Writing a Life


Notes from a Biographer

On reimagining what a biography can look like.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright the University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.

The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South. Photo by Bill Wood (left); Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas Austin (right)

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South. Left page: Photo by Bill Wood (left); courtesy Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas Austin (right). Right page: courtesy Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas Austin.

Notebooks also includes facsimiles of Williams’s scribbled notes as well as reproductions of postcards he’d sent to friends and many archival photographs of the playwright and of pertinent sites such as his New Orleans drinking holes, the Rendezvous and Dixie’s Bar. There are 580 credited images in total (Lahr’s biography has ninety-seven). On the dust jacket is an unusually strong blurb from Walter Isaacson. Thornton, he avers, has created “almost a new literary genre: a mix of diary, biography, autobiography, scrapbooks, and documentary history. It is addictive and it bares Williams’s soul.”

I bought the book before leaving New Orleans, and I carried it in my bag for nearly a year. Isaacson was right; I couldn’t put it down.

* * *

I’ve worked with the Eugene Smith archives for the majority of my adult life (a blue note for me at times), and that background helps me appreciate the difficulty and significance of Thornton’s achievement. I’m drawn to books that deal in fragments and digressions, authors that patch together something larger from these pieces while also letting them stand on their own. This is what Thornton has done. 

On page 549 of Notebooks there are entries by Williams from March and April of 1952, when he was working on his intended experimental opus, Camino Real:

Sat. March 8. 4am.
a moderately pleasant encounter with a ¾ German
Piddling work on a poem this A.M.
dull, rainy P.M.
Now Casanova’s memoirs

On the facing page is Thornton’s annotation, entry 803:

Williams had written to Cheryl Crawford on 10 February 1952 (NYPL) about being encouraged that she was interested in Camino Real. He added:

I have gotten hold of the unabridged (12 volumes) Memoirs of Casanova and Dumas novel ‘Camille’ and the material in the play is now based on the real histories of those characters. I think the play is essentially a plastic poem on the romantic attitude toward life.

Then, Thornton adds,

Jacques Casanova de Seingalt (1725–98) was an Italian adventurer who, after being expelled from a Venetian seminary for misconduct, led a life as a charlatan, gambler, and lover who traveled around Europe. His fortunes vacillated, and he ended his career as a librarian at Count Waldstein’s castle in Bohemia. His Memoires (1826–37) are considered unreliable but of great historical interest.

Back over on the right side of the spread, there is Williams’s next entry:

April 16 or 17

… I’ve been working on “3 Players of a Summer Game”—The Writing is stiff. But Camino seems to be getting under control and if I have some good days in New Orleans or Columbus, it will be out of the woods when I arrive in New York, though I wonder if any producer could raise enough money for it … 


… a series of queer feelings as if close to extinction—brea air hunger?—just as I am about to fall asleep, the last one with a twinge of pain in the chest—alarm me so much that I get up and go downstairs for a drink and take a seconal tablet.
This occurred after fucking.
Now I feel fairly calm but don’t want to sleep for a while if I can help it.

On the left side of the spread, Thornton’s note 804:

A few days earlier (14 April 1952), Williams had written Audrey Wood about the story which he started the previous summer in Venice:

I think it has the situation and characters for a play or a film, eventually. I spoke of it to Jay while he was here and he thought it would make a good title story for a collection of stories that he wants to bring out along with the selected poems.

These pages also bear two photographs of Williams, circa 1950: one of him and the mysterious Paul Bigelow in amorous party poses with sailors, and another of Williams at a black-tie dinner onboard the S.S. Liberte. The spread evokes sex, erudition, and travel, of both the geographic and literary kinds (Casanova worked in a library?), as well as Williams’s comfort with high and low life: sailors in bars and black-tie dinners—it was all the same to him.

Thornton presents nearly four hundred spreads like this in Notebooks. They function like Cornell boxes, made from scraps of a life, pieced together, curated, and offering multiple connections—back and forth and up and down. Thornton and Williams are in a dialogue made more subtle and dynamic in this format, and perhaps more informative, than in traditional biography.

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

From Tennessee Williams: Notebooks. Copyright The University of the South; Courtesy Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

* * *

In October I made the five-hour drive from my home in Durham, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit Margaret Thornton. Her first novel, Charleston, was published earlier this year. Thornton grew up in Charleston and was state tennis champion before leaving for Princeton. She worked at Goldman Sachs in New York and London, where she was one of only two female vice presidents, and graduated from Harvard Business School along the way. She met her husband in New York and they have raised four kids. 

Thornton’s professional résumé makes her an unlikely candidate for a decade-long literary exploration, so I was curious to find out more about her. Before I left to meet her in Charleston, I called a couple of the principal figures who had facilitated Notebooks to see what I could learn. John Eastman, a New York entertainment lawyer who is the former executor of the Tennessee Williams estate, originally put the notebooks in Thornton’s lap. I asked Eastman, brother of the late Linda McCartney, why he thought Thornton was right for the project on Williams’s notebooks. “I’ve known Margaret for more than thirty years,” he explained. “The first serious conversation I had with her—I guess she was in her twenties and working for Goldman—was about Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady. I wouldn’t call the conversation an argument, but it was lively. She has an unusual mix of intellectual discipline and flights of fancy. Lots of people have one of those traits but rarely both. I knew she was perfect for the project.”

I also called Jonathan Brent, Thornton’s editor on Notebooks and the former editorial director of Yale University Press. He told me, “I was moved by her intensity. She was fixated on doing everything right, with care and love. There were so many obstacles to publishing the book the way she wanted it done. I could give you a list—everything was outside the mold. It was hard for some of my colleagues at Yale to see how the book would hang together. There’s a messiness to it, a variousness, that is difficult, but there’s a poetry to it, too, and that’s who Tennessee Williams was. I strongly believe you cannot tell the story of anyone’s life in a linear way, certainly not Williams’s. Margaret felt a debt of honor to him, and she created a love letter that you can read backward and forward. The result is something like a diary-novel, perhaps like those loose, baggy monsters of Eastern European and Russian literature.”

* * *

The main characters in Thornton’s novel, Charleston, are named Eliza and Henry, possibly taken—consciously or unconsciously, she’s not sure now—from George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion. But in Thornton’s story, which is set in 1990, there is a twist and a reversal: rather than being molded by Henry’s tutelage, Eliza grew up in Charleston’s high culture, attended Princeton, and then moved to New York and London. The novel is a meditation on the question of whether her first love, Henry, who never left Charleston, can recast a spell on her ten years later, after they cross paths at a wedding in the English countryside.

By page ten, Eliza is on a flight back to Charleston for her stepsister’s debutante party, having left behind her steady boyfriend, Jamie, an Etonian and world-traveling documentary filmmaker. All the pieces are in place for a story befitting the book’s cover: a Southern romance novel, a book-club pick, a beach read. What Thornton delivers, instead, has more in common with her Williams book—an obsessive and poetic scaffolding of details. Eliza is sitting at the window of the airplane as it approaches Charleston:

Thousands of feet below, roads that curved and faded without apparent reason snaked through large green untouched forest. Unlike the ordered rectangles and quadrilaterals and polygons of the English countryside that fit together like irregular pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, everything here was sinuous, unordered, untamed. The only straight line she could see was the Southern Seaboard Railroad and the power lines that cut sharp tracks through large expanses of timber. Toward the coast, the solid forests gave way to winding rivers and irregular patches of marsh. Eliza guessed that the dark river that curled in lazy loops was the Ashley River—it reminded her of the white sugar icing her grandmother used to let her serpentine across the top of her lemon cakes. Eliza watched the plane’s shadow flee in front of them across land that disappeared into marshes. She enjoyed the weightless feeling of the shadow’s swift escape precisely because running away from something or someone had never felt so easy.

The following eighty pages cover a mere twenty-four hours as the uncertain rendezvous of Eliza and Henry begins, along with a strong undertow of Eliza returning to her hometown. The Charleston-based poet, Nick Bozanic, has noted that “what reads at first like a field guide to the Low Country becomes a mesmerizing spell and explores stylistically and thematically the various ways in which we are beguiled, seduced, charmed into a relinquishing of the will, a yielding of one’s own purposes to those of the place and its allurements.” The novelist Bret Lott said the book reminds him of Roxana Robinson’s work in its anthropological study of upper-class culture. The Charleston visual artist Jonathan Green called the book “a beautifully written cross-cultural symphonic love song of a painted journey back home.” A few reviewers have complained that there is no plot, but Thornton makes no apology about focusing on character and having form serve, and not dominate, the story.

Jonathan Green, Snake River, 1993, acrylic on canvas. © Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green, Snake River, 1993, acrylic on canvas. © Jonathan Green

At Princeton, Thornton majored in English and trained in drawing with artists Jerry Buchanan and Sean Scully, who liked her work enough to recommend she move to the Art Students League after college. She took a job with Goldman Sachs instead. “Wall Street was much more interesting in the 1980s than it is today,” Thornton said. “Back then Goldman—at least the investment side —wouldn’t hire you if you were an economics or business major. They wanted people with broader perspectives, with more creativity. I don’t have many regrets in life but one of them might be that I didn’t take the advice of my teachers and attend art school. Coming from such a conservative and formal place as Charleston, I found the art world intimidating, and I didn’t have enough confidence or courage to overcome that persuasion at the time.”

Visual art and the act of seeing are central, if subliminal, themes of Charleston. Eliza has a fellowship at the Courtauld, in London; Henry is an amateur photographer; local art, nineteenth-century slave pottery, and artists such as Bonnard are woven throughout the story. “Old World” Charleston has praised Thornton for her accurate rendering of the Holy City and the surrounding Low Country—from the South of Broad dinner parties to the swamps of the ACE Basin. With Charleston she seems again to have dealt in fragments and digressions, stitching them together into something larger while leaving the pieces to speak for themselves. Thornton includes a quote from artist Jasper Johns in the book and also uses it in conversation: “What interests me is the thing that cannot be located.”

“It’s a mysterious sentence,” Thornton tells me, “so declarative, and it seems to me an apt metaphor for someone as rigorous and honest as Eliza. As she looks down from the airplane, I imagine that she is wondering about what, if anything, is left of her relationship with Henry. What is the thing? Can it not be located because it cannot be found, because it cannot be seen? Or because it doesn’t exist? Johns’s statement can also apply to the mysterious pull that Charleston has for Eliza, for the feeling—the fear—that home will never let her go.”

Sam Stephenson is a writer and partner in Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a Durham, North Carolina–based documentary company. His is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.