Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams, renowned American playwright, was found dead on the floor of his suite at the Hotel Elysée in Manhattan on February 25, 1983 at age 71. His secretary had heard a noise coming from Williams’ room the previous evening, but he did not investigate until the following morning. That was when he found Williams’ body lying next to his bed. The initial findings from New York City’s chief medical examiner indicated that Williams had accidentally choked to death on the plastic cap from his bottle of eye drops. It was unclear how or why the bottle cap had ended up lodged in the author’s throat. An empty bottle of wine and assorted prescription drugs were also found in the room. Speculation would have to wait until toxicology reports were completed.

The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are among the most important works of modern American drama. If you didn’t read them in school, then you saw the movies they inspired. And if you haven’t even seen the movies, then you really should. Along with his other major accomplishments on stage, these masterpieces crack open the veneer of mid-20th century mores and explore the psyches of their flawed characters in an emotionally evocative manner unlike anything seen before on the American stage. With the possible exceptions of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, no other playwright has created so many archetypical characters that remain in our shared American consciousness even after more than 50 years, including Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy, and many others.

When he was a child, Williams’ family moved from rural Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. The change in setting deeply affected the boy, who increasingly turned introspective as a result of his new urban environment. This is when he began to write. His father, a heavy drinker and a gambler, was often absent during Williams’ childhood due to his work as a shoe salesman, and when he was present, he was abusive to his children. A year after Williams set out to study journalism at the University of Missouri, his father had him withdraw because he didn’t think his son should be a writer. So Williams joined his father in the shoe business; however, this didn’t detract from his desire to write. He often stayed up all night writing, which exhausted him, and eventually led to a nervous breakdown. After recuperating, his father relented, and Williams enrolled at the University of Iowa. This is where he earned the moniker “Tennessee” from his classmates due to his Southern accent. Williams often quipped that “It’s better than being called ‘Mississippi.'”

I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.


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Tennessee Williams

Inspiration for Williams’ characters often came from his immediate family members. Besides his abusive father, there was his sister, with whom he was very close. Rose Williams was an attractive woman who suffered from severe anxiety attacks and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She lived most of her adult life in mental hospitals, and eventually received a frontal lobotomy. As was almost always the case, the procedure was not successful, and she became incapacitated for the remainder of her life. The results of the botched lobotomy, as well as his anger at his parents’ decision to have it carried out, may have contributed to Williams’ long-time depression, alcoholism, and addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates. Rose is often seen as the inspiration for Laura Winfield in The Glass Menagerie, as well as for Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. His mother most likely formed the basis of Amanda Winfield in The Glass Menagerie.

By the end of the 1950s, after having his works created into numerous successful Broadway shows and receiving 2 Pulitzer Prizes, 3 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, and 1 Tony, Williams’ professional and personal life began to deteriorate. His drug and alcohol abuse started to have a deleterious effect on his writing, his relationships, and his psychological state. After the death of his long-time partner, Merlo, from lung cancer in 1963, severe depression forced Williams to spend several stretches in mental health facilities. Dr. Max Jacobson, who was known at the time as Dr. Feelgood, began to administer increasingly large injections of amphetamines to combat Williams’ crippling depression. Along with the amphetamines, he gave Williams Seconal to overcome his insomnia. During the remainder of the 60s and throughout the 70s, all of Williams’ plays were failures at the box office.

Medical Examiner Report

Almost 6 months after Williams’ death, New York City’s chief medical examiner reported that Williams was apparently trying to ingest barbiturates when he swallowed a bottle cap. “The cause of death was asphyxia,” said Dr. Elliot Gross. ”But apparently the overcap was being used to take the barbiturates.” Tests of tissue samples had confirmed the presence of secobarbital in his system, which Williams was known to have been taking for many years.

Some have since questioned the official findings as to the cause of death. The original pronouncement that Williams had choked to death on the bottle cap may have been fabricated by the medical examiner, who initially suspected that years of drug abuse had lowered Williams’ tolerance to Seconal, and that accidental overdose was the actual cause of death. Williams’ health had long been in decline, and during the previous year, he had shed a lot of weight. In addition, it has been suggested that the sort of cap used in eye drops at the time would not have been large enough to cut off his airway. However, there may have been fear, both by the medical examiner and Williams’ secretary, that the press and public would automatically assume that this was in fact a suicide. Fabricating the bottle cap story would in some way protect the legacy of this great artist.

Whatever the truth is regarding his demise, had the death of Tennessee Williams occurred today, the revelation of his substance abuse problems would not cause much of a stir. Instead, it would offer a clue into the very complicated times of one of America’s literary treasures. For much of his life, Williams suffered from depression due to emotional difficulties with his family, long-term medical problems, being a homosexual in a less enlightened time, as well as the professional failures in the latter half of his career. Examining how the myriad factors of a difficult life could coalesce into so many artistic masterpieces would have only added to the legacy of this inspired playwright.

Reference

  1. 30 years ago monday: Tennessee Williams dies In Manhattan hotel. CBS New York Web site. February 25, 2013. Suite http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/02/25/30-years-ago-today-tennessee-williams-dies-in-manhattan-hotel-suite/.
  2. Daley S. Williams choked on a bottle cap. New York Times Web site. February 27, 1983. http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-choked.html.
  3. Drugs linked to death of Tennessee Williams. New York Times Web site. August 14, 1983. http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-drugs.html.
  4. Finally: the truth about Tennessee Williams’ death, and the disposal of his will and its codicil. Scott Kenan Web site. May 24, 2011.http://scottkenan.blogspot.com/2011/05/finally-truth-about-tennessee-williams.html.
  5. Tennessee Williams. Biography Web site. http://www.biography.com/people/tennessee-williams-9532952.
  6. Tennessee Williams. Filmbug Web site. http://www.filmbug.com/db/344599.
  7. Tennessee Williams. Poetry Foundation Web site. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/tennessee-williams.
  8. Tennessee Williams. ThinkQuest Web site. http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0215102/tennesseewilliams.htm.