Born on March 26, 1911, Tennessee Williams is best known for having written such classic plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. He also hobnobbed with presidents, worked on a film that shocked the censors, and got to witness Marlon Brando’s plumbing skills firsthand.
1. His Given Name Wasn't Tennessee.
Thomas Lanier Williams III, the second child of Cornelius and Edwina Williams, was born in Columbus, Mississippi’s Episcopal rectory. At some point in 1938 or 1939, the young author—who’d previously been content to write under his given name—started calling himself “Tennessee.” Nobody knows why he chose this particular alias. In an autobiographical essay, Williams said that the nom de plume was a tribute to his ancestors who had “fought the Indians for Tennessee.” But he told one interviewer that “Tennessee Williams” originated as a nickname he’d received at the University of Iowa, his alma mater. “The fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a southern state with a long name. And when they couldn’t think of Mississippi, they settled on Tennessee,” he said. “That was all right with me, so when it stuck, I changed it permanently.”
2. Tennessee Williams's First Professional Work Was About a Murderous Egyptian Ruler.
Titled “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” this short story appeared in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales, a widely-read pulp magazine. The plot focuses on an Egyptian monarch who may or may not have actually existed.
According to ancient historians, Egypt’s sixth dynasty ended with the reign of Queen Nitocris. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that she was the successor of her late brother, who ruled the land before his subjects executed him. “Bent on avenging his death,” Herodotus wrote, “she devised a cunning scheme by which she destroyed a vast number of Egyptians.” Her plan would have done George R.R. Martin proud—Nitocris built a large underground chamber, invited everyone who’d plotted against her brother to come inside for a banquet, and then drowned them all by flooding the room with water from the Nile before killing herself in a room of hot ash.
Some modern experts aren’t convinced that Nitocris was a real person, but there’s no denying the narrative appeal of the tale. It certainly wasn’t lost on Williams, whose “Vengeance of Nitocris” is a dramatic re-telling of the famed mass-drowning.
Weird Tales purchased the story from a 16-year-old Williams for $35 (nearly $500 in today’s currency). In a 1959 article in The New York Times, the playwright reminisced about his print debut. “[If] you’re well-acquainted with my writings since then, I don’t have to tell you that it set the keynote for most of the work that has followed,” he said.
3. Before Making It Big in The World Of Theatre, Tennessee Williams Worked For A Shoe Company.
Williams and his family relocated to St. Louis in 1918. Eleven years later, the future playwright enrolled at the University of Missouri, where he briefly studied journalism. Then, in 1932, Williams’s education came to an abrupt halt when his parents forced him to leave school and take a job at the International Shoe Company, his father’s workplace. Earning a meager $65 per month, Williams was tasked with lugging crates through the city, dusting countless shoes, and putting tedious lists together. He hated it.
In 1939, long after he'd left the position, he claimed to be 25 years old—even though he was really 28—in order to enter an under-25s contest. As far as Williams was concerned, the three years he’d spent at the company were “dead” years that didn’t count.
4. In 1937, Tennessee Williams Entered A Playwriting Contest—And Lost.
In the fall of 1936, Williams joined the student body of Washington University in St. Louis. While there, he took part in the campus’s annual playwriting contest. His submission was a dark, politically-charged comedy called Me, Vashya. The story of a major arms dealer with severe marital problems, Me, Vashya failed to impress the judges, who gave it the fourth-place slot in their rankings. “It was a terrible shock and humiliation,” Williams later said. “It was a crushing blow to me.” Normally shy and reserved, the young writer “surprised himself” by bursting into a professor’s office to scream about the verdict.
Williams left Washington University for the University of Iowa in 1937, and he finally graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1938—the same year a radio adaptation of Me, Vashya hit airways.
The play was never performed theatrically during its author’s lifetime. However, in 2004, the Performing Arts Department at Washington University hosted the show’s world premiere as the main attraction of a Tennessee Williams symposium.
5. Tennessee Williams Once Went Skeet-Shooting With JFK.
Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, performed in 1935, was the first Tennessee Williams play that was ever staged (not counting a couple of plays produced for competition). A decade later, he established himself as one of America’s most promising—and critically-acclaimed—dramatists with The Glass Menagerie’s Broadway premiere.
His name was also getting to be well-known around Hollywood. The list of screenplays he helped pen includes Suddenly, Last Summer, a 1959 mystery flick. Based on Williams’s one-act play of the same name, its script was co-written by Gore Vidal.
While taking a break from their writing duties, the collaborators visited Palm Beach, Florida to meet up with two of Vidal’s acquaintances: John and Jackie Kennedy. Together, the four partook in some target-shooting, a sport at which Williams was apparently far more adept than JFK. Between gunshots, Williams made an approving comment to Vidal about the shapeliness of Mr. Kennedy’s rear end. The kind words were relayed to the Massachusetts Senator, who—as Vidal put it—“beamed.” Eying the New England couple, Williams quipped, “They’ll never elect those two. They are much too attractive for the American people.”
6. BABY DOLL (1956), A FILM THAT WILLIAMS CO-WROTE, WAS CONDEMNED BY THE CATHOLIC LEGION OF DECENCY.
Time magazine’s contemporary review of this movie cited it as “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” Based on Williams’s 1946 one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Baby Doll is about a gorgeous blonde teenager whose husband has reluctantly agreed to hold off on consummating their relationship until her 20th birthday. Meanwhile, her spouse’s chief business rival—a suave ladies’ man played by Eli Wallach in his cinematic debut—hatches a plan to seduce the young virgin himself.
Though it contains no nudity and has a synopsis which might seem downright tame by today’s standards, Baby Doll’s sexually-charged plot sparked a major public outcry back in 1956—particularly in Catholic circles. Cardinal Francis Spellman, then the head of New York’s Archdiocese, ascended the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and instructed his fellow Catholics to abstain from seeing it “under pain of sin.”
“The revolting theme of this picture,” Spellman declared, “and the brazen advertising promoting it constitute a contemptuous defiance of the natural law.”
Baby Doll also took some heat from the Legion of Decency, a Catholic-run film evaluation group that rated the movie “C”—for “condemned.” Accordingly, Catholic religious protestors started picketing theaters that screened the movie and a few such establishments even received bomb threats.
Despite the controversy, Baby Doll still went on to enjoy some moderate success at the box office and was nominated for four Academy Awards; Wallach took home a BAFTA prize for “Most Promising Newcomer to Film.”
7. When the U.S. State Department Refused to Grant Arthur Miller a Passport, Tennessee Williams Spoke On His Colleague’s Behalf.
When Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened at the National Theatre of Belgium on March 9, 1954, the playwright had to miss it because the U.S. State Department rejected his application for a passport. As an agency spokesman explained, Miller’s rejection was due to “regulations denying passports to persons believed to be supporting the Communist movement.”
This didn’t sit well with Williams, who had long admired Miller and wasted little time in contacting the State Department to voice his displeasure. “I am in a position to tell you,” Williams wrote, “that Mr. Miller and his work occupy the very highest critical and popular position in the esteem of Western Europe, and this action can only serve to implement the Communist propaganda, which holds that our country is persecuting its finest artists and renouncing the principles of freedom on which our ancestors founded it … I have seen all his theatrical works. Not one of them contains anything but the most profound human sympathy and nobility of spirit that American theatre has shown in our time and perhaps any time before.”
8. Marlon Brando Fixed The Author’s Plumbing When He Auditioned For The Lead In A Streetcar Named Desire.
Brando famously originated the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway in 1947. He then immortalized this performance in the show’s 1951 movie adaptation, which landed the performer his first-ever Academy Award nomination. Before he could audition for the role, Brando—then an unknown stage actor—had to hitchhike over to a cottage that Tennessee Williams was renting in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Ultimately, the young hopeful arrived four or five days after the playwright had been told to expect him.
Once Brando got there, he got straight to work—but not on the script. “I had a houseful of people, the plumbing was flooded, and someone had blown the light fuse,” Williams revealed in his memoirs. “Someone said a kid named Brando was down on the beach and looked good. He arrived at dusk, wearing Levi’s, took one look at the confusion around him, and set to work. First he stuck his hand into the overflowing toilet bowl and unclogged the drain, then he tackled the fuses. Within an hour, everything worked. You’d think he had spent his entire antecedent life repairing drains. Then he read the script aloud, just as he played it. It was the most magnificent reading I ever heard, and he had the part [of Stanley Kowalski] immediately.”
9. Tennessee Williams Really Hated the Film Version of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
The second Williams play to win a Pulitzer Prize (Streetcar was the first), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof also formed the basis of a critically-acclaimed movie adaptation. Released in 1958, it was one of the highest-grossing films of the year and received six Oscar nominations. The picture won over film critics and general audiences en masse, but Williams despised it.
While his original play contains strong homosexual undertones, American censorship rules called for script revisions that downplayed these themes; Williams was unhappy with the tweaks. Right before a showing in Florida, the playwright approached a crowd of cinema-goers who’d lined up outside the theater and said
, “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!!”
10. Late In Life, Williams Acted in One of His Own Plays.
That year, Williams unveiled a new Off-Broadway play called Small Craft Warnings. Set in California, the two-act drama tells the story of some eclectic bar patrons and their preferred watering hole. One character, known simply as “Doc,” is a disgraced physician who must practice illegally after losing his medical license. Hoping to generate some extra publicity, Williams played this part for the first few performances in the original run.
11. He Wanted His Body To Be Thrown Into The Ocean.
Much confusion has arisen over the circumstances of Williams’s death. On February 25, 1983, the legendary storyteller was found dead in his Manhattan hotel suite. Although the official autopsy report claimed that he’d choked to death on a nasal spray bottle cap, this assertion has been contradicted by a few of his close friends—including his assistant Jon Uecker and fellow playwright Larry Myers. The latter has gone on the record as saying that the true cause of Williams’s demise was an acute intolerance to Seconal, a barbiturate drug which he’d taken to using as a sleeping pill.
If this is true, then why did the autopsy report blame a bottle cap? As Annette Saddik, a theatre professor at the New York City College of Technology, explained in a 2010 presentation, the situation was rather delicate. “When [Williams died], John Uecker… was still around and told the Medical Examiner, ‘Look, people are going to think it’s suicide or AIDS or something bizarre and we don’t know what happened,’” Saddik said. “So the Medical Examiner, said, ‘OK, he choked on a bottle cap.’ But really, his body just gave up and the eventual diagnosis was intolerance.”
At any rate, Williams had repeatedly stated that after his death, he wanted an ocean burial. Specifically, the playwright wished to have his body “sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard 12 hours north of Havana so that my bones will rest not far from those of Hart Crane,” a poet who’d committed suicide by leaping off a steamship in that area. However, Tennessee’s brother, Dakin, elected to have him buried in St. Louis.
12. New Orleans Hosts a Major Festival In His Honor Every Year.
Throughout his adult life, Williams considered New Orleans his “spiritual home.” He’d spend many of his most productive years living in the Crescent City, penning his memoirs and the bulk of A Streetcar Named Desire amidst these stints. In 1986, the community decided to pay tribute to this aspect of its cultural heritage by kicking off an annual celebration dubbed the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Coinciding with the playwright’s birthday, it takes place over the course of five days and nights in late March. Events include live readings, theatrical performances, and Williams-themed walking tours. Best of all, participants get to don their best Marlon Brando impression and holler “Stella!” in a Streetcar-themed screaming contest.
This article first ran in 2017.