Tennessee Williams first met actress Maria Britneva (later Lady St. Just) in London in 1948 at a party given by Sir John Gielgud. For the playwright, it was a kind of platonic 'coup de foudre.' The two would remained attached till the end of Williams's life. John Lahr, Williams's biographer, has written, "Britneva exerted an almost immediate power over Williams. A tiny person—about five feet tall—with a mane of brown hair, huge gray-brown eyes, and a beaky nose that she turned up at the world, Britneva had an audacity and a frenetic energy that made her a kind of event. ... She was adamant about living up to her dreams—a hard thing to accomplish at any time, and especially so in threadbare postwar Britain. 'She is full of a good kind of mischief,' Williams said. 'Most women hate her and few men know what to think of her.'"
Over four decades the peripatetic Williams wrote long and highly descriptive letters to Lady St. Just, bringing his raffish existence and his tribulations in the theatrical world to life. In addition, the two friends were often together in London, Italy, New York, and Key West. Williams was able to discuss freely with Lady St. Just his dealings with his family (especially his institutionalized sister Rose), his lover Frank Merlo, and various colorful characters who floated in and out of his life. These letters provide a memorable evocation of one of the twentieth century's greatest playwrights.
Williams acknowledged that Britneva was the inspiration for the character Maggie the Cat in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' "Williams appropriated the nickname 'Maggie the Cat' from Margaret Lewis Powell, a friend of Williams's friend Jordan Massee. But the prototype for Maggie's desperation, ruthlessness, outspokenness, and hyperbolic flair was someone who was close to hand for the best part of the summer of 1954: Maria Britneva, to whom the play is dedicated" (Lahr). When Britneva asked to play the lead in the play, Williams wrote tactfully from Key West on 7 November 1954, "I could not offer you the female lead in 'Cat on a [Hot] Tin Roof' in the States but I think I could get you a role as understudy to the lead, and that if Gadg [Elia Kazan] worked with you, you might be able to play it on tour or in England because it is a part that would fit you and please you. I think a lot of you has gone into the writing of it. Wit and gallantry etc." Barbara Bel Geddes would originate the role on Broadway. Two years earlier, when 'Camino Real' was being cast, Williams wrote, "... we have decided to cast a sixteen-year-old light Negro girl for the Gypsy's daughter in 'Camino.' I know you will never agree with me and Gadg about this, but you are 100% wrong for Esmerelda and it would be the opposite of a kindness to you or the play to pretend otherwise."
Williams was free with his opinions of writers, publishers, agents, actors, and others. He writes from Rome, 25 July 1953 on a noted enfant terrible: "Truman Capote has invited us to Portofino but will not extend the hospitality to Mr. Moon [Williams's bulldog] as he has a female dog of approximately the same species. Anyway I'm not at all sure I would like to share a house with that one, as there would be more than one bitch under the roof, that's for sure." He paints a vivid picture of one of the most volcanic actresses of the twentieth century in a letter from St. Louis, 29 October 1954: "[Anna] Magnani seemed to adore New York, she got more and more frantic, till finally one evening when we called on her, she came prancing out of her bedroom in just a pair of transparent nylon panties, holding one finger over each nipple, and did a sort of Cossak dance in this costume. She had a crush on Johnny Nicholson, our gay landlord. She has a genius for the wrong attachments, it seems." The one person who received Williams's unreserved praise was his publisher James Laughlin, founder of New Directions: "J. is the grandest person I have known in my life, the finest and purest, and just thinking about him does much to redeem my rather middling opinion of many of the other members of the human race" (New York, 27 May 1952).
Two cities Williams returned to again and again were Rome and Tangier. He wrote evocative letters from both cities. 2 July 1952: "... a paralyzing heat is over Rome, you can hardly creep through it, and nothing gets done. I don't think I will be able to stick it out for long, for one thing it makes work all but impossible, it's just like somebody had pumped you full of a stupefying drug, so I will take to my heels or the Jaguar pretty quickly and seek a cooler retreat. ... Saw [Anna] Magnani on the street with her lover ... she was very cordial and warm. ... The Horse [his lover Frank Merlo] is going about constantly with a male whore here, and while I don't take a moral attitude, I do think this sort of company is very bad for him. The philosophy of such boys is so hard and cynical and association with them, constantly, is bound to have a corrupting effect. Also it's a public embarrassment, for when we sit down at a sidewalk table, the boy, Alvaro, is there and immediately his underworld associates begin to group about us and tell loud dirty stories and the Italians listen and stare."
25 October 1953: "I can't imagine how [Paul] Bowles has stood [Tangier] all these years. The city has no beauty, no charm, it is just like Miami Beach thrown in the middle of some ghastly slums. The Arabs are inscrutable, you could never get to know them if you lived here a hundred years and they dislike and despise all Christians. The Americans and Europeans here are a sort of last ditch Bohemians." In the same letter, Williams writes of his mother and grandfather, both inspirations for characters in his plays, "She has always been gloomy about the old man's prospects. When I arrived in Key West where she had been keeping house for him I found she had written the undertaker's telephone number on a scratch pad on the living-room desk, right after the doctor's number and over the laundry, grocery, taxi and other quotidinal [sic] necessities."
Williams may have come closest to summarizing his own outlook in a letter written from Key West, 6 May 1970, commenting on Gore Vidal: "Have you read Gore's brilliantly written piece this week in 'Esquire'? He makes repeated references to me, saying I have 'gone a bit mad,' implying I am a Communist, which is a system totally unpalatable to me—I am still just an old-fashioned anarchist—abhorring anything bureaucratic."
In January 1978, Williams visited Atlanta to see an old friend who had just suffered a stroke and was short of funds to cover the medical care. This caused Williams to reflect on how best to manage the grimness of old age: "I feel that we must prepare ourselves all of our adult lives, for the unavoidably difficult end of an active life. This is especially hard for Oliver: he has always been such a hedonist, prodigal by nature. Threw his inheritance from his father to the winds by purchasing and restoring with fabulous antiques an historical house in the Quarter which he could not maintain. Purchased a white Cadillac convertible. Laid away nothing for the future which he apparently thought would be nothing but a continual ascent to more glory. An improvident grass-hopper or cricket with great charm. Now we are stuck with his dilemma."
Unlike the letter quoted above, a great many of the letters bubble over with the joy of living. In September 1955, Williams was traveling alone in northern Europe and wrote Britneva from Hamburg, "We live in fantasy, don't we? Last night I went to two places where the boys danced together and that was nice, and now I'm going to have a little bite of lunch and a glass of wine and walk about a bit as it's a heavenly day in spite of being Sunday. Take care of yourself, mein Liebchen."
Most of these letters were published in 'Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948–1982' (New York, 1990).
A remarkable collection of candid letters from Tennessee Williams to his muse and soulmate Maria St. Just.
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