The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, 1920-1945


Tennessee Williams wrote letters to his family, friends, and theatrical contacts as he wrote his plays; with an eye for precise detail;, self-deprecating humor, and lyric grace. Tennessee Williams's innovative approach and natural lyricism transformed American drama after World War II. Both major and minor works continue to be performed worldwide at the same time that his earliest (and previously unproduced) plays make audiences remember what theatrical excitement is all about. Now, the first volume of The ...
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Tennessee Williams wrote letters to his family, friends, and theatrical contacts as he wrote his plays; with an eye for precise detail;, self-deprecating humor, and lyric grace. Tennessee Williams's innovative approach and natural lyricism transformed American drama after World War II. Both major and minor works continue to be performed worldwide at the same time that his earliest (and previously unproduced) plays make audiences remember what theatrical excitement is all about. Now, the first volume of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams takes the author from boyhood through high school, college, and tentative productions of fledgling work to screenwriting at MGM, culminating in his first major success with the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie in 1945. The letters detail, in the playwright's own words, the painful intensity of his early life as the Williams' family drama creates a template for the plays to come. Presented with a running commentary to separate Williams's sometimes hilarious (but often devious) counter-reality from truth, The Selected Letters, Volume I: 1920-1945 (which includes 330 letters out of nearly 2300 collected) has been meticulously edited by two of this country's premier Williams scholars.
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Editorial Reviews

Bill Goldstein
[U]nalloyed pleasure to read the letters collected here...scattered like diamonds throughout them are Williams's insights into his own work. —New York Times Book Review
J.W. Hall
[I]ndispensable.... The editors' meticulous annotations greatly increase the value of this gathering.
Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review
[B]eautifully designed and finely bound book contains generous, clearly written notes, an index and black-and-white photos from Williams's early years.
Robert Plunket
[Williams's] personality emerges slowly but with a clarity and humanity that will add much to his legend.
This volume features 330 letters written by Williams (1911-83) to some 70 correspondents from 1920 until 1945, the year of his first Broadway success, , selected by leading Williams scholars: Devlin (English, U. of Missouri) and Tischler (emerita, English, Pennsylvania State U.). Includes photos of the playwright, family, and friends. Indexed by recipient and subject. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Bill Goldstein
Kinetic energy suffuses the best of these letters, and their impact is cumulative, the reader's pleasure amplified by awareness of the theatrical glory that will come by the book's end, shadowed by the dissolution that will follow...Some of the letters are brilliant. In particular, those to Audrey Wood, who became his agent after the Group Theater prize, give a vibrant sense of the maturing artist.
New York Times Book Review
John Lahr
A rich literary haul...the guarded, pragmatic Williams can sometimes write a disingenuous sentence, but he cannot write a bad one. His letters are among the century's finest.
New Yorker
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811215275
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 1,212,479
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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Chapter One



1. To Edwina Dakin Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue]
Clarksdale, Miss.
Feb. 28, 1920
[ALS, 3 pp. Columbia]

Dear mother

    I met Grandfody right at the train, soon as the chicken gets of her nest I am going out to get the eggs. I liked Mr. moss awfully much. but I was awfully tird when I got on the train. And he wanted me to go in the chair car with him and read the paper. I could have stayed in my berth just as well but he insisted on me going in the chair car. I was about hafe past nine when I got in bed. tell Rose fussy the big old Plymouth Rock turned out to be a Roster so Grand killed him and ate him. Grandfody said he made fine chicken saled and dumplins Laura Grands cook came running in asking Grand for protecion. Because her husband had beat her. they began to fuss so much that both of them moved out of The servants house. All the chickens are going in danger of lossing there heads if they dont lay any eggs. send my love to Dady and Rose And kiss Sonnie for me.

Love from Tom

[TW wrote as an eight year old from the rectory of St. George's Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where his family had lived for several years before moving to St. Louis in 1918. "Grandfody" and "Grand" are the Reverend Walter Edwin (1857-1954) and Rosina Otte Dakin (1863-1944), his beloved maternal grandparents.

    TW returned to the small Delta town ofClarksdale because of Edwina's uncertain health and his own poor adjustment to "the City of St. Pollution" (Conversations, p. 180), as he later described his home in the North. In September he entered the fourth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School and in the spring was promoted to the fifth, which he would resume at the intimidating Field School in St. Louis.

    "Dady" is Cornelius Coffin Williams (1879-1957), who married Edwina Estelle Dakin (1884-1980) in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1907. He joined the International Shoe Company in 1914 as a traveling salesman and became an assistant sales manager for the Friedman-Shelby Branch in St. Louis in 1918. Rose is TW's older sister and "Sonnie" his infant brother, Walter Dakin Williams, born in St. Louis on February 21, 1919. Mr. Moss was a family friend who reportedly accompanied TW to Clarksdale.]

2. To Rose Isabel Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue]
Clarksdale, Miss.
March 15, 1920
[ALS, 2 pp. Columbia]

Dear Rose

    I am glad Mother got a girl. tell Mother that the church is thinking about having a vested choir. tell dady Grandfody said not to send my bicycle. I found a nice soft ball up in the attic for sonnie. tell mother Grand got the money for My stockings I found fussys head in the back yard and gave it a nice burial I hope king dakin Isent so cross as he used to be. tell him I am coming to take his throne away from him in to months. Our peach trees are blomming. And the flowers are up in the yard I tried to make a garden in the back yard but the chickens ate all the seeds up excuse my writting but because I am writting fast Grandfody chopped up a barrol an to rats ran out.

love from Tom

[TW's older sister Rose was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on November 19, 1909, and died in Tarrytown, New York, on September 4, 1996. She also revisited Clarksdale and spent at least a part of the 1921-1922 school year with her grandparents. On February 24, 1922, she casually wrote to Edwina that "Mrs. Wingfield stocked our store room" (HRC). It was a name that TW had also heard in Clarksdale and would later use in The Glass Menagerie (1945) to evoke his own domestic history.

    The "girl" was a servant and "king dakin" TW's usurping infant brother. "Fussy," now defunct, was the Plymouth Rock that turned out to be a rooster. She reappeared as a proper old hen in TW's screenplay for Baby Doll (1956).]

3. To Edwina Dakin Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue]
Clarksdale, Miss.
May 27, 1920
[ALS w/ illustrations, 2 pp. Columbia]

Dear Mother.

    Please urge Grand to come on The 15th of June. If you don't she will wait till Autumn. Grandfody wants her too and I do too. Tell Rose. I think she will do it for her because Rose has intire power over Grand.

    I had Just saved up nine hole dollars. When Grandfody made me put five in The bank. We are invited out to the country.

    Grand Might go to memphis on The train and leave memphis on a boat I hope she will. With love


[Trips to Edwina's household in times of illness or other adversity were a familiar pattern for Grand. TW later described her as casting a "spell of peace" over "the furiously close little city apartment" where his family lived an embattled existence. "`Grand' was all that we knew of God in our lives!" ("Grand," 1964).]

4. To Rose Isabel Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue
Clarksdale, Mississippi]
[ca. May-June 1920]
[ALS w/ illustrations, 6 pp. Columbia]

Dear Rose

    I am incloseing my Ranbow paper I will send you something more interesting next time because this is Just an advetising paper. next time I will write you about Janes wedding. and of how poor Jane was fooled. tell dady That one of his friends Mr friedman now works at a wholesale store named friedman and Schultz here. he says he used to know dady. please remember. Please tell Mother That I am in The sixth table in division and multiplying. And am having Geography. smalbox is terrerbele in Clarksdale. our neighbors have it who are The neils, and Grandfody and I got vaccinated and it dident hurt a bit its like pulling out a tooth, you get awful scard and when it over you find out it don't hurt a bit. Grand is awful scard because she thinks That shes going to take it but if she uses a little Christen sience I don' think she will tak it love

from Tom

[Signed by "Thomas Lanier Williams," the "more interesting" number of the "Ranbow" comic paper consists of two ruled pages with a leading caption on page 1, "Drive out sufregets who are women voters because they don't no even who they are voting for." "Poor Jane" is identified in the cartoon narrative on page 2 as "Mrs Jane h. Rothschild," a "sufreget," who "is afraid Miss Rose Williams will paint up so much That she will get all The million men." The story ends with Rose, pictured as a "WIDO," having "her tenth husband. all the Rest commided suicid because she was so strict."

    In March B.W. Friedman was elected president of Friedman-Schultz, a newly incorporated wholesale shoe company in Clarksdale.

    Shortly before TW's arrival in Clarksdale, the Daily Register reprinted a lengthy article (February 13, 1920) on the healing power of Christian Science. On June 1 Dr. L.D. Harrison, the city health officer, reported seventy-five cases of "smalbox" and urgently recommended vaccination. TW oddly, if precociously, connected these events, prompted perhaps by discussion of "Christen sience" overheard in the rectory or on pastoral visits. His formal schooling began in September, suggesting that earlier study had been centered in the rectory.]

5. To Edwina Dakin Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue]
Clarksdale, Miss.
Oct. 17, 1920
[ALS, 2 pp. Columbia]

Dear Mother.

    I am getting along fine in school. My report was all ones and twos which means good and perfec. A few days ago I went out to Lyon and spent the day with a little boy named David Bobo. I got my bycicle about three day ago. and Mary helen Gilliam has one to. and we ride every day together and have lots of fun Miss Ruby neill iss my teacher she has red hair and is awfully strict but not counting that shes awfully nice. tell Rose her bride dolls head was saved we will send it. With much love


[TW's fourth grade report card shows that he excelled in reading, spelling, and geography, was fair to good in composition and arithmetic, and was promoted to the fifth with an overall rating of "good."

    TW's playmate in the nearby hamlet of Lyon was David Ivey, the informally adopted son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bobo. TW used "the odd name" (originally Beaubeau) of this prominent Clarksdale family in his story "The Yellow Bird" (1947) to signify an irrepressible pagan beauty and freedom.

    Mary Helen Gilliam Rasberry has recalled riding her bicycle with TW, but she had few memories of the visiting boy himself to share with the editors.]

6. To Rose Isabel Williams

[106 Sharkey Avenue]
Clarksdale, Miss.
Oct. 30, 1920
[ALS, 4 pp. Columbia]

Dear Rose.

    I am doing fine at school. My report was all ones and twos.

    I don't like Miss Neill any more because she calls Me preacher. We had a spelling Match with the other forth Grade and the ones that missed had to sit down and I was among the few that were left standing. A minstral came to town to-day and passed the school house and the boys threw rocks at it and hit a old colerd woman with her bow. Edward Peacock invited me to his birthday party. There is a little boy named Paul that lives down the street from us who is very nice.

    Mary Helen Gilliam has a bicycle and I ride with her every day.

    Grandfody and I go to the movies on Friday and Saturdays. The rectory has been paperd and painted. With much

love Tom

[Such teasing as Miss Neill's gave title to TW's story "De Preachuh's Boy," in which a "delicate" nine year old is mocked as "`Sis-sy, Sis-sy'" (n.d., HRC). In 1996 a local resident who knew TW as a child stated that he was "mercilessly" taunted by classmates and suggested that his "strain of melancholy" may have been "gained right here in Clarksdale."

    Edward P. Peacock, Jr., lived in a large Victorian house near the Episcopal rectory. The "pet name" of his younger sister, Mary Edmunds, was "Baby Doll," later to be overlaid with suggestiveness and controversy occasioned by the film. The "nice" little boy was Paul Strode.

    The stage and film stars at the Marion Theatre gave Walter Dakin and his grandson a periodic escape from the rectory, an outlet that TW would later describe in his journal as "the usual anaesthesia" (August 8, 1937).]

7. To Walter E. Dakin

[6254 Enright Avenue
University City, Missouri]
[ca. 1927]
[ALS, 2 pp. HTC]

Dear Grandfather,

    Being of thrifty Quaker lineage, it is opposed to my nature to throw away this good piece of paper simply because it has the remnant of a french lesson on its back - and so I'm utilizing it for this letter, with apologys.

    As Grand has informed you, Mother got through her very serious operation quite well according to the reports we have received. We haven't seen her yet. The doctor said that it would be dangerous for us to visit her as she had to be kept absolutely quiet. We feel now that she has survived the operation and these first two days, she will surely get through allright.

    The morning of the operation was certainly an anxious one for us. We waited two hours while she was on the operating table. Grand had intended to bring a prayer-book for us to read out of but in her habitual flurry, she got the hymnal instead. However we read appropriate hyms and the good Lord seemed to receive them just as well.

    The nurse reports on Mother's condition night and morning. The reports today were that she was comfortable and was kept asleep most of the time.

    Dakin is behaving himself as well as he is constitutionally able. Rose and I are co-operating in house-work for Grand and the maid continues to come and so everything here is well-ordered. Hoping that you are getting along alright,

Lovingly, Tom.

[The intervening years saw the Williams family move several times before settling, in June 1926, on Enright Avenue in University City, the so-called "tenement" setting of Glass Menagerie fame. TW had graduated from Ben Blewett Junior High and was probably a junior at University City High School when this letter was written. "U. City" was a middle-class western suburb of St. Louis that modestly advanced Edwina's social design and gave her sons access to a superior education. In Memoirs (1975) TW recalled only the dreariness of the cramped, unhappy quarters that his family would occupy for nearly a decade: "An ugly region of hive-like apartment buildings ... and fire escapes and pathetic little patches of green among concrete driveways" (p. 16).

    Edwina printed page 1 of this letter in her memoir, Remember Me to Tom (1963), and without dating it precisely or identifying her operation (probably a hysterectomy), said that "the rest of the letter has been lost." Page 2 (beginning with the third sentence in the third paragraph and showing a canceled French lesson at the top) was found by the editors at the Harvard Theatre Collection in 1995. Contrary to reports, the full letter text shows that Rose was not shielded from news of Edwina's "serious operation" while away at school in Mississippi. The letter may date from 1927 after she completed the spring term (her last) at All Saints' in Vicksburg.]

8. To Rose Isabel Williams

SH: Thomas Lanier Williams
6254 Enright Avenue
St. Louis, Mo.
[November 19, 1927]
[TLS, 4 pp. Columbia]

Dear Rose,

    Aunt Belle sent us a letter giving a list of your engagements and, believe me, you are certainly going to be busy! You are probably right this minute at that tea which Aunty is giving for you. If you're not too tired when you get this, write us a letter and tell us how it went off. We are intensely interested, of course.

    Your new evening dress came out this morning. I don't greatly admire the color of it - a strange green - but perhaps it matches your eyes. Mother says she thought it was blue when she saw it in the store. But I don't see how. It's just as green as cats' eyes.

    To-day is Saturday and I have been busy all morning finding a family "who would appreciate a Thanksgiving dinner" from St Andrew's society. I have finally found one who lives down by Tenth St. - scene of the Italian gang-fights - and I think I shall ask for an armored car to deliver it with.

    Miss Florence made out a menu for me to use and, believe me, she was economical about it. One stalk celery, 5 potatoes, 3 apples!

    Mother and Dad were out last night and are going out again to-night. Imposing on me, making me stay in with Dakin two nights in succession on the week end! I think I shall choke Dakin to-night and go out anyway.

    Mother and I admonish you not to eat all the cake and Ice cream set before you because if you do you won't last a week!

    Dad tried your bed night before last, but he didn't sleep well on it so last night he went back to his own, saying that yours brought him bad luck. While he was in your room he demanded an explanation of all your cosmetics which were left in the closet. He was shocked at the number. Also he wanted to know what you did with that doll which was sitting on your bed. He seems to have no understanding of feminine frivolities.

    You will be glad to know that I am sticking to my own neat little hole-in-the-wall and am not desecrating your sanctified boudoir.

    We miss greatly the clatter of kettles, hissing of steam, and splash of water which signify your presence in the house. Except when Dakin is hammering or my type-writer clicking, everything is deathly still. We are all very sensible to your absence. It has gotten much warmer outside since you left. I certainly hope it has gotten warm for you in Knoxville. You don't want to go to partys with a red-nose, I'm sure.

    The most momentous happening since your departure was Dakin's breaking of a window in a near-by apartment. Dakin doesn't seem at all depressed over it. Although the owner was very angry. It happens to be the house of one of Dakin's enemys - the breaking was done by accident, though. I guess it will have to be paid for.

    With love to Aunt Belle and Ella, and wishing you the happiest time of your life,

yours lovingly, Tom.

[Rose Williams made her informal debut in Knoxville to take advantage of the social prominence of her aunt, Isabel ("Belle") Williams Brownlow (1883-1938), the younger sister of Cornelius. She recorded a month-long gala of parties, luncheons, and debutante balls in her diary (November 18-December 20, 1927, HRC), but the visit failed to produce a suitor for the hopeful eighteen year old. She "was never quite the same," TW stated in Memoirs: "A shadow had fallen over her that was to deepen steadily through the next four or five years" (p. 117). His warning about diet alludes to her chronic indigestion.

    At least twice TW linked Rose and Blanche DuBois in describing the origin of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Rose's abortive courting in a southern city and the "frivolities" of her bath and boudoir anticipate with uncanny precision both the argument and the intimate feminine imagery of Streetcar.

    Miss Florence, the divorced mother of TW's close friend Hazel Kramer, was a boisterous, unconventional woman whose company and support TW often sought, to Edwina's dismay.]

9. To Edwina Dakin Williams

SH: The Biltmore
Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues, New York
PM: Grand Central Station, New York,
July 2, 1928
[ALS, 6 pp. HRC]

Dear Mother,

    I am dead tired! It is after eleven o'clock and this Biltmore bed looks as seductive as Paradise to the damned. Even so, I am going to write you this short letter to tell you the marvelous time that I'm having and the perfectly dazzling prospects for our four-day stay in N.Y. We have just concluded dinner with a multi-millionaire, one of Mrs. Watson's partners, in his seven room suite at the end of the hall. Dinner served in princely style by the foreign waiter!

    Grandfather is perfectly thrilled. And of course I am! This man is a partner of Wrigley's! The first thing he did was to offer us some chewing gum. Tomorrow morning Grandfather and I are to have our breakfasts served in our room. At noon we meet Mrs. Watson and motor out to her magnificent Country Estate. In the evening we attend a performance of The Show Boat.

    The rest of our program is not made out. Except that we are to attend The Three Musketeers Grand Opera Tuesday night.

    Also Mrs. Watson has assured Grandfather that if Gov. Al Smith, who rooms at the Biltmore at present, comes here, she will give Grandfather an introduction to him.

    Really, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt didn't call at the door this next instant!!

    What almost knocked me over during the dinner was when Mr. Cummings told me that I was sitting at the same table, in his private suite, where the Prince of Wales had sat during his stay at the Biltmore in 1921!

    Did that kill me!!

    Mrs. Watson is a lovely woman but I've never known anyone to talk with the rapidity that she does. She can't seem to get the words out of her mouth fast enough to suit her.

    Well, we had a perfectly splendid trip up here on the train. I wish I could tell you all the things we're going to do here, but I don't know myself yet.

    Tomorrow morning Grandfather & I are going to do a little excursioning on our own - around the main Blvds, on the buses etc.

    In the meantime, the strongest smelling salts couldn't keep me awake.

Love to All, Tom.

[Before sailing for Europe, TW and his grandfather were entertained in New York by Jessie Watson, a partner in the Biltmore chain and a Dakin family friend. Their "excursioning" led them to Wall Street and the Battery and in the evening to the Ziegfeld Theatre for the original version of Show Boat (1927). The tour was one of many that Walter Dakin conducted for friends and parishoners, and it was also the first trip abroad for his seventeen-year-old grandson. Dressed in knickers, TW looked very much the waif of the party in a photograph taken on the deck of the Homeric and reprinted in Memoirs. The party sailed on July 6 and reached Paris in time to celebrate Bastille Day. On July 20 the tour continued to the south of France, then to the principal Italian cities, including Rome, Venice, and Milan, followed by Montreux, Cologne, Amsterdam, and London. By early-September TW was back in University City preparing for his final regular semester of high school.]


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Table of Contents

PART I: 1920-1932 1
PART II: 1933-1938 67
PART III: 1939 137
PART IV: 1939-1940 203
PART V: 1940-1941 291
PART VI: 1942-1943 365
PART VII: 1943-1945 445
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