Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. His family was connected to Sidney Lanier, the poet from Macon, Georgia, and John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee. His grandfather was the local Episcopal reverend and the family lived at the rectory.
In 1918, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where his father took a job at a shoe company. In 1920, he lived in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his grandparents. He later attends university in St. Louis, where he first decides to become a playwright. His father takes him out of school to work in the shoe factory, but he meets a man that becomes the inspiration for his classic A Streetcar Named Desire.
Two of his plays are produced in 1937 and the next year, he completes his degree at the University of Iowa. In 1939, he moves to New Orleans and becomes known officially as “Tennessee Williams.” Over the next few years, he split time between New Orleans, California, New York, Provincetown, Mexico, and Key West.
In 1944, The Glass Menagerie premiered at the Lyric Theatre in Chicago to much praise, eventually going on to Broadway. In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, earning him his first Pulitzer Prize. He’d later win an additional Pulitzer Prize and Tony awards.
In 1963, his long-term partner, Frank Merlo, died of lung cancer. Williams’ subsequent plays closed early and did not receive the praise of his early works. In 1983, Tennessee Williams tragically died at age 71 in his room at New York’s Hotel Elysee, allegedly after choking on a bottle cap.
Tennessee Williams and his works continue to be produced around the world, considered to be classics. The author is also honored at the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, held over a weekend in October, and the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival, held in March. It features productions of his plays, acting classes, and monologue competitions.
Tennessee Williams Landmarks
Tennessee Williams House Museum, Columbus, Mississippi
Tennessee Williams only lived in the Victorian rectory for a few years but considered it to be his home. The 135-home now serves as the Tennessee Williams Home Museum and visitor’s center, undergoing an extensive restoration. The interior contains period furnishings and is laid out how it would have looked when the Williams family lived there.
It also contains items that belonged to the author, including a book signed by his grandfather, a wreath from his funeral, and a family cabinet organ. There are also copies of his plays and books and a timeline of his life. At the gift shop, fans can pick up new copies of his works and books from other regional authors.
Tennessee Williams Park, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Tennessee Williams lived for a period with his grandparents in the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Today, his life there is honored at the Tennessee Williams Park. His brother Dakin often hosted poetry readings in the park. Today it has a statue reminiscent of the set from Summer and Smoke.
Fans can also visit the St. George’s Episcopal Church and Church Office at 106 Sharkey Avenue. It was where Williams lived with his family while his father traveled. The Cutrer Mansion, then home to Blanche Clark, is said to be the inspiration for A Streetcar Named Desire.
Tennessee Williams House, New Orleans, Louisiana
Using money he received through a Rockefeller grant, Tennessee Williams moved to New Orleans in 1939. He rented a French Quarter apartment at 722 Toulouse Street and was inspired to write his play, Vieux Carre. The attic apartment itself no longer exists, but the building still stands.
Today the property is owned by the Historic New Orleans Collection. In 2001, they acquired the largest collection of Tennessee Williams items from a private collector. It includes early manuscripts and playbills. Their exhibit on the French Quarter gives visitors a look at what the neighborhood looked like during his tenure.
Williams also lived at a number of other homes around New Orleans, including 632 1/2 St. Peter Street where the streetcar inspired A Streetcar Named Desire.
In later years, he maintained adjoining rooms at the Hotel Monteleone to write in. He also spent time in the Royal Orleans Hotel and The Pontchartrain Hotel (review here), both of which still exist as New Orleans hotels. It’s also been said that Galatoire’s was a favorite hangout.
Visit the haunts of Tennessee Williams and his contemporaries on the New Orleans Literary Walking Tour.
Tennessee Williams House, Key West, Florida
Like his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams spent time in the Florida Keys. He visited continuously from 1941 until his death. For many years, he stayed at La Concha Resort, which remains a popular hotel and spa steps away from Duval Street. In 1950, he bought a house at 1431 Duncan Street that he retained as a residence for 34 years. It is now privately owned.
A few blocks away is the Tennessee Williams Museum, run by the Key West Art and Historical Society, which has an exhibit about the author. It includes early editions of his plays and books, photographs, and a typewriter he used while living in Key West.
Hotel Elysee, New York City , New York
Williams sadly died in his hotel room at the Hotel Elysee where he had lived for over a decade. The hotel is still open in New York City and retains its French-inspired style. Guests can even stay in the Tennessee Williams Suite, the presidential suite. The famous Monkey Bar opened during the Great Depression and has iconic caricatures on the walls.
His former Murray Hill townhouse at 151 East 37th Street sold in 2016 for nearly $2 million. Fans can also catch a show at the Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld), Ethel Barrymore, and the National (now Nederlander) theatres on Broadway where his plays were first performed.
Tennessee Williams Grave, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri
After his death in New York City, Tennessee Williams was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. It was founded in 1854 and is set on 470 acres. In addition to Williams, this cemetery is the final resting place of General Sherman, Dred Scott, and Kate Chopin.
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