Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog

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Release Date: 
March 3, 2015
Reviewed by: 

“It is the writing itself that astonishes. It is elegant, poetic—even appropriately elegiac—and wry.”

True story: way back when, in my theater days, I became acquainted with a young actress name Kate, whose mother was also an actress, one of great note, great talent, and some degree of fame. The mother, Shirley, had once been cast in the lead of one of playwright Tennessee Williams’s lesser works.

Because of this, my friend Kate had, some years before when she herself was little more than a toddler, become well acquainted with Williams, who allowed the mother to bring the child with her to rehearsals. Thus Kate had spent a portion of her childhood sitting on the famous playwright’s lap, while he entertained her by singing childhood songs to her (“Inky Dinky Spider,” “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush”) in a honeyed, slightly drunken Southern drawl, completely ignoring the play that was being rehearsed for his benefit.

Reading Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog is in very many ways similar to the experience of having friends share the details their relationship with Williams. As with Kate’s and Shirley’s, the tales told in the pages are spoken in first person by women who worked with Williams, or whose work he most admired—all of whom bear witness to his life and his work, detailing their relationships with him and his to the American culture.

Within the picaresque structure of the book, Follies pieces together a portrait of Tennessee Williams, artist and man—one that is richer, more enthralling and, yes, stranger, than any that has been committed to publication heretofore.

This is because author James Grissom has, through an unholy combination of research, intrusion, and empathy, committed half his lifetime to assembling something akin to a living, breathing creation—a portrait of Tennessee Williams that inhabits the pages of his new book Follies of God in all his flawed, erratic, ingeniously creative glory.

But to say that Follies of God is a fine biography is to do the book a disservice.

Because it is something more as well as something different from a traditional biography. It is, instead, an inquiry, an inquiry both into the nature of a particular man and into the force of nature that constitutes the creative process.

The reader comes away from the book somewhat exhausted, totally sated and feeling perhaps a bit—to use an overworked word—enlightened.

Where other biographies offer a timeline of plays written, lovers strewn, lawsuits fought, as well as an array of betrayals and bon mots, Follies offers much more: details, certainly, the sort of details that only an old friend supply; street names and such, for sure; as well as favorite things: colors, drinks, places, friends, and foes; and anecdotes that capture specific moments in time—all accentuated by Grissom’s skillful structuring of this complex text and by his own gift of writing.

Grissom throughout operates as something of a Boswell for Williams, forever scribbling in his little blue notebook the things that he was seeing, smelling, tasting, things that intrigued him or frightened him—the details of a life on the run.

Thus Follies is as much an autobiography as a biography, as Grissom shares many of the details of his own life, most especially those concerning how it was shaped by Williams and company. But more on that in a moment.

First, know this: It is of import that Grissom met Williams in September of 1982.

By then the master playwright, author of such past triumphs as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had fallen onto some hard times, both in terms of art and of reputation as an artist.

Many felt that, as a creative force in the theater, he had lost his touch, that his then-present plays were not only inferior to his older ones, but also often seemed to lampoon them, as if Tennessee Williams had become a cliché, had begun to cannibalize himself.

It was at this time in the early ’80s that our author, then a young writer, wrote to Tennessee Williams by way of his agent, Audrey Woods.

With the impudence of youth, he wrote asking for help:

“I had written a letter—lengthy and containing a photograph, and thankfully lost to us forever—asking for his advice on a writing career. I wrote that his work had meant the most to me; and that I was considering a career in the theatre. I also enclosed two short stories, each of which had been written for a class taken at Louisiana State University, a time I recall as happy, as I was writing and exploiting the reserves of the school’s library and its liberal sharing policy with other schools. I was poring over book and papers that related to Tennessee Williams and other writers I admired.”

Mirabile dictu, the letter—which was, let’s face it, a nightmare scenario for any established writer, a request from a younger, less experienced writer with short stories to share and have critiqued—got results.

Lunch was had and a friendship was born.

But there was a reason, you see, why Tennessee “Call me Tenn” Williams got in touch with the youthful Grissom, a reason that very nicely explains the rather-a-mouthful subtitle of the book, Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog:

“No play written by Tennessee Williams . . . got its bearings until a fog rolled across the boards, from which a female form emerged.

“’I do not know why this is,’ Tenn confessed to me, ‘but there is a premonitory moment before a woman, an important, powerful woman, enters my subconscious, and the moment is announce by the arrival of fog. Perhaps it is some detritus of my brain belching forth both waste and a woman. I do not know, but it comes with a smell, and it is the crisp, pungent smell of radiators hissing and clanking and rattling in rooms in New Orleans and St. Louis and New York. Rooms in which I wrote and dreamed and starved and fucked and cried and read and prayed, and perhaps all that action and all that steam creates both the fog and this woman.’

“’I have not seen the fog in years.’

“Tenn’s primary activity, he told me, was ‘faking the fog.’ When he closed his eyes and summoned his mental theatre, he could see the scuffed boards of the stage, the frayed, slow-moving curtains, smell the dust and feel the excitement of drama forthcoming.

“’When I was young,’ Tenn told me, ‘I never sought out a woman, a character. She came to me. She had a story to tell, urgently, violently, fervently. I listened and I identified, and I became her most ardent supporter and witness. I cannot get a witness for me and I cannot be a witness for anyone! I cannot find a woman who will speak to me on my stage . . .’

“In his homes, in hotel rooms, in lodges and athletic clubs and as a guest of others, Tenn would pull out his typewriter or his pad of paper, which he called the ‘pale judgment’ awaiting his ministrations, move close to a television set, and wait for a woman to ‘speak to him.’ With friends like Maria St. Just and Jane Smith, whose love for and patience with him was boundless, he would sit in movie theatres for up to three consecutive showings because a ‘wisp’ of fog was emanating from the screen.

“’I have not seen the fog in years,’ Tenn repeated, ‘but your letter made me believe that it still existed.’”

Thus, the friendship between the men, from the first, was both bound to the creative process, and existed as the means by which each could act as a muse for the other.

Williams gave Grissom the nickname “Dixie” and sent the young man on a mission. He asked the youth to visit some of the people who Williams held most dear, creative types all, to ask them to explain what Williams had meant in their lives. It is a strange request to be sure, grotesque even, as Williams seeks the validation and approval of others to fill the void in his own structure.

The mission came with no structured conclusion, only the hope that the results of the interviews would one day congeal into something and that, along the way, Grissom would become a better writer under Williams’s tutelage. And also that Williams, upon receiving bouquets of love from some of America’s greatest actresses would, secure once more in his position as America’s most important playwright, be able once more to conjure the fog he needed in which to create.

Follies traces Grissom’s adventures in the homes and theaters housing those who owed their careers to their work in Williams’s plays, Maureen Stapleton (who, in the words of Marlon Brando, was like “a large box of Cracker Jacks: sweet, sticky, messy, simple, and, in its way, perfect”); Jessica Tandy (who was not Williams’s choice for playing Blanche in the original production of Streetcar but became one of his closest friends, most constant advocates, and favorite actresses); and Katharine Hepburn, who acted in the film Suddenly, Last Summer, an adaptation of one of Williams’s one acts.

Hepburn is saved for last. And if the sequence in which Grissom meets and interviews Hepburn is not the best in the book, it is most certainly to be its most celebrated.

The build up to it is quite brilliant. Concerning the advice he got before actually interviewing Hepburn, Grissom writes:

“Both Marian Seldes and her husband, Garson Kanin, who, with his first wife and writing partner, Ruth Gordon, had created three of the Tracy-Hepburn films, told me to arrive ‘prepared,’ and wasn’t sure what that meant. They did not clarify the term too well; they only reiterated that one should be prepared and at one’s best in the company of Katharine Hepburn . . .

“On the advice of Jessica Tandy, I arrived perfectly clean with no scent of anything—perfume, city filth, food—on my person. ‘I have always found her to be a clean-slate sort of person,’ Tandy told me. ‘Clean, precise, detailed.’ Ellis Rabb had told me that she had positioned above her dressing-room mirror the quote, from Nabokov, ‘Caress the detail, the divine detail,’ so I was rested and clear and ready to offer details or be detailed.

“I arrived at the house at the precise time that has been requested, and after one ring of the doorbell, the door swiftly flew open and Katharine Hepburn stood there, colorful and alert.”

What happens next is terrific, as Hepburn proves to be Hepburn, even on the printed page. Most especially when she asks Grissom to tell her the names of the other women he has interviewed. As Grissom puts it: “Every actress wishes to know the names of the members of the company she is keeping.”

What follows is the rat-a-tat-tat of Hepburn’s take on each and every one of them:

“Jessica Tandy? ‘Oh, she’s marvelous. Seemingly weak but granite and grace fused together.” Maureen Stapleton? “Wonderful actress; funny; a mess.’ Kim Stanley? ‘Tragic. A great talent and a willful, public suicide . . . Geraldine Page? ‘The type of actress I would have like to have been; the sort of person I tend to avoid . . .’”

On and on she goes. On and on. And then they have ice cream.

Among the book’s many virtues is Grissom’s obvious love, not just for Williams or the Broadway Theater, but also for the many actresses included in the volume. The reader can sense his joy in meeting so many of his heroes and that joy is perhaps never so palpable as when Follies celebrates a number of actresses—Lois Smith, Barbara Baxley, and Kim Stanley, among many others—who are lesser known, but whose presence in Williams’s life and in Grissom’s own makes them indelible witnesses.

But perhaps it is Marian Seldes who looms largest as an actress who becomes a true friend, as well as a helpmeet and advocate for Grissom as he dedicates more and more of his life to the seemingly endless task at hand. In a book that is nearly encyclopedic in its study of American actresses of the latter half of the 20th century, she emerges as both the heart and soul of the book and the foreman of the jury.

The reader could mistakenly conclude that the main achievement of this excellent work is contained within Grissom’s willingness to work so long and so hard and staying true to Williams’s challenge, even after the playwright’s death.

But there was a certain wry cunning in Grissom’s willing transformation into “Dixie.” His task opened doors for him, allowed him to meet and know a cast of characters obviously comprised of those who had had already held dear, even before meeting them in the flesh, and before his first luncheon with Williams.

It also allowed him to befriend Tennessee Williams as well. And to learn from him, perhaps, both what to do and what not to do as a writer. And how to live—and not to live—the writer’s life.

But the true achievement of the book lurks within its sentences, muscles its way through its paragraphs. It is the writing itself that astonishes. It is elegant, poetic—even appropriately elegiac—and wry.

Any number of young, green hopefuls might have been so dazzled by Williams to agree to give his challenge a shot, only to either quit soon after or to puzzle the dozens of resulting interviews into a muddled mess.

But Tennessee Williams, glazed-eyed with alcohol, chose well.

And James Grissom with Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of The Fog proves himself to be a writer whose talent for the jaundiced detail comes wrapped with a loving heart.

This is an extraordinary work. Not only for those who love theater, but also for those who would seek an understanding of the mind of the artist. There are plenty on display here—Williams’s, Hepburn’s (her reaction of a remembrance of her written by Williams will make you rethink her public persona), Seldes’s, Stapleton’s, but, most especially, James Grissom’s own.

A final note: those who might wish to have a male viewpoint of Williams as well as the female should be aware that Follies does give insight into Tennessee Williams’s relationships with men as well. Indeed, the section of the book dedicated to the love/hate relationship between Williams and William Inge, author of Picnic and Come Back, Little Sheba among other plays, is yet another highlight that Follies has to offer.