In the Land of Tennessee

Tennessee Williams authorized biographer Lyle Leverich on his book and his subject

"I thought, I've never written a biography, and this man could have the pick of biographers. Why me? Which is a question a lot of people do ask," Leverich says. "As nearly as I know, it's because we had a lot of wonderful, very private conversations together. We had the theater in common. And we were both gay, so we were able to talk very honestly to each other. I think he saw that I would not hack a marble bust, or write what Joyce Carol Oates calls a 'pathography.' "

As he began his background interviews, Leverich was shocked by the number of people who had nasty things to say about Williams.

"I was distressed by it, but Tennessee said, 'It's OK, baby, you can always say the old hound dog could be a son of a bitch and you won't shoot wide of the mark.' And I thought, That's a good credo, that's a good thing to go by."

In his foreword, Leverich quotes Oscar Wilde, who saw biography as "adding to death a new terror." Leverich soon found himself plunged into the terrors of the biographer.

"There's a danger of being a biographer, the dŽjà vu experience of his life becoming yours. I worked in a West 71st Street [Manhattan] apartment. I went there like The Man Who Came to Dinner to stay for a week or two, and I stayed for seven years. I lost contact with many friends here in San Francisco. There were times when I would look at his picture on the wall and say, 'Tennessee, what have you done to me?' "

After sinking 17 years of his life into the biography, Leverich found himself blocked at every turn by Williams' longtime friend and self-appointed "widow," Maria St. Just, who may have been motivated by fear that her own secrets would emerge in the book. Her death in February 1994 cleared the way for publication.

But Leverich, like his friend and subject, remains ever the gentleman, even when speaking about this woman who made his life hell (she is pointedly absent from the author's exhaustive six pages of acknowledgements).

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
"Everybody thinks I'm going to say horrible things about her -- all my friends did, of course: 'The Wicked Witch is dead' and all that kind of thing," says Leverich of this real-life Maggie the Cat. "But I really felt that she was pathetic. She could be charming and witty, but she had a mean streak -- what Blanche DuBois called 'the unforgivable sin of deliberate cruelty.' She looked like Patti LuPone [who played whore-turned-empress Eva Peron in the musical Evita] -- she was short like that and very assertive, and of course having come from being a down-and-out and unemployed actress and suddenly become the Lady St. Just, she played out that role."

Without the distractions created by St. Just and publishing houses, and with the wind of praise (playwright Arthur Miller called the book "plainly a work of distinction") at his back, Leverich is gathering energy to complete Volume 2 in his Marin digs. The working title is Tenn: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams, and it should be even meatier, as it picks up after the 1945 premiere of The Glass Menagerie and carries the reader through what Williams called "the catastrophe of success," his 13-year love affair with Frank Merlo (which today prompts a 20-minute you-are-there digression from Leverich), and his decline.

Beyond Tenn, Leverich says he looks forward to writing a biographical novel.
"But believe me," he says, remembering the dramatic pauses that hobbled his masterpiece for so long, "the subject of this one will have to be dead for a hundred years before I write a word!

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