An ocean of words has understandably and rightfully been written about Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III and his plays. Some of those words, such as those contained in John Lahr’s brilliant 2014 biography “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” have been absorbing and edifying. But in “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog” that was published in March James Grissom has created a personal, profound and poetic look at the man Tennessee Williams Journal editor Kenneth Holditch called “…the poet of – and the dramatist of – the outcast.”
In 1982 Grissom was a 20-year-old Louisiana State University student when he wrote to Williams asking for advice on a writing career. He got an unexpected answer: the great playwright of “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” wanted to meet him.
The interaction that followed in New Orleans – painted in vivid cascades of prose by Grissom – was brief but life-altering: Williams would mentor the young man he christened “Dixie” but “Tenn,” as he asked Grissom to call him, wanted something in return – “Jim, be my witness.”
How? It basically started with names on a restaurant menu. “…Tenn dictated to me the names of the people he wanted both of us to pray to, dream of, write for. He called them the follies of God, and I wrote down the names. The menu was soon covered with names, primarily women, and then Tenn offered me an assignment. “I would like for you to ask these people if I ever mattered,” he confessed. “I ask you to go to them because these people have mattered to me, and they keep me going – to the pale judgment, to face another day, to care again…Can’t I get a single witness to whom I once delivered pages and deliverance to say that I once mattered?””
This plaintive cry, which came just months before Williams’ death in February 1983, eventually sparked a multi-decade quest where Grissom sought out more than 70 important figures of American theater and film in the 20th Century. Among them were Eva Le Gallienne, Geraldine Page, Marian Seldes, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Kim Stanley, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris, Lois Smith, Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn.
Maureen Stapleton, his Serafina in “The Rose Tattoo” and close confidant until his death, looms large in the book. “Tennessee and I truly loved each other,” Stapleton told Grissom, “and we were bound by our love of the theater and movies and movie stars and comedy. And we were bound to each other particularly by our mothers: the way they raised us; the things they could never say; the things they gave us. The dreaming nature, most of all.”
The sweet mixed with the sad throughout “Follies of God” is typified by Tandy, Blanche DuBois when Streetcar opened in 1947 and the playwright’s loving friend, who told Grissom: “I always knew that Tennessee Williams was my salvation, but I never dreamed that was of any help to him. I wish I could have been more to him; I wish I could be more to anyone. That is something else we had in common: our utter failure to believe ourselves worthy of another’s interest or affection.”
We get looks at the production process from Williams’ assessments; for example, Gish was a “titanic sprite” and “the escort that brought me to Blanche.” There are many more, but it would spoil the wonderful surprises in this bountiful book to keep listing them here. And his tortured family life, including a mother who sparked the creation of Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield, is displayed – Grissom has dug deep into the past so we can find meaning in Williams’ story today. The author definitely heeded Elia Kazan‘s advice that to understand others Grissom should “…Always go to the beginnings. The real person will always be found there.”
In addition to the women that mattered to Williams there were men like Kazan, José Quintero, John Gielgud, William Inge, Truman Capote and Marlon Brando. Brando, who compared Stapleton to “a large box of Cracker Jacks: sweet, sticky, messy, simple, and, in its way, perfect” in a conversation with Grissom, offered one of many poignant reflections that Grissom shares with us – Williams and Stapleton had happy memories of times spent in the New York apartment Brando shared with Wally Cox on West 52nd Street, and Grissom has recounted Brando’s reaction years later: “We were young and alive and stupid and generous, and we believed that anything could happen: Opportunities and new friends were all around us. There was no fear – for our talents or for our persons – and we were, all of us, committed to something big.”
Grissom has tied all the personal and professional triumphs and tragedies, laughs and tears (as well as embittered madness in the case of Oscar winner Van Fleet and a delectable experience in more ways than one with the always-on-point Hepburn among other vivid scenes) together with his clear and rich poetic prose, drawing the curtain back to show the “mental theater” through which “the women of the fog” came to Williams and revealed the characters and stories he set down on paper. And while “Follies of God” contains aspects of Grissom’s life, the author – like an excellent actor – has clearly made serving the subject his top priority.
He has passed on Williams’ judgments of others, their judgments of Williams and observations of his various encounters without passing final judgment himself, respecting their voices (many now sadly stilled by death – how lucky we are that Grissom’s long odyssey largely occurred while most on the list were still living) and respecting our abilities to read and assess these folks for ourselves.
In the end I think both men got their side of that 1982 bargain – Tennessee Williams, and his writing canon, not only did matter but still do more than 32 years after his death, and James Grissom is a very fine writer. We can, to borrow from a Proust quote referenced in “Follies of God,” see Williams through “new eyes” thanks to this beautiful book.
In Nashville you can purchase “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog” through Parnassus Books. The book is also sold online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and many other retailers.
*Photo of Tennessee Williams in Jackson Square in 1977 (Christopher R. Harris), photo of Williams and Maureen Stapleton in 1975 (Photofest), photo of James Grissom and photo of book cover (jacket design by Carol Devine Carson with photo of Williams by Cecil Beaton) courtesy of Penguin Random House.