71 Things You Didn’t Know About Tennessee Williams


The Glass Menagerie, A Streecar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — all plays that wouldn’t have existed if Tennessee Williams hadn’t existed first. The American playwright did more to transform 20th-century theater than anyone else, and to celebrate the 71 years of his life we bring you 71 facts about the man whose birthday falls on March 26. After the jump, learn about a schizophrenic sister, a distant father, and a lonely son who felt compelled to write.

1. While in his twenties, Williams did not handle rejection letters well. In his journal, he wrote, “Such a helpless, frustrated feeling — and all so silly! Like being scared of my own shadow and that’s what it is. I must somehow overcome this idea of defeat — overcome it permanently — completely — or it will drive me mad…”

2. Williams wrote a multitude of letters that he never sent.

3. In college, Williams was known for skipping classes and missing exams simply because he forgot about them.

4. Williams was born “Thomas Lanier Williams III,” but changed his name to “Tennessee” at the age of 28. Different sources report various reasons for the new moniker. Some claim he received the name from a college roommate, others argue that he picked it to pay tribute to his ancestors who lived in the state of Tennessee, and some think he simply wanted to break with his past and conceal his age.

5. When Williams’ older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he felt a mixture of shame and guilt. Trips to visit her at Saint Vincent’s sanitarium, where she was found “screaming incoherently like a wild animal,” left Williams feeling ill.

6. Williams spoke his words out loud while writing them.

7. Williams had his first sexual experience at the age of 27.

8. Williams once wrote a line he deemed too good to be used in a play. The line: “The past keeps getting bigger and bigger at the future’s expense.” He later inserted it into the play At Liberty.

9. On at least two occasions before becoming a noted playwright, Williams pawned his typewriter to buy food.

10. Williams once said, “My greatest affliction…is perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights.”

11. While young, Williams would often listen to his grandfather, Walter Dakin, recite passages from Milton, the Iliad, and Shakespeare.

12. Williams briefly worked as an elevator operator at a hotel in New York.

13. Williams once wrote, “There is one part of me that could always be very happy and brave and even good if the other part was not so damned ‘pixilated.’ I see so much beauty and feel so much that there is no reason why I should make myself miserable…”

14. At one point, Williams intended to be a journalist.

15. Williams once referred to his fame and fortune as “the catastrophe of success.”

16. On having children, Williams once said, “I’m very happy I never had any children. There have been too many instances of extreme eccentricity and even lunacy in my family on all four sides for me to want to have children. I think it’s fortunate I never did.”

17. As teenagers, when Williams’ older sister Rose first became infatuated with a certain boy, Williams soon realized that he was also attracted to the same boy and his own sex.

18. In his first meeting with Theatre Guild co-founder Lawrence Langner in New York City, Williams remembers seeing Langner’s desk covered with more manuscripts than Williams thought could ever possibly exist. In one grand gesture, Langner swept all the scripts off his desk before saying to Williams, “I have no interest in anything but genius, so please sit down.”

19. Williams once said, “I don’t believe in individual guilt. I don’t think people are responsible for what they do. We are products of circumstances that determine what we do. That’s why I think capital punishment’s an outrage.”

20. Williams was an avid swimmer.

21. Williams’ advice to young playwrights: “Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing on stage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going any way you can.”

22. Williams claimed to be a religious person, once stating: “Of course, God exists. I don’t understand how. But He exists. How can there be creation without a creator? Still, I don’t think there is an afterlife. At least I’m afraid there isn’t.”

23. At the age of 12, Williams began to write.

24. Williams changed his birth date from 1911 to 1914 to enter play-writing contests that he would have been too old to enter otherwise.

25. Williams was repulsed by bullfights.

26. A friend, Clark Mills, once said of Williams’ writing process: “The way [he] learned to write a successful play was by first attempting countless versions that he then discarded, finally arriving at one he felt might be accepted. That was his greatness, as I saw it — what set him apart.”

27. As a boy, Williams would often get beat up by another boy named Albert “Brick” Gotcher, who couldn’t tolerate Williams’ effeminate personality.

28. Williams was conflicted about life in a hotel. He once said, “I lived on room service. But in this, too, there was disenchantment. Some time between the moment when I ordered dinner over the phone and when it was rolled into my living room like a corpse on a rubber-wheeled table, I lost all interest in it.”

29. Williams was painfully shy as a youth, and often struggled to look anyone in the eye.

30. Growing up, Williams learned the art of storytelling from his black nurse, known only as Ozzie, who had a gift for telling enchanting yarns.

31. After moving to St. Louis, Williams entered the first grade at a public school. He was uncomfortable with his new surroundings, and when he hesitated to answer questions in class, his teacher would say, “Anybody can tell you’re from the South — you’re slow as molasses in January.”

32. One of Williams’ English teachers, Margaret Cowan, once remarked, “His grades were average. There was no evidence of brilliance in his work. I fear he was not well adjusted. In the period I knew him he never was clear about tomorrow’s lesson. [He] belonged to another world.”

33. Williams and his older sister Rose would often go to dances together.

34. As a young man, Williams attended a ten-week course in sales at Rubicam’s Business School.

35. Williams’ mother Edwina had a permanent blemish on her nose after her husband Cornelius slammed a door in her face.

36. Williams once had a friend named Stanley Kowalski — the same name as a central figure in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

37. Williams once wrote the following about his love life: “Haggard, tired, jittery, fretful, bored — that is what lack of a reciprocal love object does to a man. Let us hope it spurs his creative impulse — there should be some compensation for this hell of loneliness.”

38. Six days before his 28th birthday, Williams was awarded $100 for winning a playwright contest for those 25 and younger, which he entered illegally by lying about his age.

39. In the 9th grade, Williams wrote a poem for his school’s yearbook entitled “Demon Smoke,” which was about the negative effects of burning coal in factories.

40. Williams once wrote in his diary, “I hate streets with demure or sedate little trees and the awful screech of trolley wheels and polite, constrained city voices. I want hills and valleys and lakes and forests around me! I want to lie dreaming and naked in the sun! I want to be free and have freedom all around me.”

41. Near the end of his life, Williams expressed interest in refilming A Streetcar Named Desire with Meryl Streep playing the part of Blanche DuBois.

42. In his first year of algebra, Williams earned a grade of 66%.

43. Williams first realized there might be something wrong with his older sister Rose, who would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia, when she entered his room and said, “Let’s all die together.”

44. Williams’ grandfather Walter Dakin was a reverend who had no qualms with Williams’ homosexuality.

45. Last year, the New York Post reported that Tennessee Williams did not die from choking on a nasal spray cap, as many believed, but from “Acute Seconal intolerance” as reported in the autopsy. Seconal is the brand name of a barbiturate.

46. As a boy, Williams once tried to steal some grapes from a fruit stand, but his father caught him in the act and slapped the boy’s hand. Williams never forgot the incident, and always admired his father’s adherence to “total honesty and total truth.”

47. Due to self-doubt, Williams would often not show up for critical rehearsals and meetings.

48. Williams once crossed into Mexico on a bicycle.

49. Like several writers before him, Williams found both inspiration and refuge in black coffee, sleeping pills, and alcohol.

50. Williams’ father considered his son weak, effeminate, and cowardly.

51. When the burgeoning playwright was only 17 years old, Weird Tales published one of Williams’ first stories. The plot involved the murder of a Pharaoh and his sister’s revenge in ancient Egypt.

52. Williams’ father once traveled alone to Chicago to see one of his son’s plays. The theater was sold out, so Cornelius ended up sitting on a chair in the aisle.

53. One of Williams’ biggest influences was the writer Anton Chekhov, with whom Williams found “a literary sensibility to which I felt a very close affinity.”

54. A college classmate, Norman Felton, once said, “If anyone had bet on who would be a successful playwright, I would have bet on anyone but [Tennessee]. In fact, I would have bet all I owned, as little as it was, on his failure.”

55. From within Saint Vincent’s sanitarium, Williams’ mentally ill sister Rose wrote him the following: “I’m trying not to die, making every effort possible not to do so. I feel as well as I ever did at my sickest, when I am about to fall unconscious. The memory of your gentle, sleepy sick body and face are such a comfort to me. I feel sure you would love me if I murdered some one.”

56. Williams loved to travel, and thought of himself as a “footless bird that must die suspended in flight.”

57. Williams was known to enjoy casual, and often anonymous, sex.

58. In the summer of 1916, at the age of 5, Williams contracted diphtheria and nearly died from the respiratory illness.

59. Playwright Arthur Miller, who viewed Williams as a mentor, once said of him, “He chose a hard life that requires the skin of an alligator and the heart of a poet.”

60. Williams claimed a pickpocket once stole $100 from him while he stood underneath the Eiffel Tower.

61. In junior high, Williams received the title, “Our literary boy.”

62. Both Williams and his father were alcoholics.

63. Williams once said, “The Glass Menagerie has for me the peculiar importance of being the first play that I have managed to write without succumbing to the undeniable fascination of violence. It is my first quiet play, and perhaps my last.”

64. Williams wrote a one-act play about English writer D. H. Lawrence, which, in his journal, Williams noted, “is probably mostly shit.”

65. In college, Williams received an “F” for his Stage and Technical Practice class.

66. Williams was once scheduled to give a rare, formal lecture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but upon arrival realized he had forgotten his papers at home.

67. Before he was famous, Williams was perpetually broke, and often spent his income before he received it. For a while, he relied on small amounts of money sent from his mother, grandmother, and other benefactors.

68. Williams’ mother bought him his first typewriter for $10 when he was 12.

69. Williams suffered emotionally from oscillating highs and lows, and at times wondered if he, like his sister Rose, had schizophrenia.

70. For a time, Williams worked at shoe store. His commute was 24 miles (12 each way), which he rode each day via bicycle.

71. After Williams’ death, actor Marlon Brando lamented: “He told the truth as best he perceived it and never turned away from things that beset or frightened him. We are all diminished by his death.”