In 1996, a box arrived on Margaret Bradham Thornton ’81’s doorstep containing the notebooks of Tennessee Williams. It was sent by John Eastman, a friend of her husband’s and the executor of Williams’ estate. Eastman wanted Thornton, an independent scholar and writer in Bedminster, N.J., to see if they might be publishable.
“It was a complete mess,” Thornton says of the box containing diaries of the playwright famous for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Most of the [entries] weren’t dated, or were partially dated. I could barely read his handwriting in a lot of cases.” Plus, the copious diaries weren’t linear, as Williams would lose one, start another, then pick up in the first one when he found it.
But Thornton could see an “amazing creative record” buried amid the chaos, so she began editing. A decade later, Thornton had compiled a book — Notebooks, by Tennessee Williams, published by Yale University Press in February 2007.
Reproductions of Williams’ notebooks occupy the left side of each page, with Thornton’s abundant annotations — necessary to navigate the opaque references in the text — on the right. Williams was prolific, maintaining his diaries from 1936 to 1958 and from 1979 to 1981 (increased writing output and escalating drug and alcohol abuse account for the missing years, Thornton says). Williams wrote about everything, from his mentally delicate sister (who had a lobotomy in 1943, and is believed to be the inspiration for The Glass Menagerie’s Laura) to theatrical disasters (1940’s Battle of Angels, an expensive flop, closed in two weeks), but often used less-specific allusions.
“He would say ‘three manuscripts in the mail,’ and that’s only interesting if you know what those manuscripts were,” Thornton says.
To decode the references, Thornton interviewed scores of Williams’ intimates and colleagues, including Warren Beatty, Maureen Stapleton, and Gore Vidal, and consulted more than 3,000 Williams manuscripts preserved in academic archives. An English major at Princeton, Thornton had chosen Goldman Sachs over graduate studies in literature, and the analytic skills she picked up working on Wall Street were integral to organizing the archives: She created a massive database, mapping out the material.
And what material it was. Williams’ letters are preserved in scholarly collections, but Williams adapted his writing voice to the recipients. His diaries, however, are unfettered by consciousness of an audience; Williams wrote to himself, about himself. He unabashedly recounts his alcohol intake (“at least a dozen hi balls during the past eight hours”), his hypochondria (“The doctors continue to tell me I do not have cancer, but ... my symptoms ... seem to register something unmistakably more than a state of neurosis”), and his sexual exploits (long-term relationships plus casual pickups and encounters with prostitutes).
Particularly poignant are Williams’ early entries. His father disapproved of a literary career, and professors believed him to be a capable writer though “hardly taking the town by storm,” Thornton says. Yet Williams knew, even at age 25, that he was destined for greatness, and his unwavering faith is palpable in the diaries. “One thing that came through to me was his pioneer spirit,” Thornton says. “This is what he wanted to do, and he never really doubted himself.”