John Lahr’s New Tennessee Williams Biography is Insightful and Disappointing.

Posted on October 13, 2014
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Queer readers have waited a long, long time for the definitive Tennessee Williams biography.  Mr. Williams took a stab at it himself with his Memoirs, published in 1975.  But Memoirs, while a thoroughly entertaining read, was self-serving and not entirely accurate.  Dotson Rader’s book Cry of the Heart was a very personal account of Mr. Williams and this book succeeds on this level–although only accounting for his later years.  Maria St. Just’s Five O’Clock Angel brought out the surprisingly fun side of Tennessee Williams, but this is a limited account–essentially a volume of letters with some often humorous explanations from Lady St. Just.  Lyle Leverich’s semi-authorized biography, Tom is superb, but this book covers only Mr. Williams’s early years.  (A second volume was planned, but Mr. Leverich died before it was completed.)  And now here comes John Lahr’s book:  Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.  With unfettered access to Mr. Williams’s papers and eleven years in the making, this Queer Reader had hoped this would be the definitive Tennessee Williams biography we all had been waiting for.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a while longer.

Mr. Lahr begins the book with an exhaustive description of the opening night of The Glass Menagerie–skipping over the famous Chicago preview and the first thirty-four years of Mr. Williams’s life.  There is a logic to beginning the book here, because that night was the beginning of what Mr. Williams himself called, “the catastrophe of success.”  As Mr. Lahr points out, this was literally a rags-to-riches story–for Tennessee Williams and his entire family. The truth is, after the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie–and the movie deal that soon followed–Tennessee Williams was “set for life.”  But the following years would bring several more Broadway hits and after that, many failures.  What drove Mr. Williams to continue writing–even after his plays were no longer successful–is the central dramatic question of this book.

For over a decade, Tennessee Williams believed that only Elia Kazan could make his queer plays into Broadway hits.  Mr. Lahr’s description of these years is the best part of the book.  And it’s a reminder that the theatre is truly a collaborative medium.  One wonders, for example, if A Streetcar Named Desire would have been a hit if Kazan’s and Williams’s first choice for Stanley Kowalski–John Garfield–had been cast.

As he did in his superb Joe Orton biography, Prick Up Your Ears, Mr. Lahr shows great empathy for the long-suffering (queer) spouse of the fabulously successful playwright.  Throughout the nineteen fifties, the man who had been by Tennessee Williams’s side was Frank Merlo:  a short stocky Sicilian-American man who knew all the stage hands by their first and last names.  Although he couldn’t type, Tennessee sometimes referred to him as his “secretary.”  When someone asked Frank what he did, his answer was much more direct:  “I sleep with Mr. Williams.”

Something happened to Tennessee Williams after Frank Merlo died of lung cancer at the age of forty one.  Mr. Williams says as much in Memoirs.  Whether this was genuine grief or just an addict’s need to justify his drug use is an open question.  There is no question that after 1962 Tennessee Williams became addicted to uppers, downers and even regular injections from a man called Dr. Feelgood.

And it is here that Mr. Lahr disappoints.  For it is here that his respect for Tennessee Williams morphs into a disdain that borders on contempt.  While it is difficult to justify the actions of a drug addict, Mr. Lahr doesn’t seem to try to understand them. Over and over again Mr. Lahr takes sides against Mr. Williams.

When Tennessee Williams joins forces with Norman Mailer and others to protest the Vietnam War, Mr. Lahr dismisses it as “radical chic.”

When Mr. Williams comes out on the David Frost show–just months after the Stonewall riots–Mr. Lahr dismisses it as “coy.”

The world Tennessee Williams inhabited in the nineteen sixties also seems to appall Mr. Lahr.  He dismisses the legendary off-off Broadway production of “Small Craft Warnings” in a few lines.  And even erroneously (and offensively) refers to the star, Candy Darling, as a “drag queen.”

Near the end of the book, Mr. Lahr even throws in a gratuitously vicious Gore Vidal quote:  “…I don’t think he (Tennessee Williams) loved anybody, but himself.”

But in the end it would be Mr. Williams who summed it up best:  “We’re all sentenced to solitary confinement in our own skins, for life.”

John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is published by Norton.

UPDATE 10/15/14:  Today it was announced Tennessee Williams:  Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is a finalist for the National Book Award.

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