Tennessee Williams: texture of discoveries

October 22, 1995|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams," by Lyle Leverich. New York: Crown. 644 pages. $35

"Baby, you write it!" playwright Tennessee Williams wisely told theatrical producer Lyle Leverich. "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams," the first of two volumes, is a masterpiece of biography, exquisitely written, and psychologically acute. Despite being authorized by Williams, "Tom" is frank in its exploration of its subject's frailties all the while remaining compassionate. This is not hagiography.

Delayed for six years when a self-styled literary hanger-on named Lady Maria St. Just, now dead, fastened onto the Williams estate, "Tom" is a work of extraordinary biographical culture, well worth the wait.

Mr. Leverich escorts us into the hothouse of the Dakin-Williams family so that we may observe the tensions and the psychological abuse inflicted on their children by Edwina and C. C. Williams, who called his eldest son "Miss Nancy." Their daughter Rose, immortalized by Williams as Laura in "The Glass Menagerie," collapsed under their strain and was finally subjected to a lobotomy; Tennessee, in fear all of his life of succumbing to madness as Rose had done, saved himself by escaping into his art. Yet all his life he felt an emotionally paralyzing guilt that he had survived and she had not.

Neither parent, Mr. Leverich notes, "ever seemed to understand the extent of the damage that had been done and was still being done by their unending war of nerves." Yet through sheer will, his motto "En Avant!," Tom became, as Mr. Leverich aptly puts it, "our foremost poet-playwright."

So skillfully does Mr. Leverich tell this story of the early life of Thomas Lanier Williams III that, even as we know the outcome, we experience the suspense of wondering where all his hard work will lead. Mr. Leverich encourages us to root for Tom to keep his sanity, find love, write good plays. Defeats accumulate. He is even rejected by Roosevelt's WPA writing project for being too "middle-class." "En Avant!," forward march, Williams tells himself yet again.

"Tom" makes ample use of Williams' early journals, contrasting them with Tennessee's later "Memoirs" only to discover a web of discrepancies. What emerges in this spellbinding biography is a texture of discoveries. Tom's first published piece, a junior high school effort, was called "Isolated." At 16, impersonating a divorced husband, he won a contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine. His favorite writer was Hart Crane. Considering himself a poet, he saw Alla Nazimova play in Ibsen's Ghosts" and was moved to write for the theater. There were women in his erotic life, as he was never reconciled to his homosexuality.

His mother, Edwina, bought him his first, second-hand typewriter and he repaid her years of support with a half-interest in "The Glass Menagerie," his first success. On opening night, Williams took his bow to the actors, not the audience. Throughout, the biographer's voice unobtrusively informs. "The amazing thing about the umbilical cord is how far it will stretch," Mr. Leverich writes, "and Tom could never bring himself to sever it." This is a long book, yet we wish it were longer.

We don't "know" Tennessee Williams by the end of "Tom" - no biography can accomplish that. But we do see him whole: a lonely, damaged, brilliant man, heroic in his transcendence of the ties that bound, the iron vise of his mother's vicarious identification, his father's withholding of affection. In his art, he discovered a world elsewhere. "Tom" as a biography fulfills what Tennessee Williams said theater meant to him: "something wild, something exciting, something you are not used to." This book ignites the reader's imagination. It reads like a satisfying novel, complete with the hero's triumph at the end, success on Broadway at last.

I can't imagine how this biography, which rises so elegantly to match its subject's own style in lyrical intensity, could have been better.

Joan Mellen's new biography, "Hellman and Hammett," will be published in May by HarperCollins. It will be her 13th book. She is a professor at Temple University where she teaches in the Creative Writing Program .

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