Born in Mississippi on the 26th March 1911, Tom Williams was the second of three children to Cornelius Coffin Williams, and Edwina Dakin Williams. He came from a dysfunctional family – his father was a lusty, loud man who had been a military school graduate.
Williams was a shy and sensitive child, and had several bouts of ill health, and nearly died of dypheria aged 5. Even after he recovered, he never really regained his sense of wellbeing and was huge hypochondriac.
Although Williams demonstrated skill in creative writing, he was never much of a student. In 1932, aged 21, pushed by his father, Tom left college and went to work for an international shoe making company. Thomas refers to this part of his life as ‘living death’.
He had two major loves in his life – his writing and his older sister, Rose. Despite his affection for her, he could not understand her erratic behaviour. In 1939, at the age of 27, Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of her adult life in institutions.
As a coping strategy, Williams focused more and more on his writing. He began to get recognition for poems, plays and short stories and before long won his first national playwriting contest, at the age of 28. He then met the legendary New York Literary agent Audrey Wood, and this would turn out to be one of the most important relationships of his career. Audrey took Williams under her wing, and became like a mother to him. It was Audrey’s support and encouragement which ensured Williams’ won contracts, the most lucrative (and probably important) being one which took him to Hollywood. Woods arranged for Williams to write a screenplay for huge screen star of the time, Lana Turner. Williams went from earning barely enough to afford a packet of cigarettes, to earning at least $250 a week.
For Tennessee Williams, art really did imitate life. Whilst working at MGM, Williams pitched an idea for a movie to the company executives – ‘The Gentleman Caller’, and the story would be about an abandoned wife, and her two children, one of which walked with a limp and was a social recluse. This character was inspired by Williams’ own sister, Rose, who underwent a lobotomy in 1943. The movie executives rejected the idea for fear that the disabled character would not appeal to audiences. Williams, however, adapted the piece for stage and called it The Glass Menagerie,.
In 1945, 5 days after Williams’ 34th birthday, The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway to critical acclaim. The show won the New York Drama Critics award for “Best Play of the Season”.
In 1946, Williams was the toast of Broadway. But his success was tinged with sadness. Williams’ main inspiration was his sister, Rose, who was locked away in a mental institute, and Williams constantly in fear that he would suffer the same fate. He often said his writing is what ‘kept him from going mad’.
Williams took his craft very seriously, his writing was deeply personal, and he empathised with all of his characters.
Williams met Frank Merlo in 1948 and the pair fell deeply in love. This was Williams’ longest relationship. After some time, the cracks began to show as Williams found it difficult to stay faithful. The pair separated but a few years later, Merlo was diagnosed with lung cancer and the pair were reunited. Williams nursed him until his death in 1961.
As Williams had always feared, the years following Merlo’s death were some of his darkest – he fell into deep depression – which resulted in increasing alcohol and drug use, and several commitments to mental health facilities.
Throughout the 1970s Williams alienated himself from loyal colleagues and friends as he tried to regain success. He appeared several times in interviews in an almost incoherent state. He was never truly able to get back to the major success of his heyday.
He died alone in the Élysées Hotel on 25th February 1983, aged 71. The cause of death is disputed, but the initial medical examiners report claimed that it was choking.
Tennessee Williams wrote some of the landmark plays of the twentieth century, receiving huge acclaim and recognition, including Pulitzer Prizes in 1948 and 1955. Among his most recognised plays are The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Camino Real (1953), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, (1955), Baby Doll (1957) and Orpheus Descending (1957). In addition to this he wrote many short stories, poems and two novels.