Mad Pilgrimage: the new biography of Tennessee Williams, and the unfinished project of Lyle Leverich

John Lahr’s new biography is called “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” It’s a pity Lahr chose that particular subtitle. Now, when I write my autobiography, I’ll have to come up with something else. The book’s a personal portrait of a complicated man, an interesting and well-written biography for a popular audience of America’s greatest playwright. Lahr notes that Tennessee Williams is the most autobiographical of all major playwrights, and to some extent he proves the truth of that observation.

It’s a fine book, by the well-known “New Yorker” drama critic who knows Williams’ work better than nearly anyone alive. Of course, as he may tire of hearing people note, he’s also the son of Bert Lahr, who immortalized the Cowardly Lion.

Tennessee Williams had some interesting and significant Knoxville connections—his father’s family lived here for more than a century before his was born, and were one of the most prominent families in 19th-century East Tennessee. The new biography mentions Knoxville a few times, but there’s one line, concerning the death of Williams’ father, Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams, that suggests Lahr didn’t do much research here.

“CC was laid to rest in ‘Old Gray,’ as the Knoxville Cemetery was called.”

Never known as “the Knoxville Cemetery,” capitalized, Old Gray was never “the Knoxville cemetery,” either. When C.C. Williams died here, Old Gray was one of dozens of Knoxville cemeteries, and most of the newer ones were bigger and easier to get into. By 1957, few were buried in Old Gray unless they were members of old families who still had space in old plots, and moreover old-family members who felt obliged to be buried there, rather than in one of the newer, larger, safer, cleaner, suburban cemeteries. Tree-shaded Old Gray was falling on harder times in the 1950s. This once-famous Victorian cemetery was neglected in an ever more ignored inner city, and isolated by the highway, often overgrown, losing some of its most notable monuments, occasionally subject to exhumations for reburial elsewhere, and forgotten, like a metaphor in a Williams play.

It’s a minor thing, and we can’t blame Lahr for shortcuts. Lahr has a full-time job and splits his time between New York and London.
There’s a universal scholarly astigmatism concerning Knoxville, which gets blurred out of nearly every biography, our details misunderstood, scrambled, or omitted altogether. Authors on deadline don’t like to visit Knoxville, or at least they don’t think they’d like to, and almost every time the city gets mentioned in a biography, some detail or other is at least a little off. In fact, it’s hard to think of exceptions, biographers who took the time to visit and get to know the place.

One was Lyle Leverich. As good a read as Lahr’s book is, it leaves me wishing fate had allowed Leverich, a more comprehensive biographer, to finish his major two-volume biography of Williams. A few years before his death in 1983, the playwright had designated Leverich, a San Francisco theater producer, as his authorized biographer, to the consternation of some who envied the honor. Leverich’s first volume, “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” came out in 1995, to the general astonishment of critics who might not have expected much from a first-time author. It says something that two of its many raves came from America’s two playwright legends: Edward Albee called it “extraordinary and invaluable,” and Arthur Miller called it “a rare work of the greatest importance.”

Many have considered “Tom” the first half of the definitive biography of Williams. It closed with the playwright on the brink of stardom, at age 34, at the time of the debut of “The Glass Menagerie.”

Ever since then, we’ve been waiting for Part 2.

In the preface of his new book, Lahr explains that this new book is what we get instead. He says Leverich requested that “should anything happen to him,” Lahr should take up the project. Leverich was already grateful for Lahr’s help. Lahr’s “New Yorker” story about deliberate attempts to impede Leverich’s book has been credited with helping pave the way for “Tom.”

But it’s a lot to expect any professional writer to devote years to writing someone else’s book, interpreting someone else’s notes, following someone else’s vision. Instead of writing the in-depth Part 2 Leverich intended, Lahr chose to write a one-volume complete biography. It’s a good long book, at 765 pages, but necessarily with about half as many pages per year of Williams’ life as Leverich had done. In his preface, Lahr remarks that he rejected Leverich’s “encyclopedic chronological approach,” and also chose to ignore much of Leverich’s “useless” research, which likely included his notes and documents from research in Knoxville. Lahr and Leverich differed, Lahr admits, in their views of “the psychology of the Williams family.”

That may have a lot to do with the fact that Lahr lays out a fairly complex portrait of Williams’ father, but includes no mention of some Knoxville people and places that Leverich found fascinating.

Back in the ’90s I got to know Mr. Leverich. Although the 1995 book offers some detail about Williams and Knoxville lacking in previous biographies, Leverich told me his regret about “Tom” was that he didn’t more fully explore the playwright’s complicated relationships with his paternal family, and Knoxville. He meant to rectify that, he said, in his second volume, partly through background concerning Williams’ return to Knoxville for his father’s funeral in 1957.

Williams never lived in Knoxville. He grew up in Mississippi and St. Louis, and as an adult spent a lot of time in New Orleans and New York. Williams never set a play in Knoxville, at least not overtly.

But he had a tangle of local connections, positive and negative, some of which he hinted at in his plays, almost in the same way Quentin Tarantino does in his movies. In the major play “Suddenly Last Summer,” for example, the name of the dreaded Louisiana mental institution is “Lion’s View.” The name of Knoxville’s mental institution, a century ago, was the same as its address: Lyons View. I would not want to be the one to argue that that’s a coincidence.

His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, grew up in Knoxville, a member of one of the city’s most celebrated older families. They settled mostly on the east side of town, before the Civil War. There are two old Colonel John Williams houses, commemorating two different Colonels John Williams, a current residence on Riverside Drive and a well-renovated antebellum house on Dandridge Avenue. The Williams Creek Golf Course bears their name. Just across the river, Dickinson Island, now home to a small airport, was known, until just after the Civil War, as Williams Island.

Tennessee Williams’ formal name was Thomas Lanier Williams III. The grandfather he was named for, Thomas Lanier Williams II, was a onetime Knoxville alderman and, repeatedly, a candidate for governor. Most of the Williamses were men of aspiration, judges, politicians. John Williams was a U.S. senator and diplomat who may have originated the term “Tennessee Volunteers,” thanks to his battles with Indian tribes during the War of 1812 era. He’s the one who, late in life, lived in that house near the golf course.

Cornelius Coffin Williams grew up here, attended UT’s law school without graduating, and worked in business here for a bit, but he turned out to be quite a contrast from his family. A shoe salesman who never had Williams-sized aspirations for himself, C.C. wasn’t much of a family man either, and turned out to be an alcoholic. His sisters, Isabel, who married a Brownlow and was a high-society lady, and Ella, who ran a dress shop downtown and was a little bit eccentric, were very much part of Tennessee Williams’ life, too, even at a distance.

Ella Williams, the maiden aunt, was especially close to Williams’ sister Rose, who was the inspiration and tragic anti-heroine in much of his work, like “The Glass Menagerie” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” Aunt Ella is described and mentioned repeatedly in Leverich’s book, “Tom.” According to the playwright’s mother, Edwina, who wrote her own memoir of her famous son, the glass menagerie that inspired the famous play was a group of odd fashion accessories purchased at Aunt Ella’s shop. Her first shop, in the 1920s, was at 308 Clinch Avenue, between Gay and Market, across the street from the Holston Bank, where Ella Williams had previously worked as a stenographer.

She moved her shop to Locust Street in the 1930s, and older folks may remember when Miss Ella’s shop was at 710 Locust, where she lived. Rose Williams sometimes stayed with Aunt Ella there, as they were trying to figure out how to deal with her unpredictable behavior.

Miss Ella died before I was born, but I remember older folks talking about her, often with a knowing smile and a wink. Short and compact, Miss Ella was a lively, independent woman a Presbyterian lady who nonetheless did as she pleased, even smoked cigarettes in public. At the time of her death at age 82 in 1958, she was described by more than one obituary writer as a “personality.”

Rose Williams spent some long holidays of her youth in Knoxville, and went through the obligatory debutante ordeal here, probably because the Williamses were high-society in Knoxville, but not necessarily in St. Louis. It was during that period, according the Tennessee Williams’ own problematic memoirs, that Rose began showing the first indications of the insanity that would define her life—something, the playwright thought, about a disappointment with a boy who lived here.

It’s not necessarily something for Knoxville to be proud of. But it’s part of the texture of the Williams’ family, and of this complicated place.

Separated from his wife, partly estranged from his children, Cornelius returned to Knoxville in the 1950s to live alone his final years, albeit sometimes with the help of his sisters, in downtown hotels and at the old Whittle Springs Hotel, near Fountain City, and of course was buried alongside his noble family at Old Gray.

Lyle Leverich was going to get into all that in his second volume, using the playwright’s reaction to the death and burial of his father, the deaths of his Knoxville aunts, and the subsequent reference to a mental institution as “Lion’s View” as an aperture for examining the Knoxville family, and the Knoxville part of the playwright’s perspective, in more depth.

Leverich lived in Northern California. We corresponded some, after someone had forwarded him some of my columns in “Metro Pulse,” but when he was doing research here, I met him in person at Old Gray Cemetery, on a hot day in the latter 1990s. He was older than I’d pictured him. Portly, he wore a dark suit even on that hot day, and reminded me of the character actor Charles Coburn, who played formal and genially fussy characters in old black-and-white movies.

He seemed genuinely interested in getting Williams’ full story, and was even interested in Williams’ 1980 speaking visit, when the playwright, on his last public return to his ancestral home, was obviously unprepared for an Alumni Hall audience in the hundreds, a painful experience for most in the room. I was there that stormy evening, but Leverich seemed to know some things about that visit that I didn’t.

We walked around the cemetery, not just to the Williams’ family plot, which is one of the handiest ones, a few steps away from the Broadway sidewalk, but to several other sites in the graveyard, including the Parson Brownlow obelisk, which memorializes one of Tennessee’s most controversial writers and editors of the Civil War era. The Brownlows are related to the Williamses by marriage. Tennessee Williams’ father, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s mother, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst-born cousins are all buried a stone’s throw from each other. Leverich was interested in the whole odd fascinating place, and although he was red-faced, sweating and stumbling a little, he was carried the zeal that comes with a life mission, and didn’t let the heat impede his curiosity.

We said we’d stay in touch, and for years after that day I looked forward to that second edition. He said he was going to give me a credit. But I stopped hearing from him, and eventually I wondered what had become of Lyle Leverich. I had his name and address in my Rolodex, but didn’t want to bother him.

A few years ago, I looked him up on the Internet, and was dismayed to learn why he’d been so quiet. He had died back in late 1999, not more than a year or two after our graveyard tour. His death had been covered in the “New York Times.” I often scan their obits, but I’d missed that one.

It was one of those inversions of memory you have to get used to if you’re serious about getting older. I had to check multiple sources to convince myself it was true. His visit didn’t seem nearly that long ago.

Lahr’s book is a strong one, substantial enough that there probably won’t be a call for another biography of Tennessee Williams for another quarter-century or so. He knows the backstage dramas better than anybody, and the politics of Broadway. It’s a lot about the importance of the plays themselves, in context with American culture. His book is full of famous people, of course, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett, Tab Hunter, John Huston.

But never mentions Aunt Ella, who tried to take care of poor Rose. It never mentions Lyons View, or the original glass menagerie, or that strange last lecture at the university his troubled father once attended.

I just checked, and am not surprised I still have Mr. Leverich’s card in my Rolodex, 15 years after his death. But I’m starting to suspect we’re never going to see the book he described.

One thought on “Mad Pilgrimage: the new biography of Tennessee Williams, and the unfinished project of Lyle Leverich

  1. riverdame

    My grandmother knew Miss Ella very well. Tom often visited with his sister in the summers and Miss Ella would take rooms in the Elkmont clubhouse. I once had occasion to chat with Mr. Williams in New York and I mentioned that I was from Knoxville and Elkmont. “Why, I learned how to swim in the Elkmont pool!”, he said. His love of swimming, and especially in cold water, lasted all his life. He then said, wistfully, “I suppose it is all gone now”, and at that time I was able to reply, “No, Mr. Williams, Elkmont is still pretty much just the way you remember it.” This seemed to please him enormously. Sad that it is no longer true.

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