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!”