“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it,” Oscar Wilde said. In writing author’s notes, the story of Tennessee Williams’s life and work, it seems to me, is a case in point. Since his death, in 1983, more than forty books have been written about him. Much is gossip, much is self-serving, much is academic tracery, almost none of it risks an interpretation, which is the job of criticism. Amid this enormous posthumous production, however, a few volumes stand out: “Tom” by Lyle Leverich provides invaluable previously unknown details of Williams’s childhood; two volumes of “Selected Letters” (scrupulously edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler) show Williams to be an epistolary, as well as theatrical, star, though they take his voluminous correspondence only up to 1957; and “Notebooks” (edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton) brings between hard covers Williams’s scattershot but riveting personal diaries from 1936 to 1981—a calendar of pain that charts his “bulldog battle” to claim his freedom, his sanity, and his talent. Taken together (along with his youthful letters to Donald Windham, which were published during his lifetime), these books form a kind of global positioning device for the geography of Williams’s roiling interior. The news they bring makes it possible, and imperative, to construct a new map of the man and his work.
As early as 1939, having just acquired an agent, a Rockefeller grant, and a career path, Williams vowed to write plays that were “a picture of my own heart.” Over the decades, as that out-crying heart opened, faltered, and atrophied, Williams stuck to his game plan: “to be simple direct and terrible…I will speak truth as I see it…without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life.” The plays are his emotional autobiography, snapshots of his heart’s mutation. So, to tell the story of the plays is to tell the story of the man, and vice-versa. But how to track him?
“The real fact is that no one means a great deal to me,” Williams said in his first-ever, unguarded interview, with the New York Times, on April 22, 1945. He went on, “I’m gregarious and like to be around people, but almost anybody will do. …I prefer people who can help me in some way or another, and most of my friendships are accidental.” Williams is at his most alert, eloquent, humorous, vulnerable, and forthright when talking about the one pure thing in his life: his work. In my attempt to bushwhack through his vertiginous paper trail, my goal has been to stick closely, though not exclusively, to the people who meant the most to his theatrical adventure and to whom he spoke his heart: Audrey Wood, James Laughlin, Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Brooks Atkinson, Donald Windham, Paul Bowles, Paul Bigelow, and Lady Maria St. Just. To create a sense of the immediacy and the drama in his connections to these people and to create a mosaic of quotation and interpretation, rather like that of a New Yorker profile, I have intentionally let their voices butt up against one another on the page.
This biography has a strange history. In 1983, on the basis primarily of the success of my recent biography of the playwright Joe Orton, “Prick Up Your Ears,” I was contacted by the Williams Estate, who asked that I write Williams’s authorized biography and force off the field a tyro by the name of Lyle Leverich, a San Francisco theatre producer who had never written a book but whom Williams had, nonetheless, twice authorized, in writing, to tell his story. If the Estate could announce me as the official biographer, their thinking went, the theatricals would refuse to cooperate with this carpetbagger. I had a seven year-old son and an English wife, and we were living in London: I declined.
In 1994, now the Senior Drama Critic of The New Yorker, I was approached by Lyle Leverich and Andreas Brown, of Gotham Book Mart, who were hoping that I could help liberate “Tom,” Leverich’s completed first volume, from a five-year stranglehold inflicted on it by Williams’s soi-disant literary executor, Maria St. Just. I ended up writing a New Yorker profile on the Estate’s shenanigans. (Parts of that profile, “The Lady and Tennessee,” appear in an abridged form in this biography.) Through the long process of reporting and the final victorious result, Lyle and I became friends. He asked me whether, should anything happen to him, I would finish the job. We may not have held the same views about the psychology of the Williams family or about biography, but we shared a belief in Williams’s greatness and in a mission “to report his cause aright.” So I said yes.
A few years later, on a trip to San Francisco to review a play, I learned that Lyle had died. He had indeed put me in his Will; and I was now ready to do the book. But, although the biography started out as the second volume of Lyle’s enterprise—I inherited seven FedEx boxes of files and seventy un-transcribed tapes (which were, for my purposes, largely useless)—it didn’t end that way. In order to re-interpret the plays and the life, I needed to revisit Williams’s childhood and to take a different tack from Lyle’s encyclopedic chronological approach. For this stylistic reason, W. W. Norton has chosen to publish “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” as a stand-alone biography.