Ever wonder what it was like to hang out with the young Thomas Lanier Williams before he started calling himself "Tennessee"? (And ever wonder why he started calling himself Tennessee in the first place?) Well, that's where old college buddies come in handy, particularly college buddies like William Jay Smith, who has the advantage of being a good writer (he served a two-year term as the U.S. Poet Laureate) and blessed with a long life (he's currently 93) and a solid memory. It really minimizes the potential for embarrassment.
Smith just released a new memoir, My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams, that looks back on their student days at Washington University in the 1930s. Williams and Smith bonded early on not only because of their shared ambition to become great writers, but also because of their families' Southern heritage and because of their alcoholic fathers. Smith was a frequent visitor to Williams' house in University City.
We read our poems to one another, feeling as true poets do, that poetry must be heard before it can be committed to the page. And when not reading, in his living room, I looked and listened and thus got to know Tom well and became familiar with all the sights and sounds that he confronted every day and night in that household he depicted so forcefully in The Glass Menagerie.
These included Williams' sister Rose, who was the model for Laura and who later underwent a lobotomy.
In his Wash. U. days, Smith remembers, Williams was short, self-conscious, "very, very worried about the insanity in his family" and confused about his sexuality. Although he was attracted to men, he surrounded himself with a circle of beautiful, intelligent, well-read young women, who Smith recollects, in his book, with a mixture of admiration and envy. He was also, Smith tells The Chronicle of Higher Education, "always writing."
Williams didn't adopt the nom de plume Tennessee until after college when he was submitting some work to a playwrighting competition in Memphis and decided the new name might help his cause.
The two writers remained good friends, despite Williams' many ups and downs, until the playwright died in 1983. In later years, Williams routinely gave out Smith's name and number to reporters and biographers who wanted to know about his early life in St. Louis.
Because Smith has had a long and distinguished career as a professor, he can't help but be a teensy bit critical of his old buddy's literary output, particularly the plays from the very early years when they hung out together on a regular basis. But, he concludes:
To Tennessee Williams we owe a special debt. In a tragic age, he has transformed loneliness by naming it for us, suffered sordidness with beauty, graced poor hurt lives with love and pity.