February 8th, 1999
Tennessee Williams
About Tennessee Williams

He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

Born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, Tennessee was the son of a shoe company executive and a Southern belle. Williams described his childhood in Mississippi as happy and carefree. This sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— “because I found life unsatisfactory.” Williams’ early adult years were occupied with attending college at three different universities, a brief stint working at his father’s shoe company, and a move to New Orleans, which began a lifelong love of the city and set the locale for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

Williams spent a number of years traveling throughout the country and trying to write. His first critical acclaim came in 1944 when THE GLASS MENAGERIE opened in Chicago and went to Broadway. It won a the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and, as a film, the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award. At the height of his career in the late 1940s and 1950s, Williams worked with the premier artists of the time, most notably Elia Kazan, the director for stage and screen productions of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and the stage productions of CAMINO REAL, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Kazan also directed Williams’ film BABY DOLL. Like many of his works, BABY DOLL was simultaneously praised and denounced for addressing raw subject matter in a straightforward realistic way.

The 1960s were perhaps the most difficult years for Williams, as he experienced some of his harshest treatment from the press. In 1961 he wrote THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and in 1963, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANY MORE. His plays, which had long received criticism for openly addressing taboo topics, were finding more and more detractors. Around this time, Williams’ longtime companion, Frank Merlo, died of cancer. Williams began to depend more and more on alcohol and drugs and though he continued to write, completing a book of short stories and another play, he was in a downward spiral. In 1969 he was hospitalized by his brother.

After his release from the hospital in the 1970s, Williams wrote plays, a memoir, poems, short stories and a novel. In 1975 he published MEMOIRS, which detailed his life and discussed his addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as his homosexuality. In 1980 Williams wrote CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL, based on the lives of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Only three years later, Tennessee Williams died in a New York City hotel filled with half-finished bottles of wine and pills. It was in this desperation, which Williams had so closely known and so honestly written about, that we can find a great man and an important body of work. His genius was in his honesty and in the perseverance to tell his stories.

  • Yann rochefort

    I loved this peice and i wish i was able to be him

  • Yann rochefort

    This person made good book that are fun to read. This book made huge influence on my freind mathieu giroux. And it also saved him from his dipression. And btw my favorite movie is bruno

  • Yann rochefort

    I am yannrochefort and i am reading the book a streetcar named disire i love this book it is the most intressting book ever and by the way im gay

  • Bob

    this writing has inspired me.

  • AltenirBolinha

    Great! Great! One of the greatest playwright! Always an inspiration for this difficult art, butwonderful.

  • AltenirBolinha

    Great! One of the greatest playwright! Always an inspiration for this difficult art, but wonderful.

  • Jerry Grissom

    I remember when Tennessee died. He lived in an apartment building for artist on 42nd Street, not a hotel. He choked to death on a “childproof asprin bottle cap”. He NY Times had to write a retraction that it wasn’t drug related.

    We still miss him!

  • Justin Newkirk

    i love this book. harry potter is my favorite character eva!!! wizards are the best. i wish i could be one everyday of my life! i cant wait for the new movie. much love to all the other wizard lovers. lets all hop on da train to hogwarts together hav bundles of joy together. we can all beat it together while watching wizard porn.

  • Mufassa

    this guy is a true inspiration to all of us, if it wasn’t for Tennessee i would be lost in this deep dark world. Reading through his works shows me how special he was, and i wish i was his wife, so i could wake up next to him in the morning,

  • Mufassa

    i miss him too

  • esther holder

    yes, great book. i am gay also.

  • ryan gibson

    yes yes yes yes yes amazing woop great book i love it im gay aswell and i love it. gay pride.

  • samantha youngblood

    HE HAS GREAT BOOKS

  • cyrus minab

    I’ve just been watching ’sweet bird of youth’ and I’m impressed by Williams genius and how contemporary he is. Prolific

  • Scary Mary

    Would just like to politely point out that Tennessee Williams was born in 1911, not 1914. ;)

  • Sasan

    He was the best in Summer & Smoke ,,,and Glass Menagerie

  • Ruth C. Felix

    Yesterday I saw a movie version of Tennessee William’s play, “Period of Adjustment”. The characters are wonderfully portrayed, and one of them is the father of a 4 year old son who has problems with the way his wife and her mother are turning his son into “a sissy” by giving him dolls. The wife finally relents and starts to listen to her husband, taking away the child’s doll. Mr. Williams was gay, and if people think that all gays are a negative influence on our children, well, this proves the opposite. Mr. Williams did not use this play to promote gay behavior or to “further the gay cause”, he let the character wanting manhood for his son persevere. That’s true honesty, and the mark of a great human being. He was a gifted writer who understood human nature quite keenly. P.S. I am not gay, I am a 59 year old female with a “straight” 32 year old son.

  • mitchell musso

    i love his books, it makes me feel warm inside when i read baout Blanche

  • charlescooper6389@att.net

    let me just say that tennessee wrote about life not gay life or straight life just life his material addressed the human condition, this includes all of us all of us

  • TASHIA

    I’VE NEVER SEEN THE PROGRAM. I SOMEDAY AMERICAN MASTERS WOULD PUT THIS PROGRAM ON DVD ,AND THAT MY LOCAL PROGRAMING WOULD AIR THIS ON MY NETWORK.

  • brittany

    his books are great and i agree gay pride forever

  • Rudy

    Humans are by nature gay but some indulge in this desire and others find other avenues to please and satisfy themselves. To say that I am gay ( and jhave been hiding in closet) or I am also gay (like you) is futile and silly. Tennessee was great because his natural homosexuality did not bother him. He was a kind man, with a soft and velvet like soul who scorn life for being full of melancholy and when such burden cannot be shaken away then one is forced to take vacations in the mental institutions. I found his greatest work to be The glass Menagerie, the little china we want to pass on to our children but cruel life has other things in store for us. and so we keep our finest china in a glass menagerie, a world of magic.

  • Daniiela

    I just finished reading his book The Glass Menagerie. I finished it in one day… i just couldn’t put the book down. I really really liked the book and am looking forward to reading more of his books. [:

  • Jay

    How has t. williams inspired you? This guy was a great writer and all but come on he was insane, how many of you really really understand the writer, not many. Just because you like t. williams does not mean that you are gay. I mean geez, is that the best that people can come up with?

  • Karen

    He was just awesome. I love all of his work and movies. They just mesmerize me. Soooo Human. There was a marathon on last night of a lot of his movies. I was up all night watching them all. I want to read his memoirs. Haven’t gotten to that yet.

  • nick

    why did you write the glass menagerie ?

  • Hannah Lawrence

    There are several discrepancies in this piece, and I am surprised that PBS would publish such a piece without checking their facts. First of all, Williams was born in 1911, not 1914. And secondly, he was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for his works, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was not awarded a Pulitzer for The Glass Menagerie as stated. In fact, there was no Pulitzer Prize given that year. Check your facts PBS!

  • Z Kylianin

    Completely agree with Hannah Lawrence. This piece is full of inaccurate facts. I’m in high school and am supposed to be doing an essay on Williams’ life. This article confused and disappointed me. Either take down the article, or fix it.

  • Susan

    PBS should be ashamed to publish such an inaccurate biography. Tenesse Williams was born in 1911 not 1914 his father was a traveling shoe salesman not a shoe company executive and his Mother was the daughter of a clergyman finally, he was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for his works, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was not awarded a Pulitzer for The Glass Menagerie as stated.

  • RH

    I wonder is he could have been a better ( or worst ) playwright without the alcohol and drugs in his life???

  • Lynnie

    R.H. — Many of his characters are alcoholics, so the depth of those characters would have been missing had he not had alcohol problems himself. Sometimes it is painful to be creative. That’s why so many musicians and artists abuse drugs or alcohol. I don’t think he would have been a worse or better playwright without the alcohol. His work would surely have been different, though.

  • Benco

    A Streetcar Named Desire is pretty much boscrey

  • Pat

    The author of the article above did an excellent job portraying the man and his work. Williams touched many taboo subjects–not only homosexuality, and I’m thrilled at the plays the author of the article chose to mention. Williams short stories are awesome to–raw and honest. I think Williams really had a handle on the true nature of humanity.

  • andrew

    I read A Streetcar Named Desire for my college theater class. It made Brando a name to be known. And for good reason. Stanley Kowalski, is as human as the next guy. the characters are dynamic and the atmosphere unique. It reminds me of some of quetin tarantino’s stuff.
    The ending suprised me to be quite honest. That’s always good.

  • mya

    i love tennessee williams he’s the best writer

  • John @Dysfunky

    Alcoholism has ruined so many lives and especially creative peoples lives. Thank God for programs like AA, Alanon, and Adult Children of alcoholics

  • Fran

    Ciprina Spizzirri, an American actress gives an outstanding performance in Tennessee William’s, Suddenly Last Summer, performed at Questors theatre, London. Superb! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIL_yiu9Wcs

  • Brian

    It is said that Suddenly Last Summer was the closest autobiography of Tennessee Williams. Not many people know that Tennessee William’s had a close relationship with his sister who was lobotomized. Catharine in Suddenly Last summer is allegedly a character that sheds a similar resemblance to Tennessee Williams real life sister. It’s a fantastic playwright. I think if Tennessee Williams were still alive he would have wanted Catharine to be seen as a bit narcotic and traumatized as seen being performed by American Actress, Ciprina Spizzirri.

  • Mizprissy

    His work was outstanding then and is the same today. I hope future generations will find his works as brilliant as my generation, (1951-present). TMC is the only network that I know that airs his work consistently. His was a great writer and a very interesting person.

  • John Eben Whiting

    I have studied, performed, directed, and taught the works of TW often over the past many years, since 1975 when I was a sophomore Theatre student at the University of Utah. I am always thrilled to introduce my many friends (his plays) to my students. We study and go into depth with each one. My students that are not from this country are particularly interested in STREETCAR. They identify with the Spanish overtones of the Angel of Death lurking near Blanche throughout the play, especially towards the end before, during, and after her rape. I treasure TW’s works all the more as I get older and I recently re-read his MEMOIRS and found them to be not only entertaining, but so telling about his torn up soul as he tried to avoid totally going over the edge into the sanctity of insanity. His tribute to his sister is most touching, just as it was when Laura first appeared in MENAGERIE in 1944-45 as she asked through her tears, to the Gentleman Caller, “You won’t call again?” It breaks my heart every time I read that. Happy Birthday Tenn March 26th, 1911 and your death date of February 24, 1983 will never be forgotten as we all mourned his passing. He suffered, he wrote, and he never gave up. Yes, he was a bit sensitive with his health, but he needed that to hold on to. He is the finest playwright America has ever produced, bar none, not even O’Neill. He was cheated of the Nobel Prize in the early 50’s as his work qualified him to win that accolade. I will continue to read and re-read all I can get about his life and works. I find EVERYONE ELSE IS AN AUDIENCE by Ronald Hayman to be quite reliable and revealing. I highly recommend that one. Also do not forget to read his short plays: I CAN’T IMAGINE TOMORROW and THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMED, both are rare gems.

  • SavageOpress

    I have studied, performed, directed, and taught the works of TW often over the past many years, since 1975 when I was a sophomore Theatre student at the University of Utah. I am always thrilled to introduce my many friends (his plays) to my students. We study and go into depth with each one. My students that are not from this country are particularly interested in STREETCAR. They identify with the Spanish overtones of the Angel of Death lurking near Blanche throughout the play, especially towards the end before, during, and after her rape. I treasure TW’s works all the more as I get older and I recently re-read his MEMOIRS and found them to be not only entertaining, but so telling about his torn up soul as he tried to avoid totally going over the edge into the sanctity of insanity. His tribute to his sister is most touching, just as it was when Laura first appeared in MENAGERIE in 1944-45 as she asked through her tears, to the Gentleman Caller, “You won’t call again?” It breaks my heart every time I read that. Happy Birthday Tenn March 26th, 1911 and your death date of February 24, 1983 will never be forgotten as we all mourned his passing. He suffered, he wrote, and he never gave up. Yes, he was a bit sensitive with his health, but he needed that to hold on to. He is the finest playwright America has ever produced, bar none, not even O’Neill. He was cheated of the Nobel Prize in the early 50’s as his work qualified him to win that accolade. I will continue to read and re-read all I can get about his life and works. I find EVERYONE ELSE IS AN AUDIENCE by Ronald Hayman to be quite reliable and revealing. I highly recommend that one. Also do not forget to read his short plays: I CAN’T IMAGINE TOMORROW and THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMED, both are rare gems.

  • saf

    Yikes. What a perverted guy with a persistently perverted mind. It’s through “revolutionary” writers/playwrights like him that our society is now so morally decrepit.

  • John E. Whiting

    To April 7, 2012, Saf:

    Dear Saf who writes “perverted guy” “playwrights like him that our society is now so morally decrepit.” :

    You certainly do not know what you are talking about!! TW is no more of a “perverted guy” than you are in saying such inane and empty-headed statements like these. Try reading the beauty of the English language in literature and get your moral compass out of your muddled head. Tennessee Williams is one of the finest American writers of the 20th century and anyone who thinks otherwise is either a child or simply uninformed. I will give you another chance to try reading for beauty, and not the filth that is NOT there.

  • alexa krist

    I am blanche

  • deana

    i rember comming home one night (12-13 yrs old) had a 13′ bk/wht tv in my bed room, turned it on and marlon brando was standing in the street screeming “stela”……… i was mesmerized. fell in love with brando and read every thing i could got my hands on by TW. one of my favorite qoutes by TW is: “i was drunk with delight.”
    i consider tennesse williams a national treasure.

  • Katarsiskris

    Thank you Tennessee for giving me my Thesis, you made my dream come true and your characters made me understand life’s miseries. You gave me the ability to see other human beings in a deepest way. I’m also Blanche Dubois…

  • robert russo

    When my mother asked mr why I like Tennessee Williams so much as his plays feature crazy women I told her that they reminded me of her. I am gay, and before I came out and fell in love with Richard I felt like the character Ms Alma.

  • Ronnie

    I’m an Australian; but I’ve always loved American literature best. Tennessee Williams has forever been on my list of Top 10 favourite American writers of all time. I’ve always rated TW higher than, say, the equally admired and acclaimed Arthur Miller. I reckon ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ is probably my lasting sentimental favourite in TW’s canon of classics. He was an authentic, iconic literary genius in the annals of American literature, and I’d argue Tennessee Williams is, or ought to be, indispensable reading for any avowed aficionado of writing of a sheer and enduring excellence.

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