The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin
Edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith
Norton. 352 pages, $39.95
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS met James Laughlin at a party in New York given by Lincoln Kirstein, the man responsible for founding, with George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet. To Laughlin, the founder of a new publishing house devoted to the avant-garde, Williams was a promising poet whom Kirstein had recommended, and anyone Kirstein recommended Laughlin took seriously. To Williams, the shy, impecunious poet in a tattered sweater hiding in one of the smaller rooms of Kirstein’s apartment, Laughlin was someone who might publish what he called, in a letter to his family, his “verse.”
Most people consider Williams a “poetic” playwright—someone whose lines have entered the English language the way poetry does (“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”), but few have read or know about his poems and short stories. The first volume of Williams’ poems that New Directions published was In The Winter of Cities (1956); the second, twenty years later, Androgyne, Mon Amour (1977). And Laughlin was always asking for more. He admired Williams’ poetry, he told his author, because, unlike most of the avant-garde poets, Williams wrote for the heart.
It was important to Williams to consider himself a part of the avant-garde. Even at the end—especially at the end—he saw himself as an experimental writer. (It was the critics, he said, who refused to allow him to experiment.) By writing Laughlin on February 6, 1945, “I would like all my shy intrusions on the world of letters to be thru N.D. [New Directions],” Williams was joining a stable of writers that included Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Guy Davenport, and William Carlos Williams—all writers who were out of the mainstream in some way. His first play to be produced, Battle of Angels, flopped in Boston when the smudge pots being used onstage sent smoke into the fleeing audience—a scene out of Mel Brooks. His second effort in Boston, a reading from a play written entirely in verse, did not go much better. “I made the terrible mistake of trying to read Dos Ranchos,” he wrote Laughlin. “It went all to pieces while I was reading. It began to sound like shit. My voice became loud and expressionless and I kept going on, hoping to find a passage suitable to close with. I really murdered it! As I did not give them a synopsis to begin with or select in advance the parts that could be offered out of context.”
One cannot imagine any context for some of the short stories Laughlin published in collections like One Arm (1948), which were truly ahead of their time. Stories like “Desire and the Black Masseur” are so homoerotic that one wonders why they didn’t get Williams in the sort of trouble Gore Vidal claimed he suffered because of his novel The City and the Pillar. The answer, I think, must be in part that the publisher was New Directions—a small house whose reputation was more artistic than commercial, and hence less in the public eye. Indeed, more than once Williams begged Laughlin not to publicize or distribute a particular book of his in any way that might bring it to his mother’s notice. “I want no part of any commercial publishers now or ever!” he wrote Laughlin on March 11, 1945. “Not as long as I am eating without them. Once you get tied up with one you become, for better or worse, a professional writer which shouldn’t happen to anyone!”
The irony that lies behind a fascinating new collection of the two men’s letters, The Luck of Friendship (expertly edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith), is our knowledge that Williams wanted both commercial and literary success. And while his letters to Laughlin are frequently more about literary matters—the covers of his books, the format, the publicity—before long one begins to hear the off-stage boom of his Broadway career, the big plays that both made him a very famous professional writer and drove him to drink under the pressure to repeat what he called “the catastrophe of success.” About these Broadway plays—and the later Off-Broadway flops—Laughlin was always encouraging and complimentary, providing the unconditional support any writer wants from his or her editor. Although Laughlin wasn’t afraid to say what he didn’t like in these productions, he was always buoying the playwright up. But Laughlin thought of Williams primarily as a poet. “I always enjoy the plays,” he wrote Williams on April 20, 1951, “they are wonderful—but I still feel that essentially you are a poet, and that in the end you will do your greatest work in that field.”
Clearly Williams thought of himself as a poet, as well, and was conscious of what other poets were doing. He even brought the poetry of other poets whose work he admired to Laughlin’s attention. One of these was Frederick Nicklaus, one of the young men Williams lived with in Key West. “Frederick was pleased with the cover design for his poems and I think his anticipation of their coming out keeps him happy, as it should,” Williams wrote Laughlin on March 12, 1964. And it wasn’t just Nicklaus that Williams helped. Williams agreed to let Laughlin publish his own work in paperback because, Laughlin said, the greater sales would allow him to publish the work of young writers he might otherwise not be able to afford. In other words, Williams helped subsidize writers as impecunious as he had been when Laughlin got him a grant from the organization that became the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Williams really needed the money.
This was because the two men shared the same exalted vision of the writer’s vocation. “I haven’t turned up anything new that seems much good,” Laughlin wrote Williams on April 23, 1947. “I guess most all of the young writers are just hell bent for success, copying books that have ‘succeeded’ rather than trying to get down what their souls whisper to them in the black of their despair.” The black of despair was, of course, Williams’ hunting ground. But he was always conscious of his status in the literary world. Laughlin had to persuade him that paperback editions of his books would not be down-market, but would make them more available to students and the young writers he wished to reach.
There is no relationship quite like that between a writer and his or her editor. It’s based partly on mutual usefulness; the editor is the magician who will bring the writer’s work to the public, the person who therefore lies somewhere between a knight in shining armor, Santa Claus, and God; the writer is the means by which the editor hopes to succeed. Both want to make the other happy, both are on their best behavior, both united in a reverence for the word, on whatever level. That’s why The Luck of Friendship is so welcome; it’s that part of Williams that is so often forgotten in the unavoidably melodramatic accounts of a life that was in so many ways sensational. It’s the sane, quiet artist who spent every morning writing, no matter where he was or what was going on around him, the man who protected the mysterious source of his inspiration from all attempts to figure it out. (In his Memoirs, the only book New Directions did not publish, simply because Laughlin could not match the advance Random House was offering, Williams doesn’t once discuss the subject of how he wrote.)
The comedy, and tragedy, of this collection lies in the arc it traces from the letters of a shy, young, ambitious writer to those of a middle-aged success turning a beady eye on the world around him to those of a man at the end of his career who wonders if his obsession with writing didn’t destroy his life. But it’s all done through a single prism: the exchange of letters between two men whose missives expand beyond practical publishing matters to commentary on what’s happening in their personal lives, though one is hetero-, the other homosexual.
A letter dated March 1945 is an example: “The evils of promiscuity are exaggerated,” Williams wrote Laughlin. “Somebody said it has at least the advantage of making you take more baths. But I think one picks a rose from each person, each of a somewhat different scent and color. Each affair can make some new disclosure, and whether it builds or reduces your range of feeling and understanding depends pretty much on yourself. Of course you pay for it with something—perhaps a cumulative distrust of what is called ‘real love.’ … As for hurting people who love you—nothing is less avoidable!”
Take another reference to Frederick Nicklaus, for example. In a letter from Key West dated March 1963 we read: “As for poor little Freddie, I think he is probably one of the best poets in America. I seriously do think so. But he nearly strangled me to death a few nights ago because I woke up at three AM and tried to revive him, sleeping on the sofa, by pouring ice-water on his head, and he says that I called him a whore.” One year later, when New Directions is bringing out Nicklaus’ poems, Williams writes of Nicklaus: “He understands, he says, as well as I do why it is wrong for us to try to go on together. We can’t help each other any longer, and if we tried to, we would probably do nothing but hurt each other. Sic transit.”
The world beyond sex and literature is occasionally noticed. From London he writes in 1948: “England is a great and indefinable horror like a sickness that has not been diagnosed but drains the life from you. The upper classes are hypocritical, cold and heartless. They still eat off gold plates and dress for dinner. They entertain you lavishly for the weekend. On Monday you get a little note enquiring if you stole a book from them.” (Years later he would think of moving there.) From Rome in the same year. “I have made some good friends such as Frederic Prokosch and that unhappy young egotist Gore Vidal.” Two decades later, in 1971: “Maria [Britneva] has been a devoted friend to me all these years despite her present attachment to Gore Vidal. I think he uses her as a ‘front’ for his dissolute activities in Rome but she is impressed by the grandeur of his penthouse on a Roman palazzo and his undeniable wit. (I thought Myra Breckenridge was more disgusting than funny.)” On the future of the U.S., in a letter dated April 9, 1947:
The heat and dampness are descending on New Orleans and it is like a Turkish bath only not as socially inspiring. So I am wondering whether to go East or West. From the looks of things generally, one would do well to get clear out of the country and stay out for at least the opening stages of “The American Century.” I have a feeling that if we survive the next ten years, there will be a great purgation, and this country will once more have the cleanest air on earth, but right now there seems to be an unspeakable foulness. All the people at the controls are opportunists or gangsters. The sweetness of reason died out of our public life with FDR. There doesn’t even seem to be a normal intelligence at work in the affairs of the nation. Aren’t you frightened by it?
(If this is what Truman inspired, what on earth would he have made of the people at the controls now?)
But it’s Williams’ personal life that pokes through increasingly, on which the most succinct comment is probably the one Laughlin makes in a letter to Williams in 1954: “I sometimes think that the tragedy of so many of us is that our sexual type is often not the type we can live with!” Amen. The mess increases as the years pass and the letters, whose intimacy deepens as he and Laughlin discuss divorces, break-ups, flops, and illnesses, reflect this. Once he loses the domestic stability provided by his ten-year relationship with Frank Merlo, who died of lung cancer when Williams was at the height of his commercial success, everything goes downhill. Traveling with a friend in the Far East in 1970, Williams writes to Laughlin:
The big problem now is loneliness. I must find a new life-companion. This is especially urgent since, after five years with Glavin [another of his young men] and an almost total celibacy, I have a strong libido again as well as a need to be close to someone. It’s pretty hard to work out a problem like that in the States at my age with my minimal attractions, discounting what I hope is still a fair degree of financial security.
The young poet, grateful to Laughlin for getting him a $1,000 grant in 1944, is now a rich playwright who can subsidize younger writers through the profits he brings New Directions, a millionaire who has to worry about who will receive legacies when he dies. By the time he writes Laughlin a letter from Key West in May 1963 about the will he wants to rewrite, he’s worried that another of the young men who came after Frank Merlo would not get anything unless he changed his will: “I would not rest easy in my grave, which I’m afraid is something to be considered now, if he were cast upon the unreliable tenderness of the world.”
The grace of that last phrase, like “my shy intrusions into literature,” or, in another letter, “I don’t believe God is dead but I think he is inclined to pointless brutalities,” is present in everything Williams wrote. As for the humor: “The local doctor told me I had non-contagious mumps and just go home and lie down with a bottle of booze by the bed. Others said I had non-contagious but infectious mononucleosis which makes me think of what Jabe said to Myra in Battle of Angels: ‘Do you think I had a tumor of the brain and they cut out the brain and left the tumor?’”
The last question was not entirely a joke, of course; Williams thought he was going to die for a good portion of his adult life. But he seems to have been as strong as an ox. It was his mind and spirit that begin to show the wear and tear. The loneliness, for one thing. After Merlo died, Williams began a long search for his replacement. In May of 1964, he wrote from Key West: “Marion is here with me but she’s got to leave tomorrow and I might leave with her as this is not a happy place to be alone in. I guess no place is a good place to be alone in.” And on December 16 of that same year, from New York, he wrote of a new shrink: “This new one puts a bottle of whiskey on the table beside me and he tries to persuade me that I am a reasonably good person, despite my self-contempt.”
Self-contempt was only part of it; the rest was his insecurity as a writer. The balm was Laughlin’s constant encouragement. As early as 1949, Williams writes Laughlin from Rome that “I depend so much on your critical opinion as there are times when my own seems to fail me. I lose objectivity about my work, as everyone does at times.” On Oct. 15, 1950, he writes that Laughlin’s letter “comes at a time in my life when I have a need for some confirmation or reassurance about my work’s value. … I feel that I have worked very hard and very seriously over a considerable period, that I have not done anything cheap or meretricious, that regardless of my known limitations as a writer, I have shown taste and courage and do have honesty.”
But the longer he goes on writing, the more battered he feels. From a letter written to Bob McDonald, Laughlin’s assistant at New Directions, on January 22, 1972, just before the opening of Small Craft Warnings at the Truck & Warehouse Theater, a play in which Williams himself acted in order to keep it going:
I have been a writer nearly all my life, well, from before puberty, even, but it adds up to almost nothing. I mean I’ve discovered nothing. There’s been no answer to the questions. I am sure this must be the feeling of nearly all writers when they sense that their work is finished. Probably all of them, as I did, had hoped that the Sphinx at the edge of the desert would reply to their shouts, but she remains a silent stone enigma at the edge of the desert.
And from Key West on March 9, 1973, regarding publication in book form of Out Cry, the play Laughlin considered the final summation of all of Williams’ themes:
[I]t is a comfort to know that you’ll bring it out as a book: something will survive the holocaust of these years of half-crazed often impotent effort. … Sometimes it seems to me that the past twelve years or so has been one long sick ego trip and I don’t see the end of it yet. … The simple natural thing of doing my work was slowly shattered through my collision with the false intensities and pressures of ‘show-business’—for which I was not cut out.
In short, Williams never got over the division between the demands of commercial success and the art of writing (something that plagued one of his heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well). Still, Laughlin, the man whom Williams told, “You are my literary conscience—the only one outside of myself” provides comfort and reassurance. “These dark days will pass,” he assures Williams on March 29, 1963,
even though in the moment things look black. You’ve had a rough life, not the glamorous ease that is supposed to go with success, but look at the wonders that have come out of it. And I don’t just mean the great plays and the beautiful poems and the stories that cut through to the truth, but also the hundreds of kind things you have done for people, and can still do. You are a good human being, Tenn, and don’t forget it. You mean a lot to a lot of us, as well as the public, and we want you around for a long time.
In one sense, he need not have worried.
Andrew Holleran’s fiction includes Dancer from the Dance, Grief, and The Beauty of Men.