Biography: Tennessee Williams

Ryan Loftis By Ryan Loftis, 14th Mar 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/wa_bm8ts/
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A profile of playwright Tennessee Williams, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

Early Years

Legendary playwright Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Collins, Miss. The middle of three children, Williams later described the union of his mother, the daughter of an Episcopal rector, and his traveling salesman father as a "wrong marriage." By the time the family moved to St. Louis so his father could become manager of a show company, the young Williams had begun creating and telling stories.

Williams began studying journalism at the University of Missouri in the fall of 1929, but his academic pursuits were cut short when his childhood girlfriend, Hazel Kramer, also chose to enroll there (Kramer was the only known girlfriend of Williams, who later wrote publicly about his homosexuality). Williams' father said he would withdraw him from the university when Kramer decided to enter and managed to break the couple up. A depressed Williams quit school and took a job as a shoe company clerk. He described these circumstances as "living death."

Writing helped Williams cope with his problems for a time, but he eventually had a nervous breakdown and was sent to Memphis, Tenn., to recover. Upon returning to St. Louis, Williams made friends with a group of poets at Washington University. He enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1937 and wrote an immense amount of plays both there and in St. Louis. Williams finally graduated from college in 1938.

Playwright

Williams moved to New Orleans at age 28 and changed his first name to Tennessee (he would give a variety of reasons for this change). While living in the Big Easy, Williams wrote stories and won $100 in a Group Theater contest. He also got an agent, Audrey Wood.

After a disastrous early experience as a playwright (he authored Battle of Angels, which played for only two weeks in Boston in 1940 and never made it to New York), Williams got a job writing scripts for the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The job paid him $250 a week for six months. An original screenplay he wrote was rejected, so Williams turned the screenplay into a play called The Gentleman Caller. When the play opened on Broadway on March 31, 1945, it was titled The Glass Menagerie and became a success. It won the New York Drama Critics' Circle award, and Williams was suddenly a hot property. He followed this triumph by writing A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened in December 1947. Streetcar earned Williams his second Drama Critics' award and first Pulitzer Prize.

"For many years after Streetcar, almost every other season there was another Williams play on Broadway (and a one-act play somewhere else)," Mel Gussow wrote in the New York Times after Williams' death. "Soon there was a continual flow from the stage to the screen. And he never stopped revising his finished work. For more than 35 years, the stream was unabated. He produced an enormous body of work, including more than two dozen full-length plays, all of them produced - a record unequaled by any of his contemporaries. There were successes and failures, and often great disagreements over which was which." But there was no dispute about the success of 1955's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which earned him his third Drama Critics' award and second Pulitzer. 1961's The Night of the Iguana, for which he won his fourth Drama Critics' award, was his last big success.

Death

The 71-year-old Williams was found dead in his suite in the Hotel Elysee in New York City on Feb. 25, 1983. "I always felt like Tennessee and I were compatriots," said Marlon Brando, who starred in Streetcar. "He told the truth as he best he perceived it, and never turned away from things that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death."

An autopsy performed the day after Williams' death revealed that he had choked on a plastic bottle cap. Dr. Ellliot M. Gross, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner, announced that August that Williams had likely been trying to ingest barbiturates when he died.

Tags

A Streetcar Named Desire, Pulitzer Prize, Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

Meet the author

author avatar Ryan Loftis
I graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree and have been a freelance writer for various print and online publications since then.

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