Tennessee Williams: Family & Early Life

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Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the home of his maternal grandfather, the local Episcopal rector. (The home is now the Mississippi Welcome Center and tourist office for the city). Tom was the first son and second child of Cornelius Coffin and Edwina Dakin Williams. His sister Rose was two years older and his brother was six years younger. They were brought up in the atmosphere of Southern Puritanism he said “It is like Northern Puritanism, except that it’s more fractious. Also more old-fashioned.” His mother was of genteel upbringing. She was somewhat smothering and may have had a mood disorder. His father, a shoe salesman, came from a prestigious Tennessee family which included the state’s first governor and first senator. His father became increasingly abusive as his children grew older. The father often favored Tennessee’s brother Dakin, perhaps because of Tennessee’s illness, and extended weakness and convalescence as a child.

By the time Thomas was three, the family had moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. At five, he was diagnosed with diphtheria. It caused his legs to be paralyzed for nearly two years. He could do almost nothing, but his mother encouraged him to make up stories and read. She encouraged him to use his imagination and gave him a typewriter when he was thirteen. He also played a lot of imaginative games: “I’d take a deck of cards. The Kings, Queens and Jacks were royalty. The rest were the soldiers and ordinary people. Each denomination, the diamonds, clubs, hearts, spades, were different kingdoms. You’d be amazed at the number of stories you can act out with that beginning. More than any other game, I used to act out he Siege of Troy, I’d divide the cards into Red and Black. The Greeks were the Reds, the Trojans, the blacks. Then I’d take the Greeks in one hand and the Trojans in the other slap them together and then throw them into the air. The ones that fell face down were dead.
“Besides the games, I used to have the quality of seeing things with my eyes shut, wonderful things. I get only dim images now, but when I was little I’d see whole scenes, like the Arabian Nights.”
His mother didn’t approve of him playing with other boys and encouraged this sort of creativity, however, his father disapproved of him becoming an author.

In 1918, when Williams was seven, the family moved again, this time to St. Louis, Missouri. All through high school and part of college his family lived in crowded, unattractive apartments, which were horrifying after the life he had in Mississippi.

Tennessee was close to his sister Rose, a slim beauty whose sad life had perhaps the greatest influence on him. He and his sister would play imaginative games in their backyard as children; they were both reclusive at a young age. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 27 after a tragic love affair. As was common then, Rose was institutionalized and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. When therapies were unsuccessful, she showed more paranoid tendencies eventually she was convinced everyone was going to kill her. In an effort to treat her, Rose’s parents authorized a prefrontal lobotomy, one of the first in the country, a drastic treatment that helped some mental patients who suffered extreme agitation. Performed in 1937 in Washington, D.C., the operation went badly. Rose was incapacitated for the rest of her life. Rose’s failed lobotomy was a hard blow to Williams. He never forgave their parents for allowing the operation. His sister’s severe illness and failed surgery may have contributed to his alcoholism. They may also have shared a genetic vulnerability, as Williams also suffered from depression.

In 1928 Williams traveled with his grandfather to Europe and inspired by its atmosphere and culture he wrote much poetry. In 1929 he entered the University of Missouri–Columbia, where he joined Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. His fraternity brothers dubbed him “Tennessee” for his rich southern drawl. Upon attending a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts he decided to become a playwright. His first year of college at the University of Missouri he devoted to “writing and an infatuation with an Irish girl.” said Williams. After poor grades during his first year of college he was forced to work at his father’s shoe company, International Shoe Company. After two years of incompetent work at the shoe company by day and staying up late at night to work he states “I guess I willed myself into a state of sickness-I collapsed.” Two weeks later he was told he would not have to return to the shoe company and he returned to health shortly thereafter. In the late 1930s, Williams transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for a year. He finally earned a degree from the University of Iowa in 1938 by working his way through school by waiting tables at Iowa State Hospital. By then, Williams had written Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!. This work was first performed in 1935 at 1780 Glenview, and also in Memphis.

In an interview Williams confessed, that he had his first consummated homosexual love affair at the age of 28. In another article he states that he first physically felt homosexual love with his roommate at his fraternity house.

Williams spent much of his life traveling, including roaming down the shores of the Pacific states, New Orleans, Florida, New York and New England. In his early travels he started reading the writings of D.H. Lawrence, stopping in New Mexico to meet the author’s family and friends. He dreamed of joining the Writers Project of Chicago, but was turned down. After failing to find work in Chicago he decided to come down to New Orleans. He lived there on and off in and around the French Quarter. He also lived there in 1939 to write for the WPA. He first lived at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carré. The building is part of The Historic New Orleans Collection. He began writing A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) while living at 632 St. Peter Street. He finished it later in Key West, Florida, where he moved in the 1940s. “He lived in a separate building at the home of a family named Black. Mr. Black was an Episcopal minister. George Black, the son, became one of his sexual partners, and they were close for many years, even after George and his family moved to Miami.”

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8 Responses

  1. Hey i love the plays this guy worte

  2. Now, was that necessary? This man was a theatrical genius. His sexual preference did not hinder that and he was true to himself. That is what matters in life. Did you actually read the entire article or just that piece of it? I do believe you owe his eternal spirit an apology. He probably got enough comments of that sort during his lifetime. At the very least, respect the dead.

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