Tennessee Williams may have had great disdain for St. Louis, but the city would have a profound impact on the literary giant – including his name. His childhood memories here probably justified his complicated relationship with our city – a troubled home life, a low-level clerical job at a shoe company, dropping out of Mizzou and Washington University and a stay at Barnes’ psych ward.
But all of his St. Louis’ drama would eventually serve as a catalyst for Williams’ famed works throughout his life.
Born in Mississippi a century ago on March 26, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams would arrive in St. Louis with his family in 1918 when he was seven years old. St. Louis would be his home for more than 20 years. When asked why he moved to New Orleans he is reported to have said “St. Louis.”
During his time here, St. Louis was one of the five largest cities in America. St. Louis would afford Williams exposure to a wealth of cultural attractions. He would attend the Muny Opera, see films at St. Louis’ many opulent movie theatres (including the Tivoli) and go to the Zoo and the Jewel Box in Forest Park with his sister. Williams would attend both Soldan and University City High Schools. During this time he formally adopted the name Tennessee, possibly the result of kidding by classmates for his heavy southern drawl.
In 1927, at age 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” A year later, he published “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales. During the mid 1930’s, he was part of several local acting groups – the Webster Grove’s theatre guild and the St. Louis Mummers.
Later in life, Williams would acknowledge that his formative years here, from age 7 to 26, profoundly shaped his writing. It’s where he came to know the female psyche through his Southern belle mother, Edwina, and beloved sister, Rose, and where he came to idealize and hate the male persona embodied in his bully father, Cornelius. St. Louis would indeed be the semi-autobiographical inspiration for his most acclaimed work.
In 1944, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie had a successful run in Chicago and then opened on Broadway. This “memory play” contained several aspects of his family life in St. Louis. Amanda was modeled after his mother, but the other main characters were also people from his real life. The shy, handicapped Laura is William’s sister, Rose, and her loving, protective older brother is Williams himself. As one source says, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.” Many consider this play to be his finest and it received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award when it opened on Broadway.
St. Louis also must have inspired elements in Street Car Named Desire – given his exposure to St. Louis’ famous street car system and the lead character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is reported to be loosely based upon one of William’s co-worker’s at a St. Louis shoe factory.
Williams was outed by Time Magazine in the 1950s. During his life, he battled depression and alcoholism. His long time partner Frank Merlo died in 1961 from lung cancer, devastating Williams leading to a stay in 1969 in Barnes Hospital’s psych ward. He discussed his homosexuality openly on television and in print in the 1970s. He released his autobiography Memoirs in 1975.
Tennessee Williams was the victim of a gay-bashing in January 1979 in Key West, being beaten by five teenaged boys, but was not seriously injured. Some of his literary critics spoke ill of the “excesses” present in his work, but these were, for the most part, merely attacks on Williams’ sexuality.
The circumstances surrounding Williams’ death in 1983 in New York City at the age of 71 continue to be debate – did he choke or die of drug and alcohol abuse, or a sad combination of all three.
At his brother Dakin’s insistence, Williams’ body was interred in St. Louis’ Calvary Cemetery. Williams had long told his friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as Hart Crane, a poet he considered to be one of his most significant influences.
Williams’ would have some pretty impressive neighbors in St. Louis who would also have great international literary fame – T.S. Elliot (rumored to have been bi-sexual), William Burroughs (gay), Josephine Baker (bi-sexual) Sarah Teasdale and Kate Chopin (both of which have strong lesbian themes in their works).
Today, St. Louis is home to many Williams’ landmarks:
- Glass Menagerie Apartment, 4633 Westminster Place
- Apartment, #5 South Taylor
- Eugene Field Elementary School
- Soldan and University City High Schools
- Grave at Calvary Cemetery
- Star on St. Louis’ Walk of Fame on Delmar
BY: STEVEN BRAWLEY