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Also Known As: Thomas Lanier Williams Died: February 25, 1983
Born: May 26, 1911 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Columbus, Mississippi, USA Profession: playwright, screenwriter, actor, cinema usher, factory worker

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

As one of America's premier 20th century playwrights, Tennessee Williams restored poetry to the stage in the midst of a post-World War II surge of realism, sensitively peopling his plays with outsiders at odds with the mob rule that passes for civilization, while also delving into the darker realms of human nature that reflected his own instability. After kicking around the South and putting on local productions, Williams made a major splash in the Big Apple with "The Glass Menagerie" (1945), which announced his arrival as promising Broadway talent. He cemented his place as a giant among men with "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Both plays were made into Hollywood movies, though "Streetcar" was better remembered for Marlon Brando's exquisite performance as the brutish Stanley Kowalski. Williams earned a Tony Award for "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) and won his second Pulitzer for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), which was turned into an acclaimed 1958 movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. From there, his career hit a long downward skid, brought about by years of battling depression with alcohol and prescription drugs. Williams had a minor success...

As one of America's premier 20th century playwrights, Tennessee Williams restored poetry to the stage in the midst of a post-World War II surge of realism, sensitively peopling his plays with outsiders at odds with the mob rule that passes for civilization, while also delving into the darker realms of human nature that reflected his own instability. After kicking around the South and putting on local productions, Williams made a major splash in the Big Apple with "The Glass Menagerie" (1945), which announced his arrival as promising Broadway talent. He cemented his place as a giant among men with "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1947), which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Both plays were made into Hollywood movies, though "Streetcar" was better remembered for Marlon Brando's exquisite performance as the brutish Stanley Kowalski. Williams earned a Tony Award for "The Rose Tattoo" (1951) and won his second Pulitzer for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), which was turned into an acclaimed 1958 movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. From there, his career hit a long downward skid, brought about by years of battling depression with alcohol and prescription drugs. Williams had a minor success with "The Night of the Iguana" (1961), which became a Richard Burton-Ava Gardner film in 1964, but by and large he slipped further into critical decline by this time. Regardless of his personal struggles, Williams remained one of America's most revered playwrights whose reputation only magnified in the years following his death.

Born on May 26, 1911 in Columbus, MS, Williams was raised by his father, a hard-drinking shoe salesman who hailed from a prestigious Tennessee family, which included the state's first governor and first senator, and his mother, Edwina, the daughter of an Episcopal priest whose behavior was often erratic and neurotic. When he was six years old, Williams suffered from diphtheria and a kidney infection that almost ended his life and left him bedridden for nearly a year. During that time, his family's dysfunction came into full bloom when his father expressed open disdain toward his weakened and somewhat effeminate son, and his overbearing mother turned her attention toward his brother, Tom. Through it all, however, Williams maintained a close bond with his sister, Rose, who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. Meanwhile, the family moved to St. Louis, away from his maternal grandfather, Walter, whom Williams adored and idolized. To escape the gloom and dysfunction of his home life, Williams began to write and found early success at 16 years old when he won third prize and five dollars for his essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?", which was published in the literary magazine, Smart Set.

A year later, Williams published his first short story, "The Vengeance of Nitocris," in a 1928 issue of Weird Tales, and moved on to study journalism at the University of Missouri at St. Louis from 1929-1931. But Williams soon grew bored with the idea of becoming a journalist and began entering his work - which by this time included plays - into contests in hopes of earning some money. Naturally, his schoolwork began to suffer and his father eventually pulled him from the university, forcing the young Williams to work a 9-to-5 job at the shoe factory. Williams grew to despise the average working routine and worked himself nearly to death in the wee hours, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown that forced him to leave his job. His experiences during this time later helped shape the character Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Eventually, Williams recovered and began putting on his plays, starting with "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay" (1935), which was first staged in Memphis. He went on to produce a pair of one-acts, "Candles to the Sun" (1937) and "The Fugitive Kind" (1937), with the Mummers of St. Louis, before impressing the Group Theater with a collection of one-acts called "American Blues" (1939), which won him a special award and $100. Also that year, Williams picked up a Rockefeller playwriting grant worth an additional $1,000.

In 1940, Williams staged his first New York production, "The Long Goodbye," a student presentation that was performed at the New Theatre School. Following the failure of "Battle of Angels" (1940) in Boston, which attracted more attention from city censors than audiences, Williams' agent Audrey Wood secured him a screenwriting assignment at MGM, working on the Lana Turner picture, "Marriage Is a Private Affair" (1944). But he instead began work on his own film project, "The Gentleman Caller," an adaptation of his short story, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," that the studio rejected. Freed from contractual obligation, Williams transformed the script into an intensely autobiographical dream play called "The Glass Menagerie," a heartbreaking look at two women - drawn from his neurotic mother and mentally ill sister - who are each trapped in worlds of their own creation. The play was first staged in Chicago, where it enjoyed a successful run after nearly being shut down due to a lack of advanced sales; luckily strong critical reviews managed to keep the show open. In 1945, "The Glass Menagerie" was staged on Broadway, where it served as a comeback vehicle for actress Laurette Taylor and vaulted Williams to the front ranks of American playwrights. It went on to earn the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play and secured its status for many critics as being his finest work.

If "The Glass Menagerie" launched Williams' success, his next play cemented his place in history as one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. After making its debut at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, CT, "A Streetcar Named Desire" had its original Broadway run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and starred then unknowns Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanche Du Bois; rounding out the cast was Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Set in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, the story focused on Du Bois, a desperate and neurotic woman who clashes with Stella's brutish husband, Stanley. Proving that his work was no flash in the pan, Williams' acclaimed play earned the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. After publishing his first novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), Williams adapted "The Glass Menagerie" (1950) for the big screen, with Jane Wyman and Kirk Douglas tackling the lead roles. The following year, Williams adapted "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) to the big screen, which starred Marlon Brando reprising his stage role as Stanley Kowalski and Vivian Leigh as Blanche Du Bois. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film's scene with Stanley calling down for "Stella!" on the streets below became one of classic cinema's most iconic moments.

Meanwhile, "Summer and Smoke" flopped on Broadway in 1948, though the 1952 revival by director Jose Quintero would put off-Broadway on the map. Meanwhile, Williams found more success with "The Rose Tattoo" (1951), which earned him his only Tony Award. Unfortunately, his next play, "Camino Real" (1953), closed in less than two months on Broadway. The playwright himself fell victim to the tyranny of public opinion, removing some of the more direct, anti-fascist sentiments after the Philadelphia tryout when Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan attacked the play as anti-American. But he returned to Pulitzer Prize-winning glory with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955), one of his best known and the playwright's personal favorite. Set in the Deep South, "Cat" focused on a washed-up football player who has taken to drinking after the suicide of his so-called best friend, whom his undyingly devoted wife believes he had a homosexual affair with. His play was turned into a 1958 movie starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, though Williams was disappointed with the studio removing most of the homosexual themes while forcing a reconciliation between Brick (Newman) and Big Daddy (Burl Ives). It did, however, earn Academy Award nominations for Newman, Taylor and Best Picture.

Following the major success of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Williams' work began to take on a darker tone, largely due to a number of personal travails that included recurrent bouts with depression. The 1956 film succes de scandale, "Baby Doll," triggered censorship battles around the world, but brought Williams a second Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay - his first having come for the "Streetcar" script. Holding his mirror up to reflect the world's cruelty in "Orpheus Descending" (1957), Williams created a Southern states' atmosphere of racial hatred and lynch law, in which the only wholly sympathetic characters are two half-mad women with no real ability to live in the real world. With "Suddenly Last Summer" (1957), arguably his most sinister play, he continued to employ bleak imagery, presenting an offstage murder of a poet by a flock of half-grown boys and depicting its one good character on the edge of madness. Following the Tony-nominated "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959) and the drug-induced "Period of Adjustment" (1960), Williams wrote his final major success "The Night of the Iguana" (1961), which depicted an ex-minister with a fractured mind who becomes a tour guide in Mexico, where he meets and falls for a beautiful artist. The play was adapted for the screen in 1964 by director John Huston, with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in the leads.

In 1963, Williams - who had long been accepting of his own homosexuality - was dealt a devastating blow when his longtime companion, Frank Merlo, died from inoperable lung cancer. Already an alcoholic and drug abuser, which was brought on by his bouts with depression, Williams sank further into his hole and watches the bottom fall out of his career. Nonetheless, the indefatigable craftsman wrote almost daily despite his increased dependence on alcohol and prescription medications. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Williams saw many failures, including "The Mutilated" (1965), "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" (1969) and "Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?" (1969). He did, however, experience one last stage success with the off-Broadway production of "Small Craft Warnings" (1972), which also featured his acting debut, only to see further diminishing of his talents with "Out Cry" (1973) and "This Is (An Experiment)" (1976). Though his fiction and poetry never particularly caught the public's fancy, he published more of it as his fortunes waned in the theater. His Memoirs (1975) also struck a discordant note for its formlessness and lack of commentary on his dramaturgy. After the failure of "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" (1980), his last play to debut on Broadway in his lifetime, Williams showed glimmers of his former self with "A House Not Meant to Stand" (1982), his last written play. Though not nearly as fragile as his sister Rose, Williams lived apart from the world and died in his New York hotel suite on Feb. 25, 1983 after choking on a bottle cap from his eye drops, indicating that drugs and alcohol contributed by suppressing his gag reflex. He was 71. Even at the time of his death, he was one of America's most revered playwrights, regardless of his feelings of isolation, whose reputation only grew in subsequent years.

By Shawn Dwyer

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Family lived for several years in Clarksdale, Mississippi
1917:
Suffered from diphtheria and a kidney infection at the age of six (date approximate)
1918:
Moved with family to St Louis, Missouri
1928:
At 16, won third prize and received $5 for an essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?", in <i>Smart Set</i>
1929:
Published "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in <i>Weird Tales</i>
1931:
Quit college at behest of father to begin work in the warehouse at the International Shoe Company in St Louis
1935:
First play, "Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay", produced in Memphis
1937:
His one-act plays "Candles to the Sun" and "The Fugitive Kind" produced by Mummers of St Louis
1939:
Won a special award and $100 from the Group Theater (failed to win first prize) for "American Blues" (four one-act plays published in 1948); entry brought him to the attention of legendary literary agent Audrey Wood who would represent him until 1971; also received a $1000 Rockefeller grant
1940:
First New York production, a student presentation of "The Long Goodbye" at the New Theatre School
1940:
"Battle of Angels" produced in Boston; closed after a two-week tryout and excited more interest among the city's censors than in audiences; later revised as "Orpheus Descending", a 1957 Broadway failure; also revived as "Battle of Angels" Off-Broadway during 1974-1975 season
:
Secured a screenwriting job at MGM through Wood; assigned to a Lana Turner project, "Marriage Is a Private Affair"; instead spent time developing what would become "The Glass Menagerie"; MGM rejected the script (called "The Gentleman Caller") based on his short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass", freeing Williams to pursue a theatrical production
1943:
Spent some months working as a cinema usher, during which he saw "Casablanca" over and over
1944:
"The Glass Menagerie" enjoyed a successful run in Chicago; with no advance sale, the show had nearly closed, but agent Wood convinced the producers to remain open, citing good reviews
1945:
First Broadway production, "The Glass Menagerie" (starring Laurette Taylor as Amanda in a fabled comeback from alcoholic oblivion), vaulted him to the front ranks of American playwrights; also had a second play on Broadway that year, the rather tepidly-received "You Touched Me", co-written with Donald Windham (based on a D.H. Lawrence story) and starring an inaudible Montgomery Clift
1947:
Second Broadway success, "A Streetcar Named Desire", directed by Elia Kazan; earned first Pulitzer Prize in 1948; coaxed Kazan into accepting Marlon Brando for the role of Stanley after the young actor read for him at his Provincetown home in August (and repaired the plumbing as well)
1948:
Returned to Broadway with "Summer and Smoke"; show flopped but was a hit Off-Broadway four years later; revised as "Eccentricities of a Nightingale" in 1965
1950:
First published work of fiction, the novel "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone", adapted for the screen by Gavin Lambert in 1961
1950:
Screenwriting debut with "The Glass Menagerie"
1951:
Received Oscar nomination for screenplay of "A Streetcar Named Desire", helmed by Kazan
1951:
Earned Tony Award for "The Rose Tattoo", which made an overnight star of Maureen Stapleton and was later adapted to the screen by Williams in 1955, starring his original choice for the lead role, Anna Magnani
1952:
Revival of "Summer and Smoke" by director Jose Quintero and starring Geraldine Page put Off-Broadway on the map
1953:
"Camino Real" closed after less than two months on Broadway, despite gathering an ardent core of admirers; Walter Kerr called it "the worst play yet by the best playwright of his generation"; containing arguably Williams' most gorgeous poetry for the American stage, original director Kazan called it "a love letter to the people Williams loved most, the romantics, those innocents who become victims in our business civilization"; revived Off-Broadway by Quintero in 1960, it failed again
1955:
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (directed by Kazan) opened on Broadway; would earn him a 1956 Tony nomination and a second Pulitzer
1956:
Garnered a second Oscar nod for the screenplay of "Baby Doll", called by <i>Time</i> magazine "just possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited"; the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film stating that it "dwells upon carnal suggestiveness"; adapted from Williams' one-act "27 Wagons Full of Cotton"
1956:
Published first collection of poetry, "In the Winter of Cities"
1960:
Wrote the screenplay for "The Fugitive Kind", based on his play "Orpheus Descending"; also credited for the lyrics of the song "Blanket Roll Blues"
1962:
Received Tony nomination for "The Night of the Iguana", which debuted on Broadway in 1961
1969:
Converted to Roman Catholicism
1972:
Last stage success, the Off-Broadway premiere of "Small Craft Warnings", called by <i>Variety</i>: "Easily the best drama Off-Broadway this season"; made his stage acting debut when he took over one of the roles after the production had opened
1975:
Published autobiography, "Memoirs"; though frank in discussing his homosexuality, book was disappointing in its lack of comment on his dramaturgy
1980:
Last Broadway production, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel", about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
1981:
Last NYC production, Off-Broadway's "Something Cloudy, Something Clear"
1998:
First performance of "Not About Nightingales" (directed by Trevor Nunn), a play written in 1938 and thus predating "The Glass Menagerie", at London's National Theatre; actress Vanessa Redgrave had discovered the manuscript; subsequently produced at Houston's Alley Theater and on Broadway; nominated for Best Play Tony Award
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

University of Missouri at St Louis: St Louis , Missouri - 1929 - 1931
Washington University: St Louis , Missouri - 1936 - 1937
University of Iowa: Iowa City , Iowa - 1938

Notes

"[I hope] that you will not let the entire season pass without seeing something besides 'Death of a Salesman'. Do you know I got five complete sets of notices of that play, sent me by various well-meaning friends in New York? More than I ever got for any play of my own, including the 'Menagerie' in London ..." --Williams to his friend Maria St. Just, March 5, 1949, in "Five O'Clock Angel", St. Just's collection of letters from Williams.

"I don't feel inclined to write any more about the so-called (s)outhern belle," --Williams to a reporter in London interview, August 1, 1962.

"I have never found the subject of homosexuality a satisfactory theme for a full-length play, despite the fact that it appears as frequently as it does in my short fiction." --Williams in The New York Times, March 4, 1973.

"If I had it all to do over again I'd only write for the movies." --Williams to a reporter at a film festival in August 1982, recalled in Gene Brown's "Show Time".

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
Frank Merlo. Died in 1963.

Family close complete family listing

grandfather:
Walter Edwin Dakin. Episcopal priest. Williams was extremely close to his grandfather, whom he tried to nurse through a series of ever-worsening illnesses; Dakin's passing in 1955 left the playwright despondent and, in the opinion of many critics, led to a darkening of his work.
mother:
Edwina Dakin Williams. Daughter of a minister; model for character of Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie".
father:
Cornelius Coffin Williams. Shoe salesman. Came from a prestigious Tennessee family which included the state's first governor and first senator.
sister:
Rose Isabel Williams. Born in 1919; diagnosed as schizophrenic; institutionalized in 1943 following a prefrontal lobotomy; died on September 6, 1996 in Tarrytown, New York; model for Laura in "The Glass Menagerie".
brother:
Dakin Williams. Younger.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" J. Lechmann
"In the Winter of Cities" New Directions
"Hard Candy" New Directions
"Three Players of a Summer Game" Secker & Warburg
"The Knightly Quest" New Directions
"One Arm and Other Stories" New Directions
"Eight Moral Ladies Possessed" New Directions
"Moise and the World of Reason" Simon & Schuster
"Memoirs" Doubleday
"Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham: 1940-1965" Holt, Rinehart and Winston
"Androgyne, Mon Amour" New Directions
"It Happened the Day the Sun Rose" Sylvester and Orphanos
"Tennessee, Cry of the Heart" Doubleday
"The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams" Little, Brown
"Short Stories" Ballantine
"Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982" Alfred A. Knopf
"Costly Performances: Tennessee Williams: The Last Stage" Paragon House
"Tom: The Unknown Tenessee Williams" Crown
"The Notebooks of Trigorin: A Free Adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull" New Directions
"Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience" Yale University Press
"The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume I: 1920-1945" Oberon Books
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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