HomeCulture & ArtNYC Playwright Series: Tennessee Williams

NYC Playwright Series: Tennessee Williams

When an artist is a true success, they always travel and live all over the world. But everyone needs a home base. For Tennessee Williams, that place was New York City. Throughout his life, Williams had many ups and downs, but he always came back to the big apple, living in different hotels, apartments, and townhouses through his 71 years of life. New York wasn’t always kind to him, but Williams always felt at home in the Big Apple. It comforted him when he faced hardship, celebrated him when he was successful, and played a huge role in both his life and his death.

Tennessee Williams was born in 1911 as Thomas Lanier Williams. He was born in New Orleans but moved to Missouri when he was young. His parents had a rocky relationship, and he didn’t know where to turn to for happiness and comfort. However, when he was 17, Williams took a trip to NYC with his grandfather. They stayed in the Biltmore Hotel, and saw ShowBoat on Broadway. The trip made Williams fall in love with the city and with theater. The trip ended, and Williams decided how to cope with the stresses in his life by writing stories that showcased his life, his thoughts, and his feelings. 

After several bad experiences with school and working as a salesman for his father, Williams enrolled in the University of Iowa to study writing. Afterward, he moved back to New Orleans and changed his name from Thomas to Tennessee. He began writing there, and entered his plays into contests, which landed him an agent. This agent told him to move to NYC and start striving for broadway. Williams did just that, bouncing from hotels to YMCA’s until he found a permanent home: a townhouse at 151 East 37th Street.

The townhouse was for sale as recently as 2016. It was a huge space, with fireplaces and a private rooftop terrace. Williams, however, remained broke despite some success in his writing. He decided to move only a few months later, bouncing from Mexico to Georgia to Florida. Though he wasn’t there for very long, 151 East 37th Street would be an important point in William’s career for the simple fact that he was writing his first Broadway show while he was living there. He also experienced living with roommates during his time at this address, which he assured his father was good for his wallet.

Though Williams didn’t live in 151 East 37th Street for long, he was soon back in New York city for his Broadway debut.  The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway in 1945. The Glass Menagerie was an interesting transition for Williams. It reflected much of his life in the south. The lead works a job he hates, is heavily implied to be in the closet, and eventually leaves to find himself. Being his Broadway debut, it also marks a stark transition for Williams. It was the start of his rise to stardom, and with it came many happy and sorrowful moments.

Williams got an apartment in NYC on East 36th Street in a building that has since been demolished. He needed a more permanent residence since his second major success, A Streetcar Named Desire, was in rehearsals when he moved. Streetcar premiered on Broadway in 1947 and turned Tennessee Williams into a household name. The show, a story about a man abusing his sister-in-law, was yet another transition for Williams. His new fame made it possible for him to travel even more than he already was, and he was even able to do so with his partner, Frank Merlo. Williams had two more successes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, before things started to take a turn.

In the 1960’s, Williams lived in an apartment on 60th Street with Merlo. It was after they moved from this apartment that tragedy struck. In 1963, Merlo died of lung cancer in New York, and Williams fell into drugs and alcohol. He bounced around hotels in the city, trying to write about his memories and feelings while drowning those things out via substance abuse. Eventually, his behavior became so erratic that his mother and brother entered him into a treatment facility.

Once he got out, he wrote a few other plays and his memoirs. He still was very nomadic, living in different states and countries, but he always made sure to stop in New York City and make his presence known. His last trip to NYC was in 1983. He stayed in the Hotel Elysee, a place he frequented often even though he had an apartment in the city. It was in this hotel that his secretary found him dead. He had drugs in his system and a cap of eye drops lodged in his throat. He was 71 years old. He was one of the greatest playwrights America had ever seen. Though he wasn’t always appreciated in his later years, he was still one of the most influential voices of the 20th century in New York and the world.

Everyone needs a safe space. A base of operations. A place where you can hang your hat at the end of the day. Tennessee Williams had all of that and more in New York City. He didn’t always get along with the city, and the city didn’t always get along with him. However, when he was experiencing his highest highs and lowest lows, New York City has always been there for him. There’s a romance to New York City that draws many artistic types here. Even if people leave, they always want to come back. 

This was the experience Williams had. He was bouncing around hotels and YMCAs before he was even famous. That adventurous spirit remained with him all his life. It’s easy to get lost in the city, as Williams did thanks to the help of his demons. However, when you love the city you take the good with the bad. Tennessee Williams probably loved New York because the city reminded him of himself. An artistic spirit, seeking an escape. 

Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528

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