Tennessee Williams Stories
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
Gore Vidal went to visit Tennessee Williams one day and saw him, thinking hard, sitting behind a keyboard. Asked by Vidal what he was working on, Williams responded, “Streetcar…”
Vidal was astonished. By that time A Streetcar Named Desire was already an established work, having run on Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize. It had become a classic American play. When asked to explain, Williams answered, “I just don’t think I got the ending quite right.”
That story, as paraphrased by Professor Robert Bray, a Williams scholar from the University of Middle Tennessee, was one of many heard at the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Bray added that Williams was always great with characters and plot development but worried about the endings.
Some of the stories about Williams are dark, complex and censorable as was his life. Other stories are pure whimsy. One of my favorites came from an early festival when a friend of Williams recalled that among the playwright’s favorite vacation spots was Key West. On one visit when checking out of a guesthouse he received the bill for his stay. Williams responded that he was low on cash and asked if he could give a check. The owner agreed. The author filled it out, knowing that many people, especially in Key West, would not cash a check signed by Tennessee Williams but save it as a keepsake.
Talk show host Dick Cavett, upon hearing the story, relayed that in the era before credit cards were common many cash- strapped celebrities pulled the same stunt hoping for similar results.
(A quick Cavett story: As a young man, on a warm day in Manhattan he first met Groucho Marx with whom he would eventually become friends. Cavett approached the comedian saying that he was a big fan. “If it gets any hotter,” Marx replied, “I am going to need a big fan myself.”)
Cavett had many Williams stories, including one from when he came to New Orleans to interview, for his talk show, the playwright who frequently stayed in the French Quarter. As part of the production, someone thought it would be a good idea to hire a carriage and have the crew ride along as Williams explained the neighborhood. It turned out the writer was more enamored by the Quarter’s fantasy than its facts. When asked to tell about Madame John’s Legacy, Williams responded that he had never met her; when prompted to talk about the old Mint, Williams answered that he had always wondered what went on in the building.
What went on in Williams’ mind would have been the most bizarre tour filled with passion, despair, dashes of humor and gifted language. Ultimately his endings probably did not matter as much as the route taken to get to them.