Tennessee Williams 1911-1983 English 42 – Dr. Karen Rose Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Mississippi in 1911. His mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, was the daughter of a prominent local minister and she thought of herself as a Southern Belle. His father, Cornelius Williams, was a hard-drinking traveling salesman for a shoe company. From early childhood, Williams was close to his sister Rose, two years his elder. A shy, sickly child, he was an avid reader. He also engaged in imaginative play with his sister, who he considered his best friend. When Williams was ten, his brother, Dakin, was born. According to Williams’s Memoir (1975), they were never close. In 1918 the family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, where Williams’s father became a sales manager for the shoe company. The family was used to living in small, southern towns, and St. Louis seemed both crowded and unfriendly. The family’s situation deteriorated. Williams’s father’s alcoholism worsened; he often drank or gambled away his paycheck. The family moved sixteen times during the next ten years. The lack of stability was unsettling and had a negative effect on the family. Williams was introverted and, with all the moving, he had difficulties forming friendships. His closest friend remained his sister, Rose. When Williams’s mother gave him a typewriter for his eleventh birthday, he began to write – and he continued to write, with only intermittent lapses, for the rest of his life. Williams later explained that as an adolescent, he looked inward and he wrote — “because I found life unsatisfactory.” Writing was his form of escape from the outside world. During three years at the University of Missouri, young Thomas Williams received the nickname “Tennessee” because of his southern accent. He was a good student, and he won prizes for verse and fiction. Although he had seen little live theater, he wrote a few dramatic pieces for which he received praise. His father was intolerant of his son’s writing, and seizing upon his failure in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) -- a college-based program for training commissioned officers of the United States armed forces -declined further support for his son. Williams’s father criticized him for being a “sissy.” Back in St. Louis, at his father’s insistence, Williams went to work in a shoe warehouse. He worked there for three long years, all the while writing at night. He later called this his “season in hell.” Williams hated the job so much that he suffered a nervous breakdown and went to live with his grandparents in Memphis to recover. While recuperating at the home of his maternal grandparents in Memphis, Williams was strengthened in his determination to be a writer. After winning a Theater Guild contest, he enrolled in the playwriting program at the University of Iowa, where he received his B.A. degree in 1938. In the mid 1930s, Williams also became aware of his homosexuality. While Williams was completing his degree, his beloved sister, Rose, was not doing well. She began to experience mental imbalances and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Rose was committed to the Missouri State Asylum, and in 1938, she had a prefrontal lobotomy. She was institutionalized for the rest of her life. After her lobotomy, Rose was never the same. This tragedy devastated Williams and further strengthened his commitment to creative expression through writing. In 1944, when writing The Glass Menagerie, Rose was the inspiration for his character, Laura. Like Laura, his sister collected glass ornaments, was very sensitive and self conscious. When Rose died in 1996, the final line of The Glass Menagerie was inscribed on her gravestone. Rejected by the Armed Forces during World War II, Williams drifted through a variety of odd jobs to support his writing. First produced in Chicago in late December 1944, The Glass Menagerie opened on Broadway on March 31, 1945 and ran for 561 performances, winning the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Williams adapted the play from one of his own short stories, “Portrait of a Girl in the Glass.” The Glass Menagerie is viewed as Williams’s most autobiographical play. After the Chicago opening, the actress playing Amanda greeted Williams’s mother by saying that she was pleased to meet the real-life model for her role. His mother was shocked and appalled. Williams assigned one-half the royalty payments to his mother, which kept her living comfortably until her death. Between 1945 and 1961, when Williams won his fourth New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, he was adored on Broadway, where he opened a new play bi-annually. Tennessee Williams called Frank Merlo “the love of my life.” Williams personal life was, however, far from ideal. He depended increasingly on alcohol and drugs to help him sleep and wake. His condition deteriorated further after his lover, Frank Merlo, died of lung cancer in 1963. While Williams continued to write plays, poems, fiction, and essays, nothing achieved the critical acclaim of his earlier works. In 1969 Williams followed his younger brother, Dakin, into the Catholic Church. So distraught was Williams by the end of the year that Dakin had him committed to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where he underwent detoxification. Williams never forgave Dakin, and Williams’s behavior became even more troubling and self-destructive. He was suffering from severe depression and living in a downward spiral. On February 25, 1983, Tennessee Williams’s dead body was found in a two-room suite filled with half-finished bottles of wine and prescription drugs at the Hotel Elysee in New York. He had choked to death on the plastic top of a bottle of nose spray, which some speculate he was using as a spoon for pills. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia. He was 71 years old. Williams received four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was honored by the U.S. Postal Service on a stamp in 1994. Williams left his literary rights to The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in honor of his grandfather, an alumnus of the university. The funds support a creative writing program. When his sister Rose died in 1996 , she bequeathed $7 million from her part of the Williams estate to The University of the South. The End!!