TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' death at the end of February created a desire, not only in the general public, the strangers who admire his work, but also in close but long-estranged friends like myself, for some personal compensation now that TW is beyond our chance of reaching him again.
This book was written before he died. The publishers made some fast, last-minute revisions and the first copies, in which both TW's death and his burial in St. Louis are recorded, reached the stores two weeks later. Its fortuitous appearance raised my hopes that it might be what I was looking for. The jacket promises that it is "the set-the-record- straight story" and that the authors "fill in the blanks and separate the facts from the fictions in this renowned author's odyssey."
A great many fictions exist among the facts in the earlier biographies. The first, published in 1963, was Remember Me to Tom by TW's mother, Edwina Dakin Williams "as told to Lucy Freeman." It turned out not to have been told to Lucy Freeman but researched by her. She was given access to TW's letters to his family, early notebooks and scrapbooks, and worked out scenarios to contain the information in them. She chronicled imaginary trips, assigned erroneous years to the composition of stories and plays. She summarized plots and Freudian interpretations and put them into Mrs. Williams's mouth, using a vocabulary of which scarcely a word ever entered that lady's mind, much less passed her lips. "Murder, cannibalism, castration, madness, incest, rape, adultery, nymphomania, homosexuality. There exists no savage act about which my son has not written." Mrs. Williams marches TW to the St. Louis Public Library and berates the librarian for allowing him to take out Lady Chatterley's Lover when he was 15, in 1926. This was two years before the book was published, decades before it was available in public libraries in the United States. And so on.
The second book, two years later, was Tennessee Williams and Friends by Gilbert Maxwell. Maxwell met TW before his celebrity, but he was not interested in him until after. He relied for his chronology of the earlier years on Lucy Freeman, adding inventions of his own. One in particular, for personal reasons, stuck in my mind. Maxwell wrote that he sent a letter to TW in New Orleans informing him of the marriage of a mutual friend in Manhattan and describing the wedding supper. TW and I were the witnesses at this wedding and, along with Maxwell, guests at the supper. And so on.
The third book was TW's Memoirs. More intimate, more complex than the others, it was also more full of hard-to-detect fictions. From internal evidence, it was partly written by TW, partly tape-recorded, partly pasted together from interviews and other published sources, including the two above. Most of its confusion, however, came from the fact that by the time it was composed TW didn't remember much of what had happened. He would get bored and decide to pull the reader's leg, or to butter up someone, or put down someone else. He expressed unpleasant truths about himself with complacency and, as in all his writings, he showed amazing self-knowledge, even when playing the fool. But the book's overall effect was so depressing to me when I read it that, out of a desire to record the earlier, pleasanter person I remembered, I obtained TW's permission and published Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965.
This new biography "by Dakin Williams and Shepherd Mead" is based on these four books. It is not intimate. The pretense that TW's brother is coauthor is dropped after the title page. Mead's use of an unpublished memoir by Dakin, to which he had access, is less than his use of these books and half-a-dozen others, all scrupulously acknowledged. He, too, prints unpublished letters, by TW's lover, Frank Merlo, his agent, Audrey Wood, etc., but the blanks they fill in are always peripheral.
In the early chapters, page after page is paraphrased from Memoirs and Remember Me to Tom; in the middle chapters, page after page from Memoirs and Letters. At one point, Mead records Dakin's belief that TW's screaming at his sister, Rose, in a family fight--the narrative of which is taken from Memoirs--and saying that he hated the sight of her face, was "the final straw that separated my sister from her sanity." Mead then considers the possible effect of this incident on Rose, but not on TW. This silence is an opportunity lost. It is clear that if TW shared Dakin's belief, then TW's subsequent blaming of everyone but himself for his sister's fate was a pivotal event in his life-long pattern of attempting to conceal from himself --and attribute to other people's accusations--his own guilt. And it was by a direct respect of this process that TW transformed his emotions into works of art in the first part of his career, by a direct abuse of it that he reduced himself, in the latter part, to a man who would frequent only people who treated him as though he could do no wrong, a man who wrote off all others as enemies, not only when he was harming others but when he was harming his work and, finally, destroying himself.
Faced with conflicting accounts of events, Mead chooses between them. He doesn't seek the truth behind them. And his criterion of choices seems arbitrary. He repeats as true TW's statement in Memoirs that Audrey Wood plunged him into sterility and despair by warning him to show no one the early version of Camino Real. He ignores the evidence in Letters that she had the play typed and was showing it to producers. In his account of TW's break with her, he ignores Audrey Wood's descriptionnof this event in her book Represented by Audrey Wood, the best account I know of what dealing with TW was like in later years. He accepts TW's oft-repeated statement that his grief over his loss of Frank Merlo brought about his breakdown in the 1960s and ignores the evidence in Memoirs that TW abandoned Merlo a year before his death and saw him again only when he was dying. This is another opportunity lost. It should be clear that it was TW's guilt about abandoning Merlo, not his sadness over losing him, that contributed to his collapse. And that this is one more figure in the pattern.
Mead retains Lucy Freeman's boners and Maxwell's inventions except when they touch directly on Mrs. Williams' and Dakin's involvements with TW (though he does keep the Lady Chatterley story), ignoring the warning that these fabrications should give him concerning his sources' unreliability about TW's involvements with people outside Mead's ken. He shies away from the Rabelaisian passages in both Memoirs and Letters but reproduces TW's tallest tales and most maudlin "honesties" about his homosexuality without batting an eye. Mead's own attitude toward homosexuality comes out as a mixture of stern tolerance and locker-room snickering.
In the chapters dealing with TW's later years of alcohol and drugs, where the Memoirs becomes incoherent, and for the last seven years, Mead supplements his published sources by interviews with some of TW's late companions. He prints these verbatim, still lacking a viewpoint from which to judge and transform. The depressing results resemble the pages of so many recent celebrity biographies in which the author has interviewed everyone willing to talk about his subject--nearly always the people who know and care least--and prints this first step of research as though it were the last step of writing. This leaves nine-tenths of the job to the reader, who is in no position to do it. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography doesn't set the record straight; it weaves the facts and fictions closer together in a fabric of journalistic clich,es behind which the real people and real events fade fthersurther and further into obscurity, become less and less recoverable.
In Mead's introduction, he says that the manuscript of his book was sent to TW, "asking him to refute or correct any statement. The results of this were indeed strange. But then, we are getting ahead of our story." This is on page 11. When I reached the last page of his book, the story had not been returned to. This was the last of its series of disappointments.