!
As a story writer? Chekhov!
D. H. Lawrence, too, for his spirit, of course, for his understanding of sexuality, of life in general.
When I write I don’t aim to shock people, and I’m surprised when I do. But I don’t think that anything that occurs in life should be omitted from art, though the artist should present it in a fashion that is artistic and not ugly.
I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.
I now look back at periods of my life, and I think, Was that really me? Was I doing those things? I don’t feel any continuity in my life. It is as if my life were segments that are separate and do not connect. From one period to another it has all happened behind the curtain of work. And I just peek out from behind the curtain now and then and find myself on totally different terrain.
The first period was from the age of eleven until I left the university and went into the shoe business. I was madly in love with a girl named Hazel who was frigid. And that period in my life was marked by extreme shyness. I couldn’t look at people in the face without blushing. In high school, I couldn’t verbally answer questions. I could only give written answers. I couldn’t produce my voice. It sounded like grunting, you know? That shy. I supposed it was caused by an unconscious clash in me between my sexual drives and the puritanism imposed by my mother, and the great fear my father inspired in me. He was a terrifying man. He was so unhappy that he couldn’t help but be tyrannical at home. That was one period.
The next period was happy. It was after I came out in the gay world. I didn’t think of it as coming out. I thought of it as a new world, a world in which I seemed to fit for the first time, and where life was full of adventure that satisfied the libido. I felt comfortable at last. And that was a happy time, but The Glass Menagerie ended that period and new problems developed with success.
From then through the sixties, because even during the sixties I was working more or less steadily, that was another period different from the rest. But at the end of the sixties I ended up in the bughouse because I violated Dr. Max Jacobson’s instructions not to drink when I took the speed injections. Toward the end, this combination produced paranoia and affected my memory and my health. When I went to New York, I couldn’t remember having met my producers before, although they’d had daily meetings with me in Key West. Finally, after Ann Meechem and I fled to Tokyo after the terrible reception of In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, I became more and more ill. I had to be assisted up stairs. When I returned home alone to Key West I was very ill. They were building a new kitchen on my house, and the stove was in the patio. It was still operating there while the builders worked. I was stumbling around with a Silex pan, totally disoriented, trying to get it on the stove. And I just sat down on the stove! It was an electric stove, and I inflicted third-degree burns on my body! I think Marion Vicarro called my brother, and Dakin came down to Key West. He called Audrey Wood, and she said, “Well, put him in a hospital.” But she didn’t bother to say which one.
Dakin, thinking I was going to die anyway, I was in such terrible condition, had me immediately converted to Roman Catholicism so I’d be saved from hell, and then he just threw me into Barnes Hospital (St. Louis), right into the psychiatric ward, which was incredibly awful. They suddenly snatched away every pill I had! The injections went too. So I blacked out. It was cold turkey, baby. They tell me I had three brain concussions in the course of one long day, and a coronary. How I survived, I don’t know. I think there were homicidal intentions at work there. I was in that place for three and a half months. The first month I was in the violent ward, although I was not violent. I was terrified and I crouched in a corner trying to read. The patients would have terrible fights over the one television set. Someone would put on the news, and another patient would jump up, yelling, and turn on cartoons. No wonder they were violent.
I was born a Catholic, really. I’m a Catholic by nature. My grandfather was an English Catholic (Anglican), very, very high church. He was higher church than the Pope. However, my “conversion” to the Catholic church was rather a joke because it occurred while I was taking Dr. Jacobson’s miracle shots. I couldn’t learn anything about the tenets of the Roman Catholic church, which are ridiculous anyway. I just loved the beauty of the ritual in the Mass. But Dakin found a Jesuit father who was very lovely and all, and he said, “Mr. Williams is not in a condition to learn anything. I’ll give him extreme unction and just pronounce him a Catholic.”
I was held up in the Roman Catholic church, with people supporting me on both sides, and I was declared a Catholic. What do you think of that? Does that make me a Catholic? No, I was whatever I was before.
And yet my work is full of Christian symbols. Deeply, deeply Christian. But it’s the image of Christ, His beauty and purity, and His teachings, yes . . . but I’ve never subscribed to the idea that life as we know it, what we’re living now, is resumed after our death. No. I think we’re absorbed back into, what do they call it? The eternal flux? The eternal shit, that’s what I was thinking.
I’m a poet. And then I put the poetry in the drama. I put it in short stories, and I put it in the plays. Poetry’s poetry. It doesn’t have to be called a poem, you know.
If they’re meant to be writers, they will write. There’s nothing that can stop them. It may kill them. They may not be able to stand the terrible indignities, humiliations, privations, shocks that attend the life of an American writer. They may not. Yet they may have some sense of humor about it, and manage to survive.
When I write, everything is visual, as brilliantly as if it were on a lit stage. And I talk out the lines as I write.
When I was in Rome, my landlady thought I was demented. She told Frank [Merlo], “Oh, Mr. Williams has lost his mind! He stalks about the room talking out loud!”
Frank said, “Oh, he’s just writing.” She didn’t understand that.
In writing a play, I can get started on the wrong tangent, go off somewhere and then have to make great deletions and begin over, not all the way over, but just back to where I went off on that particular tangent. This is particularly true of the surrealist play that I’m currently writing. I’m dedicating it to the memory of Joe Orton. The Everlasting Ticket, it’s called. It’s about the poet laureate of Three Mile Island. I’m in the third revision of Ticket at the moment.
I do an enormous amount of rewriting. And when I finally let a play go, when I know it’s complete and as it should be, is when I see a production of it that satisfies me. Of course, even when I’m satisfied with a production, the critics are not, usually. In New York, especially. The critics feel I’m basically anarchistic, and dangerous as a writer.
I don’t have an audience in mind when I write. I’m writing mainly for myself. After a long devotion to playwriting I have a good inner ear. I know pretty well how a thing is going to sound on the stage, and how it will play. I write to satisfy this inner ear and its perceptions. That’s the audience I write for.
Sometimes I write for someone specifically in mind. You know, I always used to write for [Elia] Kazan, although he no longer works as a director. What made him a great director was that he had an infinite understanding of people on an incredible level.
At one point Kazan and José Quintero were rather equal in talent. That was when Quintero began at the Circle in the Square downtown and did things like Summer and Smoke and A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Those early things. Then he took heavily to drink.
He was living at a very fashionable address, the penthouse apartment at One Fifth Avenue. I remember walking with Quintero out on the terrace. I said to him, “Why are you killing yourself like this with liquor? Because you are, you know. You’re drinking much too heavily.” He always liked me very much. He was an extremely kind and sweet person. He said, “I know. I know. It’s just that all of a sudden I got all this attention, and it made me self-conscious. It scared me. I didn’t know how my work was done. I simply worked through intuition. Then suddenly it seemed to me as if secrets of mine were being exposed.” And so he drank excessively, and now he can’t drink at all.
During The Seven Descents of Myrtle, as they called it, although it was actually The Kingdom of Earth, Quintero was drinking so heavily that Estelle Parsons said she couldn’t take direction from him. David Merrick was producing, and he came to town. He said, “I have to fire this man. He’s destroying the play.” And I said, “Mr. Merrick, if you fire poor José I’m going to withdraw the play.” So he let it come in.
You know, in those days David Merrick was a lovely man. He’s been around the bend some since, but he was so nice in those days. We both went to Washington University. We were in the same drama class, I believe. In the sixties he used to come to my apartment at the Mayfair when I wouldn’t go out ever. He came over there to tell me he wanted to do Kingdom of Earth. And I just slurred something in reply. That’s how I talked in those days. He said, “It’s a very funny play!” And I went grrrowwww . . . I didn’t give a shit whether he put it on or not, or whether I lived through the night.
Sometimes I’ll come up with a title that doesn’t sound good in itself, but it’s the only title that really fits the meaning of the play. Like A House Not Meant to Stand isn’t a beautiful title. But the house it refers to in the play is in a terrible state of disrepair, virtually leaking rain water everywhere. That house, and therefore the title, is a metaphor for society in our times. And, of course, the critics don’t like that sort of thing, nor do they dare to openly approve of it. They know who butters their bread.
Some titles come from dialogue as I write a play, or from the setting itself. Some come from poetry I’ve read. When I need a title I’ll usually reread the poetry of Hart Crane. I take a copy of Crane’s work with me when I travel. A phrase will catch my eye and seem right for what I’m writing. But there’s no system to it. Sometimes a line from the play will serve as its title. I often change titles a number of times until I find one that seems right.
There is a Catholic church in Key West named Mary, Star of the Sea. That would make a lovely title for a play.
Performers can be enormously valuable in suggesting line changes in a play, I mean if they’re intelligent performers. For instance, Geraldine Page. She’s very intelligent, and she’s a genius at acting. Being a genius at acting and being intelligent aren’t always the same thing. She’d suggest line changes. She’d say, “I find this line difficult to read.” I think most of her suggestions were good, although she’s not a writer. So I’d make the changes to satisfy her. I often do that with actors, if they’re intelligent and care about the play.
Brando came up to the Cape when I was there. There was no point in discovering him, it was so obvious. I never saw such raw talent in an individual, except for Laurette Taylor, whose talent was hardly raw. Then, before he was famous, Brando was a gentle, lovely guy, a man of extraordinary beauty when I first met him. He was very natural and helpful. He repaired the plumbing that had gone on the whack, and he repaired the lights that had gone off. And then he just sat calmly down and began to read. After five minutes, Margo Jones, who was staying with us, said, “Oh, this is the greatest reading I’ve ever heard, even in Texas!” And that’s how he was cast in Streetcar.
I didn’t know of Warren’s work, and I thought the role in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone should be played by a Latin type, since the role’s a Roman gigolo. I happened to be in Puerto Rico with Marion Vicarro, you know, the banana queen? She and I were gambling. She was playing blackjack, and I was playing roulette. All of a sudden a waiter came up to me with a little glass of milk, on a silver platter, and said, “A gentleman has sent this to you.” I said, “I don’t appreciate this kind of sarcasm!” So I went on playing roulette.
After I’d lost the amount of money I allow myself to lose, I started to leave. And there standing, grinning at the door, was Warren Beatty.
“Tennessee, I’ve come to read for you,” he said. He was very young then, a really handsome boy.
I said, “But why, Warren? You’re not the type to play a Roman gigolo.”
And he said, “I’m going to read with an accent, and without it. I’ve come all the way from Hollywood to read for you.”
“Well, that’s lovely of you.” And Marion and I went to his room, and he read fabulously. With an accent, and without.
Warren has no embarrassment about anything. Whenever he sees me he always embraces me. What an affectionate, warm, lovely man. I’ve found actors to be lovely people, although there are a few of them who have been otherwise.
Ever since my split with Audrey Wood [his longtime agent] there’s been a holding pattern. I think she’s the dominant figure in this. I think she has stock in the concern, ICM, and she won’t allow anything to happen until I’m dead, baby.
Why did I break with her? I didn’t. Just the usual thing happened. An opening night. My nerves always go like spitfire then. We had a very good first preview [of A Two Character Play]. The second preview we had a bunch of old, sour dames. They didn’t get anything, and they hated it. It enraged me. I always lose my mind slightly when I get angry. Audrey was used to this. It happened time and time again. It shouldn’t have surprised her at all. And I just turned to her after the performance and said, “You must have been pleased by this audience,” because she hadn’t been pleased by the enthusiastic, younger audience the night before. She got angry, and left town immediately, with the greatest amount of publicity. And I realized that she had neglected me so totally during my seven years of terrible depression that any kind of professional relationship with her was no longer tenable.
I don’t hold grudges. So when I encountered her some time later in the Algonquin Hotel, I stretched out my hand to touch hers. There was no way of avoiding her. She hissed like a snake and drew back her hands as if I were a leper! Well, since then I know this woman hates me! She’d lost interest in me. I don’t think you should lose interest in a person who is in deep depression. That’s when your interest and concern should be most, if you’re a true friend.
And I think I had a great deal to do with making her career. She’d only sold Room Service to the Marx Brothers before I came along and got her Bill Inge and Carson McCullers and . . . this sounds bitter, and I hold no animosity toward people. I hope I don’t.
Carson McCullers and Jane Bowles were my best friends as writers. I think if poor Carson had not suffered this very early stroke when she’d barely turned thirty, she would have been the greatest American writer. She had recurrent illnesses, of course, each diminishing her power. It was a tragic thing to watch. It went on for ten years. I met her in Nantucket. I’d written her a fan letter about Member of the Wedding, I thought it was so lovely. I knew cousins of hers. And at my invitation, she came to the island to be my guest. Such an enchanting person! This was the last year before she had a stroke, the year Carson lived at 31 Pine Street in Nantucket with Pancho and me.
My other great writer friend, Jane Bowles, I first met in Acapulco in the summer of 1940, after I’d broken up with Kip. I took a trip to Mexico on one of these share-the-expense plan tours. I went down with a Mexican boy who’d married an American hooker, you know? He met her at the World’s Fair. The poor girl was terrified. She was a sweet girl, but she was a hooker and he didn’t know it. And she’d come to my room at night and tell me they were having terrible problems sexually. I think he was gay, you know, because all the other men in the car were. That’s a pretty good indication! She said she wasn’t getting any sex, and she thought I’d provide her with some.
I said, “I’m afraid, honey, it’s not quite what I do anymore because, frankly, I’m homosexual.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, “I know female hygiene is a lot more complicated!” God, I thought that was a funny answer!
Apparently, their marriage worked out somehow. I left some of my gear in the trunk of the car, and several years later, after I’d become known, after The Glass Menagerie, she shipped it all back to me with a very lovely note.
It was that summer in Mexico when I met Jane Bowles. I knew she was there with Paul. Poor Paul was always sick. He couldn’t eat anything in Mexico. But there’s very little in Mexico you can eat, at least not in those days. They were such a charmingly odd couple, I loved them both. Jane produced such a small body of work, but it was tremendous work. And Paul’s work? I guess it’s about as good as anything is now.
I met Frankie by accident at the Atlantic House in Provincetown one summer, the summer of 1947 when I was finishing Streetcar. I was in the Atlantic House, and Pancho was there, Margo Jones, and Joanna Albers. We were all living in a cottage. Stella Brooks was singing at the Atlantic House, and I’d gone out on the porch at the Atlantic House to breathe the fresh air and the lovely sea mist coming in. And Frankie came out behind me, and leaned against the balcony, and I observed that beautifully sculptured body in Levis, you know? I was rather bold, as I am at certain moments. And I just said, “Would you like to take a drive?” He grinned, and said yes. He’d come there with John Latouche, you know, the songwriter.
So we drove out to the beach and made love. It was ecstatic, even though it was in the sand.
I didn’t see him again until accidentally I ran into him in a delicatessen on Third Avenue. I was living in an apartment designed by Tony Smith on East 58th Street. Frankie was with a young war buddy of his. And I said, “Why, Frank!” And he said, “Hi, Tenn.” I said, “Why haven’t you called me?” And he replied, “I read about your great success, and I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to hop on the bandwagon.”
He and his buddy came home with me to this lovely apartment. And Frankie just stayed on. He was so close to life! I was never that close, you know. He gave me the connection to day-to-day and night-to-night living. To reality. He tied me down to earth. And I had that for fourteen years, until he died. And that was the happy period of my adult life.
I’m restless. I like traveling. When Frank Merlo was living, he being Sicilian, we spent four or five, sometimes six months out of the year in Rome.
I was once asked why I travel so much, and I said, “Because it’s harder to hit a moving target!”
I don’t compete with Eugene O’Neill or anyone else. My work is totally in its own category. It’s more esoteric than anyone else’s, except Joe Orton’s. And I don’t compete with Joe Orton.* I love him too much.
Now O’Neill is not as good a playwright as, for instance, Albee. I don’t think he’s even as good as Lanford Wilson. I could give you quite a list.
I liked O’Neill’s writing. He had a great spirit, and a great sense of drama, yes. But most of all it was his spirit, his passion, that moved me. And when The Iceman Cometh opened to very bad notices, very mixed notices at best in New York, I wrote him a letter. I said, In reading your play, at first I found it too long, then I gradually realized that its length, and the ponderosity of it, are what gave it a lot of its power. I was deeply moved by it, finally.
He wrote me a very nice reply and said he was always deeply depressed after an opening and that he appreciated my letter particularly. But that letter has disappeared like most of my letters.
O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking. Now my drinking has to be moderate. Just look at the liver spots I’ve got on me!
On opening nights in the old days, when I really could drink—I can’t drink heavily now because of this pancreatitis I developed from overdrinking—but when I could drink, on opening nights I’d either have a flask on me and keep myself drunk and stand at attention in the theater, or else I’d dart out to the nearest bar and sit there until nearly before the curtain came down, and then I’d head back into the theater.
Now I take openings much more calmly. If they’re giving a good performance, and they usually do on opening night, I just sit and enjoy it. After the curtain, I take a red-eye flight out of town. I have a car waiting for me with the luggage in it, and scoot out to LaGuardia or Kennedy and take the red-eye to Key West.
It’s delightful. When I first went there in 1941 it was still more delightful than it is now. I have one-quarter of a city block there now, you know. A swimming pool. My studio with a skylight. I have a little guest house in the form of a ship’s cabin, with a double-decker bunk in it. And I have my gazebo, the Jane Bowles Summer House. Everything I need for a life. It’s a charming, comfortable place.
HABITS OF WORK
In Key West I get up just before daybreak, as a rule. I like being completely alone in the house in the kitchen when I have my coffee and ruminate on what I’m going to work on. I usually have two or three pieces of work going at the same time, and then I decide which to work on that day.
I go to my studio. I usually have some wine there. And then I carefully go over what I wrote the day before. You see, baby, after a glass or two of wine I’m inclined to extravagance. I’m inclined to excesses because I drink while I’m writing, so I’ll blue pencil a lot the next day. Then I sit down, and I begin to write.
My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life. I try to work every day, because you have no refuge but writing. When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing. However, when depression comes on of a near-clinical nature, then you’re paralyzed even at work. Immediately after the death of Frank Merlo, I was paralyzed, unable to write, and it wasn’t until I began taking the speed shots that I came out of it. Then I was able to work like a demon. Could you live without writing, baby? I couldn’t.
Because it’s so important, if my work is interrupted I’m like a raging tiger. It angers me so. You see, I have to reach a high emotional pitch in order to work if the scene is dramatic.
I’ve heard that Norman Mailer has said that a playwright only writes in short bursts of inspiration while a novelist has to write six or seven hours a day. Bull! Now Mr. Mailer is more involved in the novel form, and I’m more involved in the play form. In the play form I work steadily and hard. If a play grips me I’ll continue to work on it until I reach a point where I can no longer decide what to do with it. Then I’ll discontinue work on it.
There was a very lovely young guy at New Directions named Robert MacGregor, who’s dead now. He’d been a patient of Dr. Max Jacobson. He only took little pills that Jacobson gave him. I was in a state of such profound depression that he thought anything was worth trying, so he took me to Jacobson. It was through this Robert MacGregor that I had those three years of Jacobson shots that he mailed to me in the various parts of the country.
I did find Max Jacobson’s shots marvelously stimulating to me as a writer. And during those last three years of the sixties, before my collapse, I did some of my best writing. People don’t know it yet, but I did.
My collapse was related to the fact that I continued to drink while taking the shots. I was not supposed to. I had a bad heart. Dr. Max Jacobson never listened to my heart. Never took my pulse. Never took my blood pressure. He would just look at me. He was really sort of an alchemist. He would look at me for a long time. He had all these little vials in front of him. He’d take a drop from one, and a drop from another, and then look at me again, and take another drop or two . . . Of course, the primary element was speed. And after I had a shot, I’d get into a taxi and my heart would begin to pound, and I’d immediately have to have a drink or I wouldn’t be able to get home. I’d have died in the cab otherwise.
ON BEING SINGLE
I think it made it possible for me to practice my profession as a writer. You know what happened to poor Norman Mailer. One wife after another, and all that alimony. I’ve been spared all that. I give people money, yes. But I couldn’t have afforded alimony, not to all those wives. I would’ve had to behead them! Being single made it possible for me to work.
I never found it necessary to deal with it in my work. It was never a preoccupation of mine, except in my intimate, private life. In my work, I’ve had a great affinity with the female psyche. Her personality, her emotions, what she suffers and feels. People who say I create transvestite women are full of shit. Frankly. Just vicious shit. Personally, I like women more than men. They respond to me more than men do, and they always have. The people who have loved me, the ratio of women to men is about five to one, I would say.
I know there’s a right-wing backlash against homosexuals. But at the age of seventy I no longer consider it a matter of primary concern. Not that I want anything bad to happen to other homosexuals. God knows, enough has.
I always thought homosexual writers were in the minority of writers. Nobody’s yet made a correct census of the actual number of homosexuals in the population of America. And they never will be able to because there are still too many closets, some of them rather securely locked. And it’s also still dangerous to be openly homosexual.
I enjoyed cruising, more for Donald Windham’s company, than for the pickups that were made. After all, pickups are just pickups. But Windham was a delightful friend to be with. I always realized that he had a streak of bitchery in him. And that’s why my letters to him had a great deal of malicious humor in them. I knew he liked that. And since I was writing to a person who enjoyed that sort of thing I tried to amuse him with those things. Of course, I didn’t know he was collecting my letters! And I didn’t know I was signing away the copyright. I’m happy the letters were published because they’re beautiful, I think. I’m very unhappy that he may have shut down London Magazine with that lawsuit.*
There used to be a place in Times Square called the Crossroads Tavern, right near a place called Diamond Jim Brady’s. The place was closing down, and on this occasion these big, drunk sailors came and picked us up. We didn’t pick them up. I wasn’t attracted to them. I didn’t want to, and I felt really uneasy about the situation. But Windham was always attracted to rough sailor types.
As it happened, Windham was staying at the Claridge Hotel, which doesn’t exist now, in the Times Square area. He had been living with a painter, Paul Cadmus. He was occupying a room with Paul Cadmus, and it was through Paul Cadmus that he met Sandy Campbell.* It had been inconvenient for Cadmus to have Donald Windham at his place one night, and so he’d gotten him a room at the Claridge. And Donald had taken the two sailors and me into Claridge’s.
I got more and more suspicious because in the lobby the sailors said, “We’ll go up the elevator, and you wait ten minutes, and we’ll meet you in the corridor . . .” Or something like that. It seemed suspicious, but I was a little high, and so was Donald.
We got up to the room, and it was really a bestial occurrence. I hated every minute of it. Finally, after they ripped the phones out of the wall, they stood me against a wall with a switchblade knife while they beat Windham, knocking a tooth out, blackening both his eyes, beating him almost to death. I kept saying, “Oh, don’t do that, don’t hit him anymore! He’s tubercular!”
Then they said, “Now it’s your turn!” So they stood poor, bloody Windham against the wall while they beat me nearly to death. I had a concussion from the beating. Next thing I knew I was at the emergency Red Cross station at the YMCA where I lived.
Kip was very honest, and I loved him and I think he loved me. He was a draftdodger from Canada. He had a passion to be a dancer, and he knew he couldn’t if he went into the war. It’d be too late, he felt, when it was over, for him to study dancing. You see, he was a boy of twenty-one or twenty-two when the war happened.
I’ve written a play called Something Cloudy, Something Clear about Kip. The setting is very important in this play. It involves a bleached, unfurnished beach shack in which the writer, who represents me, but is called August, is working on a portable typewriter supported by an old crate. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor. Alongside that set is the floor of another beach-house shack that’s been blown away in a hurricane. This floor, however, forms a platform on which Kip used to dance, practicing dancing to my Victrola. The subtitle of the play is The Silver Victrola.
I prefer the title Something Cloudy, Something Clear because it refers to my eyes. My left eye was cloudy then because it was developing a cataract. But my right eye was clear. It was like the two sides of my nature. The side that was obsessively homosexual, compulsively interested in sexuality. And the side that in those days was gentle and understanding and contemplative. So it’s a pertinent title.
Now this play is written from the vantage point of 1979, about a boy I loved and who is now dead. The author (August) knows it’s 1979. He knows Kip is dead, and that the girl whom Kip dances with is dead. I’ve invented the girl. Occasionally during the play the author onstage will make references that puzzle the boy, Kip, and the girl. But the author is the only one who realizes that it’s really forty years later, and the boy and girl are dead, and he survives, still he survives. It happened in the summer of 1940, and it’s a very lyrical play, probably the most lyrical play I’ve done in a very long while.
Kip died at the age of twenty-six. It was just after I completed my professionally abortive connection with MGM. The phone rang one day and an hysterical lady said, “Kip has ten days to live.” A year before I had been told that Kip had been successfully operated on for a benign brain tumor.
He was at the Polyclinic Hospital near Times Square. You know how love bursts back into your heart when you hear of the loved one’s dying.
As I entered Kip’s room he was being spoon-fed by a nurse: a dessert of sugary apricots. He had never looked more beautiful. Kip’s mind seemed as clear as his Slavic blue eyes.
We spoke a while. Then I rose and reached for his hand and he couldn’t find mine, I had to find his.
After Kip died his brother sent me, from Canada, snapshots of Kip posing for a sculptor and they remained in my wallet some twenty years. They disappeared mysteriously in the sixties. Well, Kip lives on in my leftover heart.
HEMINGWAY AND FITZGERALD
Hemingway had a remarkable interest in and understanding of homosexuality, for a man who wasn’t a homosexual. I think both Hemingway and Fitzgerald had elements of homosexuality in them. I make quite a bit of that in my rewrite of Clothes for a Summer Hotel.
Have you ever read “A Simple Inquiry” by Hemingway? Well, it’s about an Italian officer in the Alps during the First World War. And he’s of course deprived of female companionship. He has an orderly, a very attractive young orderly. He desires the orderly. And he asks the boy, rather bluntly, “Are you interested in girls?” The boy panics for a moment, and says, “Oh, yes, I’m engaged to be married.” And the boy goes out of the room, and the Italian officer says, “I wonder if that little sonofabitch was lying?”
The final line in Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream is one man saying I love you to another. It didn’t mean they’d had homosexual relations, although Gertrude Stein intimated that Hemingway had. But does it matter? I don’t think it matters.
You know what he said about Fitzgerald? Hemingway said that “Fitzgerald was pretty. He had a mouth that troubled you when you first met him, and troubled you more later.”
Fitzgerald played the female lead in the Princeton Triangle Club, and there’s a picture of him as a woman that’s more feminine than any woman could look. Fitzgerald never had an affair with anybody but his wife. There was Sheila Graham at the end, but did he sleep with her? I doubt it. Anyway, I don’t think the sexuality of writers is all that interesting. It has no effect, I can tell you that. In very few instances does it have any effect on their ability to portray either sex. I am able to write of men as well as women, and I always project myself through whichever sex I’m writing about.
I met Castro only once, and that was through Hemingway. The time I met Hemingway was the time I met Castro. I was in Havana during the first year of Castro’s regime. Castro would have remained a friend of the United States except for that bastard John Foster Dulles, who had this phobia about anything revolutionary. He apparently thought that Mr. Batista—a sadist who tortured students to death—was great fun.
I met Hemingway through Kenneth Tynan at the restaurant Floridita in Havana. Hemingway and I had a very pleasant meeting. He gave us both a letter of introduction to Castro. Hemingway said this was a good revolution. And if Mr. Dulles hadn’t alienated Castro, it might have been.
Castro was a gentleman. An educated man. He introduced me to all the Cuban cabinet. We’d been waiting three hours on the steps for this emergency cabinet meeting to end. When he introduced us, he turned to me and said, “Oh, that cat!” and winked. He meant Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, of course. I found that very engaging.
JOHN F. KENNEDY
I met President Kennedy through Gore Vidal, at the family estate in Palm Beach before he was president. And then I met him at the White House, where he gave a great dinner party for André Malraux and invited all the literary people, the theater people.
John Kennedy was a great gentleman, a really good, gentle man. On the way to see him we were caught in terrible traffic. Gore Vidal isn’t a particularly good driver, though he’s a good writer at times. So we were an hour late for lunch with Mr. Kennedy, and he acted as if we were on time. His manners were so impeccable, and Jackie was a tremendous charmer, and still is, I presume, although I haven’t seen her in a long time.
THE CARTER WHITE HOUSE
The first time I went there was some occasion when the film industry was being honored. At that time the Carters had not yet adjusted themselves to entertaining. He’s rather abstemious, Mr. Carter, which is the one major fault I found with him. We were only allowed to have one very small glass of what was purported to be a California chablis. I downed my glass in one swallow, and then tried to figure out how to get some more. All there was was wine. No hard liquor. Nothing. But you could only have one glass. So I got ahold of Sam Spiegel, who is a very portly gentleman, and I said, “Sam, will you stand in front of the table and slip me another glass of wine surreptitiously?” So I hid behind Sam and he snuck me several small glasses, which helped to get me through the evening.
Later, when I went to the White House, the Carters had begun serving champagne. But they never did get around to hard liquor.
I think Jimmy Carter was a great humanitarian, and his second term might have been wonderful compared to what we got. I thought his human rights concern was right, and I am sorry that our government has abandoned it.
I don’t think the big money people wanted Mr. Carter back in. He wasn’t pliable enough.
Jane Wyman was in the movie of The Glass Menagerie. She married Ronald Reagan. The no-nose girl married the no-brain man!
Most of my films were subjected to excessive censorship. Which is one of the reasons why I might be interested in seeing Streetcar done again as a film by Sidney Lumet, now that Kazan has stopped directing. But I’d have to have a great Stanley, and the only person they’ve mentioned so far is Sylvester Stallone, and so I’m not paying much attention to this project of remaking Streetcar until there’s a suitable Stanley, and a really great actress to play Blanche.
In the 1940s I had a glorious time in Hollywood because I was fired almost at once from the project I was working on and they had to continue to pay me. That was in my contract. For six months they had to pay me $250 a week. This was in 1943, when $250 was equivalent to about $1000 now, I would guess. They had to pay me whether I had an assignment or not.
First they put me on Marriage Is a Private Affair for Lana Turner. Well, they expressed great delight with my dialogue, and I think it was good. But they said, “You give Miss Turner too many multisyllable words!” So I said, “Well, some words do contain more than one syllable!” And Pandro Berman, who loved me very much—Lana Turner just happened to be his girlfriend at the time—he said to me, “Tennessee, Lana can tackle two syllables, but I’m afraid if you go into three you’re taxing her vocabulary!”
Then they asked me if I’d like to write a screenplay for a child star, one named Margaret O’Brien. I said, “I’d sooner shoot myself!” By that time I knew I’d get the $250 regardless.
So I lived out in Santa Monica and had a ball until the money ran out.
Monty Clift was one of the great tragedies among actors, even more than Marilyn Monroe, I believe. One of the loveliest things about Elizabeth Taylor was her exceptional kindness to him. Many women were very kind to him. Katherine Hepburn. But Elizabeth particularly. She’s a very dear person. She’s the opposite of her public image. She’s not a bitch, even though her life has been a very hell. Thirty-one operations, I believe. Pain and pain. She’s so delicate—fragile, really.
I saw her in Fort Lauderdale at the opening of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, and she held that stage as if she’d always been a stage actress. But she has a little deficiency of humor. I knew she would catch it, I hoped she would. And she opened so well in Washington that I think she must have caught the humor.
I know you think Lillian Hellman’s a somewhat limited playwright. But Hellman doesn’t think so, does she? No! After the opening, when I saw Liz Taylor could act on stage, there was a huge party, with great imported champagne, the works! The director was seated next to me at my table. He said he had to get up and call Hellman.
I said, “Well, tell her I want a piece of her royalties!”
So he gave her the message, and came back to the table grinning. “Hellman said to tell you the check is in the mail!”
She’s a funny woman, and a skillful playwright. Several of her plays are enormously skillful . . . I’ve heard she has emphysema. Who isn’t sick! They’re all sick and dying!
Bill Inge was a tragic person. Tragic. The critics treated him very cruelly. They’re brutal. I always thought he wrote two wonderful plays. Come Back, Little Sheba was a brilliant play. That’s when I introduced him to Audrey Wood. And then he wrote a play in which a kid kills his mother, an enormously brilliant work. Natural Affection, or something like that.
I met him in St. Louis. I came back there during the run of Menagerie in Chicago, and he interviewed me for a paper called the St. Louis Star-Times. He was the drama and music critic for it. He entertained me quite a bit the week I was there. We became friends.
At the end of his life, Barbara Baxley, with whom he attempted to have a heterosexual affair, and who was very, very fond of him, called me and said that Inge was in a desperate situation in California. “He’s sleeping with lots of barbiturates under his mattress. He only gets up to drink, and then he goes back to bed.”
I said, “He’s on a suicide course.”
She said, “I know it. He commits himself voluntarily, and then lets himself out the next day.”
“Who’s he with?”
“His sister,” she said. “I want you to call his sister and tell her that she’s got to commit him.”
So after consulting Maureen Stapleton, who said I should, I did call his sister and she said, “Yes, that’s just how it is.” She was talking in a whisper. I said, “I can hardly hear you. Why are you whispering like that?”
She answered, “Because I never know whether he’s up or down.”
I said, “Just listen then. Get him into a hospital. Don’t have him commit himself. You commit him. Otherwise he’s going to kill himself.”
Well, a month later in Rome I read a headline in the Rome Daily American that Bill Inge was dead. He had asphyxiated himself by running the motor on his car in a closed garage.
Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Hart Crane, Inge . . . oh, the debris! The wreckage! Toward the end of an American writer’s life it’s just dreadful. Hemingway’s last years were a nightmare. He tried to walk into the propeller of a plane. Fitzgerald’s end was not much better, although it was less dramatic . . . Once they become known, everybody wants a piece of them.
I met him in the forties in California. At the time he was into Vedanta, an Eastern religious thing. He was living in a monastery. They had periods of silence and meditation, you know. The night I met him, through a letter from Lincoln Kirstein, I arrived during one of these silent periods. The monk who opened the door handed me a pencil and paper to write what my business was and who I’d come to see. I wrote Christopher Isherwood, and they regarded me with considerable suspicion from that point on.
In this big room in the monastery, everyone was sitting in . . . what do they call it? The lotus position? Including Christopher. All strictly observing the vow of silence. I didn’t dig the scene.
I suddenly made some reference out loud about the Krishna. I didn’t know who the hell he was, I was only trying to break the silence. Christopher got up, and wrote on a piece of paper, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He was very polite, and he took me to the door.
He’s a superb writer, and I haven’t a clue why he went through this period in a monastery. I think it was a period of unhappiness in his life. I think his love affair with Bill Caskie was breaking up, or had broken up, and he had not yet found Don Bachardy. He was intensely lonely. So he went into this monastery that had this vow of silence and poverty.
I found Chris terribly attractive, not so much in a sexual way, but as a person. Charismatic. Brilliant. And one of the greatest gentlemen I’ve known. So, being attracted to him, I declared myself.
Then I found out that another one of the vows they took in this place was sexual abstinence! Christopher said to me, “Tennessee, it’s perfectly all right if I submit passively to oral intercourse, but I cannot perform it. I’d be breaking the vow!” I howled with laughter, and so did he. Then we cemented our friendship.
What’s happened to him? Is he still in favor with the Soviets?
When he was last in the States he asked me to have lunch with him. He ordered bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. And the bill was so tremendous it occupied three pages! I was stuck with it, of course. I told him he was a fucking capitalist pig!
He was accompanied by this very fat gourmand of a translator who didn’t translate anything. Yevtushenko spoke perfect English and he understood English perfectly. And the alleged translator didn’t understand a damn thing except how to eat and drink like a rich capitalist!
I’ve heard a lot of people speak against Yevtushenko. I don’t know how far he can be trusted, but he’s charming in his way. If you can afford it.
I met Truman in 1948, I guess. He’d just published Other Voices, Other Rooms. I thought he was quite cute, slim, with this marvelously witty, slightly malicious tongue. I got mad at him after awhile. He said something cruel about Frankie. Frank Merlo, Jack Dunphy, who was Truman’s friend, and I, we were all traveling in my Buick Roadmaster convertible. We’d gotten as far as Naples. At a waterfront restaurant in Naples he said something quite cruel, and I said I’m not going on to Ischia with this man. After a couple of days, Frankie talked me into it. And we went anyway.
I never disliked Truman after that, I just realize that he has this impulse to be catty at times. I think it’s because he’s a little guy who’s been picked on a lot, especially when he was growing up. You know, Truman makes the mistake of claiming he was born in New Orleans, and giving interviews, even points out the house he was born in. Everyone knows he was born in Huntsville, Alabama. Everyone in Huntsville claims him. They all know it, it’s registered.
Now why does he do such things? I think it’s because the poor little man likes mystery, likes to confuse people about himself. Well, Truman’s a mythologist, baby, you know that. That’s a polite way of saying he does fabricate. I love him too much to say he’s a liar. That’s part of his profession.
MY FUNNIEST ADVENTURE
I was alone in Miami. Frank [Merlo] hadn’t arrived yet from New York. I was staying in Miami until he got there and took me to Key West.
It was night, and I was lonely. I walked out onto Biscayne Boulevard. There’s a park along there. This young vagrant was lolling on a bench. I think he was mentally retarded, poor child. I struck up a conversation with him. He seemed not too bright, but personable. I said I was alone, would he like to accompany me to my hotel? He said he would. Well, once he got under a street light I saw he’d never be able to go through a hotel lobby because his clothes were so dilapidated. So I suggested that we go out by the pool where I had a cabana.
We got out there, and he suddenly jerked my wallet out of my pocket. I had only seven dollars in it, though. Then he tried to get my wristwatch off. It had a very simple clasp upon it, but he couldn’t manage to get it unclasped. Finally he gave up on that. I wasn’t frightened at all, for some reason. I was wearing a ring with three diamonds and he couldn’t get that off either. It was a tight fit. So I said, “Now this is a very silly situation. I’ve got hundreds of dollars upstairs in my room. You sit down here and rest, and I’ll be down in a little while with a large sum of money for you.” I’d realized by this time that he was a moron.
Well, I went back to my room in the hotel, locked the door, and went to bed. And at half-hour intervals all night, the phone would ring and he’d say, “I’m still waiting!” I finally said, “Baby, go see a doctor. You really think I was coming back down with a hundred dollars for you?” I liked the poor kid by that time.
It’s the funniest adventure I ever had. “I’m still waiting!” He might still be.
You know, with advancing age I find humor more and more interesting. Black humor, especially. My present play, the one I’m working on [The Everlasting Ticket], I call a Gothic comedy. My humor is Gothic in theater. I make some serious, even tragic observations about society, but I make them through the medium of comedy.
My feeling about the rich is not anger, really, but a feeling that they are emotionally restricted. They live in a very narrow, artificial world, like the world of Gloria Vanderbilt, who can be very unpleasant, you know. Or the Oscar de la Rentas, who are the most shocking of all. They are the Madame du Barrys of our time! You mention Oscar de la Renta to me and I turn purple with rage. They are basically very common people, you know. I know where he’s from and how he started, and I know all about where she’s from, too. Now they think they’re the best thing since the invention of the wheel. I find them an outrageous symptom of our society, the shallowness and superficiality, the lack and fear of any depth that characterizes this age, this decade. It appalls me.
The sixties were a decade of great vitality. The civil rights movement, the movement against war and imperialism. When I said to Gore Vidal, “I slept through the sixties,” I was making a bad joke. I was intensely aware of what was going on. Even in the violent ward I read the newspapers avidly. Then we had brave young people fighting against privilege and injustice. Now we have the de la Rentas.
TODAY’S COLLEGE KIDS
They aren’t noticeable now. They seem to be totally reactionary, like the rich. The ones I’ve met rarely seem different from their parents in attitudes and values.
In the sixties, or even the early seventies, the kids I met seemed to be in revolt against the mores and social ideas of their parents. It may just be an illusion of mine, but it seems today that the children are frightened of deviating from their parents’ way of life and thought. The ME-ME-ME Generation. Selfishness. A complete lack of interest in what’s happening in the world. No interest in what’s going on in El Salvador, this military junta supported by our government that rushes its troops into villages, pulls the peasants out and slaughters them! American kids don’t care. In Guatemala, four hundred people a day being slaughtered, although no one mentions it much. Honduras. Don’t they care, this generation? We know why Allende was assassinated, and how and why. All Latin America is in strife, and the ME-ME-ME Generation doesn’t appear to care.
The sixties were intensely alive! We were really progressing toward a workable, just society. But then Nixon came along, and everything fell back into its old routine of plutocracy.
I don’t give formal lectures, although they call them that. I just give formal readings. Once I went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with a prepared lecture. When I got there I discovered I’d left the lecture at home. So I had to get up on stage and improvise, which infuriated the professors. They were outraged! Knoxville, like other academic places, is very reactionary.
THE STATE OF THE CULTURE
Literature has taken a backseat to the television, don’t you think? It really has. We don’t have a culture anymore that favors the creation of writers, or supports them very well. I mean, serious artists. On Broadway, what they want are cheap comedies and musicals and revivals. It’s nearly impossible to get serious work even produced, and then it’s lucky to have a run of a week. They knocked Albee’s Lolita down horribly. I’ve never read such cruel reviews. But I felt it was a mistake for Albee to do adaptations. He’s brilliant doing his own original work. But even so, I think there’s a way of expressing one’s critical displeasures with a play without being quite so hard, quite so cruel. The critics are literally killing writers.
Oh God, yes, baby! But I can’t think about them now. So many things to regret. But there are, I believe, so very few things that one can change in one’s life. There are very few acts of volition. I don’t believe in individual guilt. I don’t think people are responsible for what they do. We are products of circumstances that determine what we do. That’s why I think capital punishment’s an outrage. But then the population growth and the growth of crime have become so enormous there aren’t enough prisons to put people in. Prisons. Killing. Yet I don’t believe in individual guilt at all, and sometimes I wonder whether I even believe in collective guilt. And yet I do believe that the intelligent person, the moral individual, must avoid evil and cruelty and dishonesties. One can try to pursue a path of virtue. That remains to us, I hope.
THE NOBEL PRIZE
I’ll tell you why I think I haven’t gotten it.
I’d heard I’d been nominated for it several times in the fifties. But then suddenly a scandal happened. This lady, I call her the Crepe de Chine Gypsy, went to Stockholm. And she lured me to Stockholm by telling me she was living in a charming little hotel near the waterfront, and that I would have my own suite with a private entrance. And that I would have a fantastic time, if you know what I mean—I was at the height of my fame then—she used my name as an excuse to get all the people around that she’d wanted to meet but had no way of meeting. She later turned out to be a dominatrix! Well, she had all the press there. She was like a field marshal! “You over that way! You over there! You do not approach Mr. Williams until I give you the signal!” Barking out orders. Oh, it was just terrifying. The next morning the newspapers all came out saying Mr. Williams arrived in Stockholm preceded by a very powerful press agent! And my agent in Scandinavia, Lars Schmidt, who married Ingrid Bergman, said, “You know, you’ve been nominated for the Nobel Prize but now it’s finished.” The scandal was so awful, the press having been abused, and they associated me with this awful woman.
Well, after all, one doesn’t have to get it. It’d be nice because it’s a lot of money, isn’t it? I could use that, if I could get it.
I’ve been busy with the production of the new play, A House not Meant to Stand. The production of a play is for me an event that eclipses everything else, even turning seventy. I love the Goodman Theater, and I’m going to work with them again. We’re already making plans to move this play on to the main stage, and to do Something Cloudy, Something Clear, about the summer when I met Kip on the Cape, though I’ve added other characters besides Kip and me.
And I’ve got an important play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere. It’s a line of Eleanor Wiley’s, from a poem by her. It goes like this: “In masks outrageous and austere / the years go by in single file; / Yet none has merited my fear, / and none has quite escaped my smile.”
It happens to fit the play, which has a great deal of poetry in it and yet at the same time the situation is bizarre as hell. It’s about the richest woman on earth. Babe Foxworth is her name. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s been abducted to Canada, on the east coast. But they don’t know where they are. A village has been constructed like a movie set to deceive them. Everything is done to confine and deceive them while her husband is being investigated. Babe is really an admirable person, besides her hypersexuality, though that can be admirable. I think it is! It’s a torture to her because she’s married to a gay husband who’s brought along his boyfriends. I think it’s an extremely funny play.
ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS
What shouldn’t you do if you’re a young playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing on stage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going any way you can.
THE MONEY PEOPLE
Do you know what the most difficult aspect of playwriting is? I’ll tell you. It’s dealing with the money people. The commercial end of it is the most appalling part. The demands for changes and rewrites don’t bother me if they’re made by the director, and I think they’re intelligent demands. But when the money people get into the act, you’re in trouble.
MY MOST DIFFICULT PLAY
I think Clothes for a Summer Hotel was the most difficult play to write, of all my plays. Because of the documentation I had to do. I had to spend four or five months reading everything there is about Fitzgerald and Zelda. There’s a huge amount of material. Finally, when it was written I had to cut an hour out of the play on the road. José Quintero was in very fragile health, and after every opening, he had to flee. So I had to do it without any help or advice from anybody. To cut an hour out of it. And then I had to start rewriting it. The scene the critics objected to most violently was that between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But that’s an integral part of the play because each was a central figure in the life of the other. I thought the confrontation between them indispensable. Now I’ve rewritten the play again, and I’ve built up that scene, not so much in length of playing time, but in content, making it more pointed.
Zelda’s one great love affair was with this French aviator. It was her first infidelity to Scott, and probably her only one. It was aggressive because she was being liberated by infidelity from this very possessive love that Scott had for her. And for the first time she was experiencing erotic ecstasy. She’d never experienced that with Scott. She used to complain to poor Scott that he was sexually inadequate.
She frightened the aviator by the violence of her reactions. She went around the bend because of him. She tried to kill herself, swallowing the contents of a bottle of morphine or something. The aviator was frightened away.
Zelda was also terribly anti-Semitic, like most Southern women, and a touch of it goes into the play [Clothes]. I think I just couldn’t leave it out and do a true portrait of her. I have her make a single anti-Semitic remark in the play, which is about Sheila Graham, whose real name is Lili Sheil.
In the theater you hardly dare use the word Jew, and it’s really a detriment to a very fine people that they’re so frightened of any criticism whatsoever, although after the Holocaust they certainly have reason to be frightened. I have no feelings of anti-Semitism, but those feelings do exist in other people, and it’s difficult to present a picture of the world as it truly is without on occasion allowing a voice to those sentiments.
I’m very happy I never had any children. There have been too many instances of extreme eccentricity and even lunacy in my family on all four sides for me to want to have children. I think it’s fortunate I never did.
Rose, Dakin, and I are the last of two direct blood lines, the Dakin family and the Williams. And all three of us are childless.
It’s not easy. I have a few close friends, though. And you can get by with a few. And as for sex? I don’t feel I require it that much anymore. I miss having a companion very much. I’ll never be without someone with me, although it’ll just be someone who is fond of me and takes care of me, but it won’t be a sexual thing anymore.
Everyone’s afraid of it, but I’m no more than most, I suppose. I’m beginning to reconcile myself to it. I’m not reconciled to dying before my work is finished, though. I have a very strong will. There were occasions in the last years or so when I might have gone out. But my will forces me to go on because I’ve got unfinished work.
* Among his plays are What the Butler Saw, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and Funeral Games. In 1967 Joe Orton was murdered in his sleep by his longtime lover Kenneth Halliwell. Later that night Halliwell committed suicide. Joe Orton was thirty-five at the time of his death.
* When Donald Windham published Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham: 1940–1965 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1977), Dotson Rader wrote an essay for London Magazine reviewing the letters. The piece was critical of Windham. Mr. Windham responded with a lawsuit.
** Sandy Campbell is Windham’s friend and companion.
Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.