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Memoirs by Tennessee Williams

Memoirs (1975)

by Tennessee Williams

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Some detergent flowed through these pages, but it's still fun to see his perspective on what happened. Williams is an icon. He went where no [other] 'man' had gone before. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Tennessee Williams


New Directions, Paperback [2006].

8vo. xix+274 pp. Foreword by TW [xv-xix]. Introduction by John Waters [ix-xiv]. Afterword by Allean Hale [pp. 253-254]. Illustrated with 144 photographs.

First published by Doubleday, 1975.
First published in paperback by New Directions, 2006.


Introduction by John Waters
Foreword by Tennessee Williams


Afterword by Allean Hale
List of Illustrations


This book comes together with an impressive amount of notoriety. For once, it is justified.

To put the matter shortly and bluntly, these memoirs may be recommended only to die-hard fans of Tennessee Williams. There is precious little in them about the man and the artist that is worth knowing. His plays, essays and short stories are infinitely more revealing in every aspect. Please note also that both the book and the following "review" are not recommended for minors due to their highly explicit sexual content. That settled, let's have a look inside - and outside - the book.

To begin with, Memoirs is of certain historical significance. It is the only non-fiction book Tennessee wrote during his life with the intention of publication. There is, of course, the volume with his collected essays, Where I Live, first published in 1978, but these were written over a period of more than 30 years (and were not collected in book form by the author). Since Tennessee's death in 1983, a number of similar books have appeared - interviews, notebooks, two volumes with letters - but none of them has the authority of the memoirs. Unfortunately, this is no guarantee for value.

The major problem with the book is what outraged the critics, if not the public, when it was first published. As one critic, the author of the Afterword in this edition, wrote at the time: "Now comes Tennessee Williams's Memoirs, and if he has not exactly opened his heart, he has opened his fly." Even when, by a kind of exception, sex is not the main topic, Tennessee deals almost exclusively with facts. Trivial or not, incidents or accidents, but facts all the same. These are so much less revealing than thoughts, feelings, ideas. To Tennessee's credit, he makes no bones about that and actually warns us as early as the Foreword:

In the course of the book I will talk a great deal about love and much of the talk will be about carnal as well as spiritual love. I have had, for a man so nearly destroyed so often, a remarkably fortunate life which has contained a great many moments of joy, both pure and impure.

That Tennessee has opened his fly is most true, and you are welcome to have a look inside. I am not going to play the prude and claim that I didn't enjoy his naughty stories. I sure did. They are vastly entertaining. The "love-bug" seems to have bitten Tennessee quite so often, starting from his teens and never really stopping. It's true that in his later years - and also, thankfully, in the second half of the book - the intensity is somewhat diminished, but even in his sixties he seems to have been nearly insatiable. So here is the first question in our "Naughty Quiz about Tennessee":

How many sexual relationships with women did Tennessee Williams have?
a) 0
b) 1
c) 2
d) 4

Tough, is it? There's no way of knowing the right answer to this earth-shaking question if you haven't read Memoirs. Let me tell you that the correct answer is b). She was "a genuine nympho", disguised here under the code name "Sally", and you will get a magnificently detailed description of Tom's first orgasm with her. It was a stormy and passionate romance. But it finally ended. Tom - for this was long before he became Tennessee - tried to date other girls but it didn't work. His only earlier intimate relationship with a girl, one with the lovely name of Hazel, was hopelessly platonic. It never came further than her "delicious shoulders", Tom's putting his hand around them and - "I "came" in my white flannels". Too bad.

So he switched to boys and then there was no stopping, let alone turning back. The reader is not spared anything from Tennessee's stupendous promiscuity: countless one-night stands, or rather one-night lays, with sailors, hustlers, acquaintances, whomever; some of these were extended to many nights but this didn't change their ephemeral nature. If you have any questions whatsoever about "crabs" and "clap", when "to contemplate no intimacy beyond the tactile" and when to avoid penetration, how to "worship the little god" on the beach and other similar issues, Tennessee Williams, a Professor Emeritus of Sexology, will enlighten you with his penetrating observations rooted in vast experience and extensive research.

I must also say I am duly impressed with Tennessee's astonishing virility. I find it hard to believe that he "screwed" some guy seven times for one night. So, indeed, does he, but since he did note it in his diary, it must have happened. Small wonder that at one place the author should write something like this:

Is it possible to be a dirty old man in your middle thirties? I seem to be giving that impression.

To Tennessee's credit, it should be noted that, with very few coarse exceptions, all this sex stuff is stylishly and amusingly written. Certainly I don't - Heaven forbid! - have any moral objections against it. All the same, it is completely irrelevant and eminently forgettable. The author appears to have recognised this:

I think it is only in the case of Brecht that a man's politics, if the man is an artist, are of particular importance in his work; his degrees of talent and humanity are what count. I also feel that an artist's sexual predilections or deviations are not usually pertinent to the value of his work. Of interest, certainly. Only a homosexual could have written Remembrance of Things Past.

Quite true. While reading Memoirs, I often had to put the book down and ask the obvious question. If Tennessee had so much sex, when on earth did he find the time to write so many plays and stories? The moral is pretty obvious. The role of sex is exaggerated out of any proportion.

Among so much naughty trivia, all of it monumentally unimportant, it is very hard to draw any relevant conclusions about Tennessee's personality. Somewhat more revealing are the accounts, again extensive, of his long-term relationships. These were much more than sex, of course, but they probably shared the same major causes - loneliness, insecurity, vanity - as the one-night adventures. And they are great fun, of course. One of these lovers, disguised as Santo, was indeed nearly a saint. He was in the delightful habit of getting drunk and trying to run Tennessee over with his own Pontiac.

A great deal of space is dedicated to what was by far the longest romance in Tennessee's life, his relationship with Frank Merlo, a Sicilian known also as "the Little Horse". Well, I have to say that, in my appallingly personal opinion, "Frankie" (there is a full-page photo of him) is far less handsome than most horses, but that's just me. Anyway, Tennessee and "the Horse" were together for some 14 years. Indifference and infidelities finally proved too much and they broke. Shortly afterwards Frankie, though still only 40, died of cancer. This is one of the most poignant passages in the book.

Even if we assume that sex and sexuality - homo-, hetero-, bi-, whatever you like - is of paramount importance for a writer's work, the least I should like to know are the details of the act itself. Especially in the case of homosexuality in former times (in this case 1940s to 1960s), I would be curious to know how public a secret it was. On this topic Tennessee is curiously silent. There is, I think, only one place where he briefly alludes to the problem. It seems that many people invited the dramatist to parties only on the condition that Frankie would not accompany him. The legendary Jack Warner made the mistake to have them both. "What do you do, young man?", asked the Great Man. Frankie replied in loud and clear voice: "I sleep with Mr. Williams." The Little Horse did have balls!

So Tennessee's homosexuality, including his unbelievable promiscuity, must have been a public secret long before Memoirs was first published. Did he have problems with prejudice in this respect? In the theatre circles or out of them? Did this colour the critical response to his plays? Or the attitude of the audience? Tennessee mentions nothing about any of these questions.

Even when he thankfully leaves the sexual matters aside, Tennessee continues to deal with little else but gossip. The best that can be said is that he is perfectly honest with his readers. I, for one, completely agree that the lack of discussion of his plays is not among the book's faults.

Of course, I could devote this whole book to a discussion of the art of drama, but wouldn't that be a bore?

It would bore me to extinction, I'm afraid, and it would be a very, very short book, about three sentences to the page with extremely wide margins. The plays speak for themselves.

Well, no, Tennessee, it wouldn't be a bore at all. But yes, you have already done it in your essays. And you are right: the plays do speak for themselves. What they say, that's for the reader to decide personally. And what is obscure in them, Tennessee could not clarify because I don't think he ever was deliberately obscure.

There is, in fact, a great deal about his plays in the book, at least about many of the most important ones. But it is almost exclusively trivia about stage productions: casting, rehearsals, reception, things like that. Very occasionally, he does say something less painfully prosaic, but, again, it's nothing you can't read in his essays, and better written at that. When he says that his life story is more important than his career, and that's why he writes mostly about the former in this book, Tennessee is completely wrong. Neither his career nor his life is of any importance. What really matters in his oeuvre. And this is so personal and intimate as to make any autobiographical writing valueless.

In his essays, especially in "The Timeless World of a Play", Tennessee has written very perceptively about the elusive aims of drama, or indeed art in general. The arrest of time and the stripping of all triviality until the essence of our existence, the core of truth, if any, is revealed: this is what art should aspire to. Memoirs does precisely the opposite. It obscures the truth by dressing it in the stinking garments of small talk. We have more than enough of that around us. Surely there is no need to fill books with it.

Most of what you can learn about Tennessee here is sheer trivia. For instance, that The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961) with Vivien Leigh was "a poem" and his favourite among all movies based on his work, or that The Unsatisfactory Supper is among his favourite one-act plays. Among the more touching moments is a wonderful tribute to Vivien who once gave a party to which she invited Frankie. It was, as it turned out, his last time out.

Vivien centered the whole dinner party around him with an intuitive sympathy that will always endear her memory to me. She did it without seeming to do it... Having known madness, she knew how it was to be drawing close to death.

Tennessee describes vividly his "stoned age", most of the 1960s, when vast amounts of drugs and drink kept him perpetually stoned or drunk, often both. He finally ended in a psychiatric hospital - "Queen's Division of Friggins' Violent Ward" (he claims he didn't make up the name) - a harrowing place par excellence. But it's difficult to say what were the reasons for this nearly fatal degradation and the radical change in his writing, although at least one cause - the break-up with Frankie and his death - cannot be doubted. At one place Tennessee even claims that he has been been doing most of his writing under the influence of drugs ever since 1955...

Tennessee met many famous people during his life but his accounts of them are, for the most part, embarrassingly superficial. Ernest Hemingway and Lenny Bernstein are especially dismal examples; surely they must have said or done something more interesting than what Tennessee reports. He raves about Anna Magnani, how marvellously unconventional and honest she was, but his description of the typical day they spent together in Rome sounds awfully conventional. The story how Marlon Brando was sent by Kazan, did a fabulous reading and turned out to be the perfect Stanley Kowalski is vastly riveting (for the record, they didn't have sex, Marlon slept on the floor), but all Tennessee says about him as an actor is that he was "outstanding" and "better than Olivier". The former is obvious, the latter is nonsense - not because Olivier is better than Brando, but because such comparisons are plain stupid.

It is indeed seldom that one stumbles on something thought-provoking. One fascinating example is Tennessee's casual remark that he had a "funny heart" that seemed to "thrive on punishment". He referred to a physical condition here - one of his many health problems - but one is perhaps allowed to mischievously extend the observation to his mental "heart" as well. It's only in the last few pages, reflecting on old age and death, that Tennessee finally demonstrates the stirring writing he is capable of. Again, however, there is nothing here you can't read in his essays. This includes his foolish hunger for flattery and almost childish vanity as well as his innate pride and dignity. As far as his outlook is concerned, the memoirs give only a very fragmented and incomplete idea.

In a way, the best about this book is the wealth of photographs. There really are 144 of them, but that's because some pages have six or even eight cramped on them. As a result, some photos are little more than blurred visions, but even they usually are of more than passing interest. The choice itself is telling. You won't find a single moment of Tennessee with his father. You will find many with his grandfather, whom he adored, or with his mother, whom he didn't adore but was still very fond of. And there are many photos of his sister, Rose, whom Tennessee all but worshiped - even when she was convinced that she was the Queen of England.

The captions were obviously written by Tennessee, too. Many of them are gems. A photo of his grandfather with a pelican: "His failing eyesight - or his infinite benevolence - made him regard them as beautiful birds." A lovely photo of Tennessee smiling happily: "Drunk and delighted." Under a still from Suddenly Last Summer: "bad film that was very profitable". And so on.

Some photos are more revealing than any words could possible be. Nothing that I have read demonstrates Tennessee's great inner sadness better than one photo taken "at a fiesta in Valencia, Spain, fifteen or twenty years ago." In the background gay - in the old-fashioned sense of the word! - festive lights can be discerned. But there's Tennessee in the foreground, not even a hint of smile on his face and a really inexpressible melancholy in his eyes. It's a shattering photograph.

Similarly affecting is one very intimate moment with Claire Bloom, "exhausted in her dressing room after [a 1974] opening of Streetcar in London." Is this the same Claire Bloom who played Lady Anne against Laurence Olivier's Richard III some twenty years earlier? It must be the same woman, even though the haggard looks and the large, dark and tragic eyes bear little resemblance to the frail creature in the Shakespearean tragedy. Those eyes, and the body language, convey the tragedy of both Blanche and Tennessee with rare eloquence.

(Incidentally, Luchino Visconti did call the playwright "Blanche": a very perceptive nickname indeed. A great photo of them both during the preparation of the Roman production of Streetcar.)

On a more physical level, there are some photos which are startlingly candid about Tennessee's "stoned age". My personal favourite is one with Buffo, his bulldog, who is obviously in a much better possession of his wits. Several other shots show Tennessee, usually at crowded parties but sometimes alone with his typewriter, with that trademark expression on his face which suggests that he is either stoned or drunk - probably both. Riveting photographs.

Among the many stills from movies and theatre productions there are some tantalising items. Camino Real with the young Al Pacino as Kilroy? Now that's quite amazing! Even more so is to see Barbara del Geddes, best known as Miss Ellie Ewing from the soap opera Dallas, as the original Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. Unfortunately, many of these photos are too miniature to allow much appreciation.

Last but not least, it saddens me to report that my favourite photo of Tennessee Williams is not reprinted here. What's worse, I can't even find it on the Web. The only place I've seen it was during the fascinating documentaries on the bonus disc in the special edition of Streetcar on DVD. Probably taken circa 1950, it shows Tennessee leisurely sitting on a chair, cigarette holder in his hand, mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It's a terrific photo. It should have been on the cover instead of this indifferent portrait from the early 1940s.*

New Directions have been Tennessee's main publisher since the late 1940s. They have tried to justify their historical importance - with various success - by including an interesting introduction and a very indifferent afterword.

John Waters is memorably described on the back cover as "director, screenwriter, and raconteur of kitsch and camp". I have never seen any of his movies, but their titles are memorable: "Pink Flamingos", "Female Trouble", "Polyester", "Cry Baby", "Serial Mom", "Cecil B. Demented", "A Dirty Shame". So, indeed, is the title of his own memoirs: Shock Value. Mr Waters' introduction is a charmingly naughty piece called "Mr. Williams Saved My Life". Here are two amusing passages:

Tennessee Williams saved my life. As a twelve-year-old boy in suburban Baltimore, I would look up his name in the card catalogue at the library and it would read "see Librarian". I wanted these "see Librarian" books - and I wanted them now - but in the late 1950s (and sadly even today), there was no way that a warped adolescent like myself could get his hands on one. But I soon figured out that the "see Librarian" books were on a special shelf behind the counter. So when the kindly librarian was helping the "normal" kids with their book reports, I snuck behind the checkout desk and stole the first book I ever wanted to possess on my own. One Arm read the forbidden cover, a short story collection by Tennessee Williams that I later found out had been only available in an expensive limited edition, sold under the counter in "special" bookshops before New Directions released the hardback version in 1954.

[By the way, at one place Tennessee does mention these stealthy editions of his short stories. This fits well with their nature, far more explicit than anything in his plays. Yet, if Mr Waters is to be believed, accessible editions were published as early as the middle 1950s.]

Years later, Tennessee Williams saved my life again. The first time I went to a gay bar I was seventeen years old. It was called The Hut and it was in Washington, DC. Some referred to it as The Chicken Hut, and it was filled with early 1960s gay men in fluffy sweaters who cruised each other by calling table-to-table on phones provided by the bar. "I may be queer but I ain't this," I remember thinking. Still reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote, I knew he would understand my dilemma. Tennessee never seemed "gayly correct" even then, and sexual ambiguity and confusion were always made appealing and exciting in his work.

Cute fellow, this John Waters, isn't he?

In contrast, the Afterword by the eminent TW scholar Allean Hale, apart from its opening paragraph which quotes the gripping sentence about the heart and the fly I mentioned in the beginning, is short and worthless. It's titled "Few Notes and Corrections" and it performs the exceptionally important task of putting straight some wrong years and identifying several people whom Tennessee preferred to disguise at the time. Not really worth reading.

Is the book on the whole worth reading? Yes, certainly, provided that you are fan of Tennessee Williams and don't expect anything more than light entertainment. If you hope to find anything as fine as his plays, essays or short stories, you probably hope in vain. Of course it's great fun to read how "things went gaily" in those days. But as a spiritual self-portrait of the author, I am afraid the book is almost entirely false. Unless we assume that the rest of his voluminous writings is complete sham.

*[Edit: November 2018.] It is on the cover of John Lahr's biography. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jul 26, 2012 |
I absolutely loved this memoir. The great thing about a memoir, you can talk about anything you want and anything you feel was important in your life. To Tennessee his personal life was what shaped him as a writer. I would cry when he talked about the mental illness his sister and mother had, and then I would laugh when he talked about all of the sexual positions he tried last night with the young prostitute. I definately have a deeper appreciation and understanding of his writing. ( )
  sharkgirl2000 | Sep 23, 2009 |
Since Williams' Memoirs are the first and only memoirs I have ever read, I don't know how they hold up as memoirs. However, I do know that I fully enjoyed reading them! The sordid tales of his life were beyond interesting to me. I especially enjoyed the one in which a stranger came up to him on the street and shouted, "Hey! You gave me crabs last night!" How wild!

While I did enjoy the stories and the book as a whole, it was a little hard to connect everything together sometimes. Often times, I would begin to see a timeline emerge and all of a sudden he would throw in a non sequitor from left field. ( )
1 vote likelectriceels | Mar 2, 2008 |
A tell-all book that doesn't.

Not even much insight in how and why he wrote his plays.

Pass on it. ( )
  jmatson | Jan 9, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811216691, Paperback)

For the "old crocodile," as Williams called himself late in life, the past was always present, and so it is with his continual shifting and intermingling of times, places, and memories as he weaves this story.

When Memoirs was first published in 1975, it created quite a bit of turbulence in the mediathough long self-identified as a gay man, Williams' candor about his love life, sexual encounters, and drug use was found shocking in and of itself, and such revelations by America's greatest living playwright were called "a raw display of private life" by The New York Times Book Review. As it turns out, thirty years later, Williams' look back at his life is not quite so scandalous as it once seemed; he recalls his childhood in Mississippi and St. Louis, his prolonged struggle as a "starving artist," the "overnight" success of The Glass Menagerie in 1945, the death of his long-time companion Frank Merlo in 1962, and his confinement to a psychiatric ward in 1969 and subsequent recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, all with the same directness, compassion, and insight that epitomize his plays.

And, of course, Memoirs is filled with Williams' amazing friends from the worlds of stage, screen, and literature as heoften hilariously, sometimes fondly, sometimes notremembers them: Laurette Taylor, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, Carson McCullers, Anna Magnani, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and Tallulah Bankhead to name a few. And now film director John Waters, well acquainted with shocking the American public, has written an introduction that gives some perspective on the various reactions to Tennessee's Memoirs, while also paying tribute to a fellow artist who inspired many with his integrity and endurance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:46 -0400)

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