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Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983), born Thomas Lanier Williams, was an American playwright who received many of the top theatrical awards for his works of drama. He moved to New Orleans in 1939 and changed his name to "Tennessee", the state of his father's birth.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo received the Tony Award for best play. In 1980 he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Childhood and education

Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the home of his maternal grandfather, the local Episcopal priest. He was of Welsh descent. His father, Cornelius Williams, a hard drinking traveling salesman, favored Tennessee's younger brother Dakin, perhaps because of Tennessee's weakness and effeminacy as a child. His mother, Edwina, was a borderline hysteric. Tennessee Williams would find inspiration in his problematic family for much of his writing.

In 1918, when Williams was seven, the family moved to the University City neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he first attended Soldan High School, used in his work The Glass Menagerie and later University City High School. In 1927, at age 16, Williams won third prize (five dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" A year later, he published "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in Weird Tales.

In the early 1930s Williams attended the University of Missouri, where he joined Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. In the late 1930s, Williams transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for a year, and finally earned a degree in 1938 from the University of Iowa, where he wrote "Spring Storm." By then, Williams had written Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!. This work was first produced in 1935 by a community theater in Memphis, Tennessee. He later studied at The New School in New York City.


Williams lived for a time in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. He moved 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. While in New Orleans, Williams met and fell in love with Frank Merlo, a second generation Sicilian American who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.

Tennessee was close to his sister Rose, a slim beauty who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. 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. In an effort to treat her, Rose's parents authorized a prefrontal lobotomy, a drastic treatment that was thought to help some mental patients who suffered extreme agitation. Performed in 1937 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the operation incapacitated Rose for the rest of her life. Her surgery may have contributed to his alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates often prescribed by Dr. Max (Feelgood) Jacobson.

Williams worked extremely briefly in the renowned Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, lasting less than a day.

Williams' relationship with Frank Merlo lasted from 1947 until Merlo's death from cancer in 1963. With that stability, Williams created his most enduring works. Merlo provided balance to many of Williams' frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would go insane.



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