Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tenny Dearest

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, from about 1985.

The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of
Tennessee Williams
by Donald Spoto
Little, Brown & Company, $19.95
410 pp

Tennessee: Cry of the Heart
by Dotson Rader
Doubleday, $16.95
348 pp.

I know this is going to sound odd, but Tennessee Williams really didn’t live that interesting a life. Oh, his life should have been interesting: he became rich and famous doing just what he wanted to do, writing plays that first-rate actors and actresses were eager to perform; he had many loyal and loving friends; pretty boys by the score flung themselves into his bed. That should be an interesting life to live, though not necessarily an eventful one once you’ve settled into it. It might, however, be rich in anecdote – who said what to whom, who went to bed with whom, who stomped out of the room in a huff – and therefore worth writing about. And in fact several books have been written about that life, including Williams’s own Memoirs, which was a best-seller so it must have been interesting, right?

But I beg to differ. Williams’s early life might legitimately concern us because of the role it was to play in his work, most famously in The Glass Menagerie, and because of the poor-boy-makes-good aspect of his climb to fame and fortune and recognition as arguably America’s greatest playwright. Once he became famous, however, he became much less interesting, for his life became divided between the hard work of producing his plays on one hand, and drug/booze-induced oblivion on the other. Much of the 1960s and 1970s he spent falling down, knocking things over, and passing out. This, of course, is precisely why his memoirs sold: the National Enquirer appeal of dropping all those names – Brando! Garbo! Bankhead! Davis! Taylor! – and of the horror stories of other names dropped – Seconal! Nembutal! Valium! Doriden! – along with the pursuit of what Gore Vidal calls “all those interchangeable pieces of trade.” What counted for America was that a famous homo even pretended to tell all; in fact, he told very little, but America is still so easy to shock. All Tennessee Williams had to do was acknowledge in print that he was ‘that way’, tell a few very mild stories, and America went all shivery inside.

But the memoirs are oddly flat. This is partly because the trademark combination of colloquialism and lyricism which animates the dialogue of his plays does not carry over into his prose. When speaking in his own voice Williams reminds me mostly of the style of someone like Billy Graham. (Random example: “Jack Warner may have dropped his fork but Frank didn’t blink an eye as he continued to stare steadily at the old tyrant.”) As a result the anecdotes he does tell are less effective than they should be. And there aren’t that many anecdotes. It has been reported that the manuscript was cut in half for publication; it could and should have been cut more. Too much of it consists of chatty rambling like: “I think I like Rex Reed. From the moment we met, we could talk to each other but I suppose I talked too much when he interviewed me for Esquire.

Now we have two new books on Williams, and I’m still puzzled. Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers is a good place to start if you’ve read nothing else about Williams except his memoirs: Spoto (author of a recent biography of Alfred Hitchcock) has interviewed lots of people, gone through Williams’s papers, and “consulted most of” the secondary literature. Occasionally he comes up with something startling, such as Williams’s friendship, in his shoe-factory days in St. Louis, with a fellow named Stanley Kowalksi (p. 44). But for the most part the book is strangely superficial: Spoto rushes breathlessly along, quoting a critic here and a friend there but never touching down long enough to let us have a close look at anything. What happened to all that research?

And there are odd gaps. In their biography, published just after Williams’s death, Shepherd Mead and Dakin Williams tell of a pseudonymous friend’s attempt to get Williams off the pills by locking him away in a house outside Los Angeles. Williams also alludes to this in his memoirs: he claims William Inge was behind it! Spoto has no mention of it at all that I could find, which makes me wonder what else has been left out. An adequate – let alone definitive – biography of Tennessee Williams has yet to be written.

For the National Enquirer crowd, there is Dotson Rader’s Tennessee: Cry of the Heart. I first encountered Rader’s work in the late 1960s, when he contributed to Evergreen Review. In those days he seemed to be a sort of poor man’s John Rechy, with New Left tendencies: a studly youth rambles around the country bestowing his favors on many a lowly queer and from time to time making revolutionary noises. Some of his ambiguously autobiographical pieces were later collected as fiction. Now Rader has shared with us his memories of Tennessee Williams – the backroom bars, the antiwar demonstrations, the shots from Dr. Feelgood, the falling down, the passing out – and I can’t help wondering how much of this, too, should be read as fiction. Rader says he took many notes during his friendship with Williams, with Williams’s knowledge and approval, and indeed toward the end of the book we are treated to long disquisitions on life and art by the Great Man. But some of what Williams told Rader was pretty definitely false, like the letter from Eugene O’Neill which Williams quotes at length a couple of times. Gore Vidal, who knew Williams when he received the letter in 1948, says in an article in The New York Review of Books that it was illegible: O’Neill had Parkinson’s disease. But Williams might well have told Rader otherwise, and would have been gladly believed.

Rader also complains that Vidal warned “me against filling Tennessee’s head with a lot of leftist nonsense he had no capacity to understand.” Tennessee was a politically committed man of the left,” Rader sniffs (p. 36). But later, when he recalls Williams prattling about Cuba to Dave Dellinger, he notes: “He knew about as much about Cuba as he knew about Upper Volta, about which he knew absolutely nothing” (p. 97); and later still, when Williams showed up for a 1972 Remember The War benefit wearing a Confederate uniform and seemed incapable of understanding the issues involved, “I was beginning to believe that perhaps Gore Vidal had been right about Tennessee’s political sophistication” (p. 106). A better writer might have played these scenes for comedy, but Rader is too glumly earnest to have a sense of humor.

I should mention Rader’s misogyny. He tells with relish of the time Tennessee arrived at his New Orleans apartment house to find that the young companion he had left in charge had taken on some lesbians as tenants. “Out, dykes!” Williams had screamed, complaining later that the boy had “allowed the place to be overrun with muff-divers”. If true, this story virtually destroys my esteem for Williams as a human being. Why do so many faggots hate lesbians? (And how did Williams know the women were lesbians anyhow? Did they leave their Harleys parked in the vestibule?) Rader also jeers that Tennessee’s mother (born 1884) “was anything but a liberated woman, disliking even the mention of sex and, when she engaged in it with her husband, she didn’t lie back and think of England, she screamed” (p. 63). It does not occur to Rader that some fault may have lain with Tennessee’s father, an abusive alcoholic who may have molested his daughter Rose; no, Rader is all sympathy for Big Daddy Cornelius, married to a “harpy.”

In addition, Rader can barely write English. He thinks that one “peddles” a bicycle down the street, that a main reason is a “principle” reason, that a person who hates to do something is “loathe” to do it, and he think that to perform fellatio on someone is to “fellatiate” him (I swear! page 80). When this book comes out in paperback, it will make good trash reading on the beach next summer. But it should on no account be taken seriously.

But do I think you should read Spoto’s book instead? No. Read Williams, and I don’t mean the Memoirs. Before I wrote this review I read all seven volumes of his collected plays, and I was dazzled, even by much of his uneven later work. The dialogue is as limber and sharp as his memoirs are sluggish and dull. The subject matter is often sensational, true, but there is often comedy as outrageous as the Grand Guignol. Williams’s life, especially his later life, was a drag. His art never is.