Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983) was an American playwright, author of many stage classics.
After years of obscurity, he became suddenly famous with The Glass Menagerie (1944), closely reflecting his own unhappy family background. This heralded a string of successes, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, and Sweet Bird of Youth. His later work attempted a new style that did not appeal to audiences, and alcohol and drug dependence further inhibited his creative output.
Williams adapted much of his best work for the cinema, and also wrote short stories, poetry, essays and a volume of memoirs.
Throughout his life Williams remained close to his sister Rose who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman. In 1943, as her behavior became increasingly disturbing, she was subjected to a lobotomy, unfortunately with disastrous results, and was subsequently institutionalized for the rest of her life. As soon as he was financially able to, Williams had her moved to a private institution just north of New York City where he often visited her. He gave her a percentage interest in several of his most successful plays, the royalties from which were applied toward her care. The devastating effects of Rose's illness may have contributed to Williams' alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates.
After some early attempts at heterosexual relationships, by the late 1930s Williams had accepted his homosexuality. In New York he joined a gay social circle which included fellow writer and close friend Donald Windham (1920–2010) and his then partner Fred Melton. In the summer of 1940 Williams initiated an affair with Kip Kiernan (1918–1944), a young Canadian dancer he met in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When Kiernan left him to marry a woman he was distraught, and Kiernan's death four years later at 26 delivered another heavy blow.
On a 1945 visit to Taos, New Mexico, Williams met Pancho Rodríguez y González, a hotel clerk of Mexican heritage. Rodríguez was, by all accounts, a loving and loyal companion. However, he was also prone to jealous rages and excessive drinking, and so the relationship was a tempestuous one. Nevertheless, in February 1946 Rodríguez left New Mexico to join Williams in his New Orleans apartment. They lived and traveled together until late 1947 when Williams ended the affair. Rodríguez and Williams remained friends, however, and were in contact as late as the 1970s.
|A rare image of a nude Tennessee Williams (lower right) |
and Donald Windham to (upper left) dated 1943.
Williams spent the spring and summer of 1948 in Rome in the company of a teen-aged Italian boy, called "Rafaello" in Williams' Memoirs, to whom he provided financial assistance for several years afterwards, a situation which planted the seed of Williams' first novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. When he returned to New York that spring, he met and fell in love with Frank Merlo (1922–1963), an occasional actor of Sicilian heritage who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
This one enduring romantic relationship of Williams' life lasted 14 years until infidelities and drug abuse on both sides ended it. Merlo, who became Williams' personal secretary, taking on most of the details of their domestic life, provided a period of happiness and stability as well as a balance to the playwright's frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would fall into insanity. Their years together, in an apartment in Manhattan and a modest house in Key West, Florida, were Williams' happiest and most productive. Shortly after their breakup, Merlo was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and Williams returned to take care of him until his death on September 21, 1963.
As he had feared, in the years following Merlo's death Williams was plunged into a period of nearly catatonic depression and increasing drug use resulting in several hospitalizations and commitments to mental health facilities. He submitted to injections by Dr. Max Jacobson – known popularly as Dr. Feelgood – who used increasing amounts of amphetamines to overcome his depression and combined these with prescriptions for the sedative Seconal to relieve his insomnia. Williams appeared several times in interviews in a nearly incoherent state, and his reputation both as a playwright and as a public personality suffered. He was never truly able to recoup his earlier success, or to entirely overcome his dependence on prescription drugs.