Facial Hair Friday: Tennessee Williams

In honor of National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride month, we are celebrating openly gay playwright Tennessee Williams—as well as his excellently styled mustache! Today’s Facial Hair Friday comes from Jen Hivick, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.

Tennessee Williams, 1948. (National Archives Identifier 276537817)

Tennessee Williams was a renowned playwright in 20th-century America. Perhaps best known for his play A Streetcar Named Desire, he also wrote a number of plays—such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie—that are, almost a century on, still considered a staple in theaters across the U.S. 

Thomas Lanier Williams III, later known as Tennessee Williams, was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri, when he was eight, and there he began the career that eventually made him famous. In high school and college, he wrote short stories for magazines such as Weird Tales and won numerous awards for his poetry; he also wrote plays that were put on by local playhouses. 

Even as a college student, Williams was passionate about his writing to the point of conceit; when he was not awarded a poetry prize at Washington University, he chose to transfer to the University of Iowa in protest. There he acquired his nickname after his fraternity brothers started calling him “Tennessee” because of his southern accent—Tennessee was the first southern state they could think of.

The name stuck, and he later decided to take “Tennessee Williams” as a pen name.

After graduating with a degree in English, Williams moved around the country, spending several months in New Orleans, a year in Boston, and years in New York City. While in New Orleans, Williams seems to have had his first relationship with a man. Although he had a couple of relationships with women during high school and college, from this point on he considered himself “part of the gay world.” Williams had numerous flings in the following decade, some serious and some not.

All the while, he continued to write, and in 1940 almost made it big with Battle of Angels—a play that, although he considered one of his great works, did not meet with success. Even though Battle of Angels was a failure and closed after a short run, he continued to write. He worked at MGM for a time and continued to write poems and short stories as well. One of those short stories became the basis of The Glass Menagerie (1945).

The Glass Menagerie, which won multiple awards and was put on across Europe, started a decade of success for Williams. In the following 10 years, he also debuted A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which opened to critical acclaim. These plays—and the Pulitzer Prizes he was awarded for them—cemented his reputation as a playwright.  

During this time, Williams also met the man who was perhaps the love of his life, Frank Merlo. Merlo was a World War II veteran and struggling actor, and he and Williams took to each other immediately. Within weeks, they were cohabitating, and their relationship was off and on for over 15 years. Merlo often resented feeling like a hanger-on when he was with Williams, and Williams felt frustrated at the demands Merlo would make on his time, but every time they parted ways, they would reunite shortly after.

Merlo’s death in 1963 of lung cancer led to a dramatic decline in Williams’s health and writing. Losing Merlo caused Williams to try to numb himself with drugs, and he fell into a state of clinical depression. His condition became so bad that his family insisted he check into a psychiatric hospital. Less than a year after his release, he relapsed and began using drugs again. 

Williams’s work suffered as well. He published dozens of plays, many of which were performed in New York City, but none were well received by critics or audiences. Critics argued that Williams was outdated, and that his attempts to move on with the times only marked him as a relic. Even as Williams experimented with new styles of writing, audiences compared his output to his work of the 1940s and 1950s and found it lacking. 

Tennessee Williams died in 1983 of a drug overdose. In death he was lauded and celebrated. The night after he died, Broadway went dark in honor of his life and his works, many of which are still performed. Since then, he has taken his place as one of the American literary greats as well as one of many trailblazing LGBTQ+ figures.

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