In the Land of Tennessee

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

His friends called him Tennacity Williams, you know,” says Lyle Leverich, who should know.

And “tenacity” seems a pretty good term to describe Leverich, too. Tennessee Williams' hand-picked biographer is a Bay Area-based theatrical producer and first-time author, who — after 17 years of research and protracted tussles with Williams' obsessively protective self-appointed literary executor, Maria St. Just; challenges from other biographers (including Williams' brother, Dakin); debt; and several changes of publishers — has succeeded in producing a stout, 644-page doorstop of a first volume.

Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams (Crown, $35) is finally collecting accolades, and Leverich is reveling in the good reviews, including two raves from the New York Times.

No need here to go into the evolutionary, even revolutionary, importance to the American theater of the playwright who gave us The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, Night of the Iguana …

As reconstructed and interpreted by Leverich, the life of Thomas Lanier Williams III (from “anti-Semitism, 343” in the book's index to “violence in, 207-8”) is a meticulous work of literary biography, a contribution to the canon. And it's a juicy read, with as much sex and conflict and improbable characters as any current best seller you might name.

At age 58, after a successful 30-year career as a San Francisco theatrical producer, novice biographer Leverich found himself thrust into the role of his lifetime. It's a story line that is more than a little heartening in a day and age that decrees that if you haven't made your mark by age 30, you're out of the game.

“I never set out to write a biography,” says the avuncular, 75-year-old Leverich. “I'm a theater man, or I was. Tennessee gave me the career change. I felt that I was being called to do something I had no preparation for — although now I look back and realize I had preparation all of my life for it. Success comes early in life to some people — like Tennessee, and then to other people in midlife, and other people in late life.”

Leverich certainly looks the part of Biographer — white mutton-chop sideburns, gold-rimmed bifocals, a cloisonne red-ribbon pin in the lapel of his blue-checked tweed sport coat. As he retells the story of the Biography That Ate the Biographer over lunch at a sunny outdoor table at the Good Earth restaurant in Larkspur, Leverich flicks crumbs to a small black bird which has been flirting with him.

Leverich also appears to have the temperament of a biographer: carefully spoken, ready with an impressive memory for detail and chronology. Anecdotes are invariably prefaced by the date on which they occurred, and conversation is supplemented with colorful tangents and footnotes while his lunch goes cold. You come away with the feeling that Leverich could easily have dictated this massive book verbatim.

It was all sparked when Leverich read a New York Times review by critic Robert Brustein of the letters of Donald Windham, a friend of Williams.

“I was outraged by that review,” Leverich says. “Because as little as I knew about Tennessee then, I could see it was an attack on Tennessee, not a review of the book. And Tennessee would often say thereafter to me, 'Well, you know, they don't review my plays, they review me.' “

Leverich wrote a long, angry — and never-published — letter to the Times and forwarded a copy to Williams' literary agent, Bill Barnes.

“When Tennessee saw it,” Leverich says, “he said that no one had ever understood his character or defended him as I did.”

Soon afterward, Williams invited his newfound champion to Atlanta for moral support during the premiere of his play Tiger Tail, a revision of Baby Doll. Over dinner, Leverich proposed that someone should write a “Rashomon-like” book about Williams at work in the theater.

“Baby, you write it!” Williams boomed.
“His voice was like no voice in this world,” Leverich remembers. “He could be heard in the third balcony, in a whisper, yet. And he would laugh at the most inopportune things — there could be blood all over the stage, and all of a sudden this almost maniacal laugh would come out of the back row. I think he had kind of an Olympian view of life: The masks of tragedy and comedy are normally here and there, but in his view of life they were superimposed, one on the other.”

At the 1979 Kennedy Center Honors awards, at which Williams was celebrated for his cultural contributions along with Henry Fonda, Pearl Bailey, and others, Williams spotted Leverich in the center's red foyer. ” 'Lyle,' he boomed in that voice,” Leverich says. “He was standing there with his brother, Dakin. Tennessee looked up to his brother, who was much taller, and said, 'Lyle is writing my biography.' And Dakin got mad — he looked at me and said, 'Yes, but my book will be out before yours.' And Tennessee really got angry, and as everybody looked for the exits, he said, 'Yes, but his is the authorized biography.' I walked out to the sidewalk with my friend and said, 'Ho ho ho, I just learned something: I'm the authorized biographer.' I thought it was one-upmanship, I didn't think he meant it, but the next day Tennessee started calling his friends and telling them to cooperate, and I began to realize he meant it. And I was terrified.”

“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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