Melanie McCabe is the author of “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams.” She is an English teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va.
I was only 16 years old when my father died. Shortly after the funeral, I sat with my mother and peppered her with questions about this man who had been taken away from me too soon. I knew him only as Daddy, in that limited way a child knows a parent, and I longed to create a fuller picture of who he had been before I was born.
That day my mother revealed to me a secret that my father had wanted to keep hidden from my sister and me: He had been married before my mother, for 12 years. This fact was both astonishing and tantalizing. I badgered Mom for every tidbit she might share. She let the story slip out in pieces. Something had gone wrong in my dad’s first marriage. The woman had died in 1951 in some mysterious way, in the company of another man. Her name had been Hazel Kramer before she became Hazel McCabe. Mom added, seemingly as an afterthought, “I know that she used to be Tennessee Williams’s girlfriend.”
I was thrilled at this revelation. Two years later, when Williams’s “Memoirs” came out, I raced to get a copy, fascinated to find my father mentioned as the man who had stolen Hazel away, breaking young Tom Williams’s heart. My dad had been a wonderful and devoted father, but the picture of him as “the other man,” capable of stealing another fellow’s girl, was not the image I held. The story turned him into someone far more intriguing than I had ever thought he was. I savored this tangential brush with fame, and years later, as a high school teacher, I enjoyed introducing my students to “A Streetcar Named Desire” and milking my juicy backstory for all it was worth.
For a long time, I knew nothing beyond this. Then, in 2013, a friend asked if I knew that in one of Williams’s late plays, there was a character named Terrence McCabe — my father’s name. Excited, I obtained a copy of “The Red Devil Battery Sign” to learn that the character McCabe is something of a villain. He becomes romantically involved with the beloved daughter of the main character, King Del Rey — a relationship that King disparages when he learns of it. King feels betrayed by his daughter and by this relationship that developed without his knowledge. The parallels between what the character McCabe does and what Williams must have perceived that my father had done by marrying Hazel were striking. Was this what had motivated Williams to name this character after Dad? Had he held onto bitter feelings about my father all those many years?
My friend’s casual question launched an investigation into the past that took on for me the power of a mythic quest. Understanding what had happened between Dad, Hazel and Tom became an obsession as I researched each night into the wee hours, long past a sensible bedtime. I didn’t know when I began that I would end up writing a book, “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams.” I only knew that at that moment in my life, during a rocky period following a broken marriage and during the terminal illness of my sister, the past and its secrets felt like safer territory to explore than the current terrain.
I delved into Ancestry.com, starting more than 40 family trees, trying to track down living children and grandchildren of long-dead people who had played a part in the story. I sought and obtained Hazel’s will, which revealed additional mysteries. For one, who was this man — Russell Henderson Burke — to whom she had left a small fortune in money and jewelry? Was he her lover? Had he played a part in the breakup of Dad and Hazel’s marriage? I traveled to Chicago to access two court cases Hazel had brought in a challenge to her grandmother’s will. I unearthed a lengthy State Department file about her tragic death in Mexico City. Hazel died from a lethal mixture of Seconal and alcohol, but there is some dispute about whether it was an accident, suicide or even murder. The man who was with her at the time of her death was questioned by the police and ultimately released. Mexican newspaper accounts I found at the Library of Congress insinuated that the man knew more about the death than he was saying.
I combed through various Williams archives, sought out alumni offices for old records and made an exhaustive study of my father’s writings. My father was an economist, but from the time I was a little girl, I remember falling asleep to the nightly clatter of his Royal typewriter as he wrote short stories, plays and two full-length books. I have wondered how much of my dad’s writing pursuits were motivated by his envy of Williams’s success. Sadly for Dad, his work never found publishers, though I have kept all of it that I could find. In my Google searches, I turned up a play Dad wrote that was maintained by the New York Public Library. Paying for a copy of it turned out to be a very lucky move, as the play is a barely fictionalized account of his last year with Hazel before they separated.
Scholars who have delved deeply into Williams’s background seem to believe that Hazel disappeared from his life once she married my father. But this turns out to be untrue. Dad and Hazel continued to associate with Williams whenever they visited St. Louis, between 1935 and 1940, the period right before his major success with “The Glass Menagerie.” Once they even gave him a ride to Illinois and spent an evening together before parting ways. In an album that belonged to Hazel, I discovered a photograph of young Tom, probably taken on that evening.
I learned that Hazel had sought Tom’s help in the late 1940s when she challenged her grandmother’s estate and that they met up in New York. Williams later expressed guilt that he had not provided Hazel the help she needed, as he was then involved with his longtime lover, Frank Merlo, and busy with his career. The memory of Hazel would haunt Williams for years, and, according to Lyle Leverich, in his well-respected biography of Williams called “Tom,” Williams confided to his mother that the beautiful redhead had been the greatest love of his life. Characters modeled after her appeared in numerous plays and short stories, including “Battle of Angels,” “Orpheus Descending,” “Spring Storm,” “The Accent of a Coming Foot” and “The Field of Blue Children.” I even found an original typescript of one of Williams’s last plays, “Something Cloudy, Something Clear,” in which Hazel, appearing as herself, discusses her marriage to my father. In a conversation with the Tom character, (later renamed August in the published version of the play), Hazel reminds Tom that she once told him she had been happy with my father for only a short time. Seeing this, I was glad my father had never read this play, published as it was some 10 years after his death.
What I learned about Williams is significant, but what I discovered about Hazel and my father has had a more profound impact on me. I encountered the woman I originally pegged as a heartbreaker and came to empathize with her over the troubles of her short, tragic life. Of even greater weight is that this journey brought my father back to me — not just the Daddy I had revered and lost, but the man, with all his flaws, whom I never had a chance to know.
By Melanie McCabe
New Orleans. 252 pp. $19.95 paperback