CHARLOTTE, N.C., March 28, 2017 – Earlier this week, on March 26, the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, would have celebrated the 106th anniversary of his birth. In tribute, thanks to “Mental Floss,” we offer some interesting trivia about this prolific wordsmith.
Born March 26, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams III was the second child of Cornelius and Edwina Williams. For unknown reasons, Williams began writing under the name “Tennessee” in 1938 or 1939, having used his real name until that time.
According to one account, Williams got the nickname “Tennessee” at the University of Iowa where his classmates could only remember that he was from a southern state with a long name and they couldn’t remember Mississippi.
When his family moved to St. Louis in 1918, Williams began a brief study of journalism 11 years later until he was forced to drop out to take a job at the International Shoe Company making $65 a month. He left the job in 1939 to enter a writing contest for authors under the age of 25.
As Williams saw it, though he was 28 at the time, the three years he spent at the shoe factory were lost, so those “dead” years actually made him only 25 on a productivity scale.
By 1937, Williams was again enrolled in college, this time at Washington University in St. Louis. Here he entered the annual play writing contest submitting a dark comedy titled “Me, Vashya.”
The story centered around an arms dealer with serious marital problems, but it was only judged good enough for fourth-place. Williams was distraught by the outcome, although a radio version of the play was broadcast in 1938. The stage version was mounted for the first time in 2004, though it was never performed theatrically during Williams lifetime.
Other than a couple of competition entries, Williams’ first performance of a stage play was “Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!”
Within a decade, Williams had established himself a one of the top dramatic prospects in the country when he opened “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway.
By 1939, Williams collaborated with Gore Vidal on “Suddenly, Last Summer,” a mystery film based on his one-act play of the same name.
The success of the partnership led to an invitation from Vidal to meet two well-known acquaintances in Florida: John and Jackie Kennedy. Williams later noted “They’ll never elect those two, they are much too attractive for the American people.”
In his 1956 movie “Baby Doll,” Williams stirred a major controversy following a review by “Time” magazine that called it “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.”
The story, based on a one-act play written by Williams in 1947, centered around a blonde teenager whose husband had agreed, with great reservations, not to consummate the marriage until she was 20. In the meantime, the husband’s primary business rival was devising a plan to seduce the teenage bride himself.
The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the picture, but the movie went on to receive four Academy Award nominations.
One of the most famous lines in motion picture history was delivered by Marlon Brando when he shouted the name “Stella” in Williams’ famous drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” during performances on Broadway in 1947.
Perhaps more interesting is that Brando, an unknown stage actor at the time, had to hitchhike to Provincetown, Massachusetts to do some work at Williams’ rental cottage. Brando showed up several days late. But upon his arrival, Williams immediately put the young man to work, and within an hour Brando had unclogged the toilet and replaced all the burned-out light fuses.
Following the completion of those repairs, Williams asked Brando to read the script aloud, later proclaiming that reading to have been the most magnificent reading he had ever heard. Brando was hired on the spot.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” was Williams’ first Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It was followed by a second Pulitzer fo his “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” When Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the 1958 film adaptation of that play, Williams was so upset that censorship rules on the treatment of homosexuality had forced a watering down of his script that he actually stood outside a theater in Florida and pleaded with movie fans to go home.
Williams created more than 70 shows, including a 1972 off-Broadway one-act drama set in California and entitled “Small Craft Warnings.” One of its characters, a disgraced physician known only as “Doc,” was played by Williams himself during the first few performances of the original run.
Tennessee Williams died in 1983, and there was considerable controversy over his death. The official cause of death was said to be due to Williams choking on a nasal spray bottle cap. Later speculation arose that Williams’ death might have been the result of an intolerance for Seconal, which the playwright had been using as a sleeping pill. Other possibilities were said to be suicide or AIDS.
It was Williams’ desire to have his body sewn into a clean white sack and dropped into the sea, 12 hours north of Havana, Cuba, in accordance with his wishes to be as close as possible to the late American poet, Hart Crane. Crane had apparently committed suicide by jumping overboard from a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. But instead of burial at sea, Williams’ body was interred in St. Louis.
Each year on the annual celebration of Tennessee Williams’ birthday, the “Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival” runs for five days at the end of March. The 2017 edition of the festival just concluded on March 26.
While the annual event includes readings and performances of Williams’ plays, its most popular event occurs when competitors do their best to interpret Marlon Brando’s patented Stanley Kowalski primal scream from “Streetcar,” by shouting “Stella” in the streets of New Orleans as crowds cheer them on.
(For a glimpse of the action, see the video below. Excerpts from the 2016 contest start at about 1:30 into the video).
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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