I met Tennessee Williams in 1982 on a staircase in a loud, crowded Disco bar in Key West Florida called The Monster. He was barefooted, wearing a white sailor’s suit, descending a narrow flight of stairs, drunk, and clutching the railing in fear of falling. I was ascending the same stairs, leaping up to the upstairs bar to get a cognac and there he was, my champion of truth and beauty, stumbling down the stairs about to fall. I was stunned. Although titillated at our chance meeting, I had no idea it would be prelude to a year of travel, adventure and spontaneous, sometimes exasperating, emotional outbursts of despair, grief and fear of dying alone, unloved. As he struggled with the stairs, he stumbled and was about to fall when I reached out and caught him in my arms. Irony? He inspired me at the age of fifteen; The Glass Menagerie “woke me up” to the power of literature to interpret life. I imagined meeting him some day.
That first night set the stage for fun, adventure, and turbulence that would mount throughout our journey. It began with playful, witty, bantering, reciting poetry and a naked swim in TW’s swimming pool with two attractive young men he had invited to join us. Several characters
from his plays made appearances that night: Blanche Dubois, Violet Venable, Maxine and Alexandra Del Lago (incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis) in the form of TW…and they never left. Throughout the evening he would morph from one character to the next. It was the year he would mount his last play, “A House not Meant to Stand,” and receive an Honorarium from Harvard University for lifetime achievement. Also that year he joined Vanessa Redgrave (he thought her to be the greatest living English speaking actress) at a protest performance she gave to express the injustice she felt being fired by the Boston Symphony Orchestra due to her political beliefs. Everything in his world appeared to be good. But, after the two attractive young men left, he burst into startling, sobbing tears, drenching his shirt, reddening his eyes and the skin around them. He looked like an old vampire who just exsanguinated a victim. I was stunned! He went from jovial to miserable in a Nano-second. What was I to do?
How could this great playwright be in such misery, instead of basking in the glory of his super-human achievements? His work, like poets and philosophers have done for millennia, explored fundamental truths of life: What is a human Being? What is Truth? What is a Good Life? Are we living in an Illusion or is this Reality? Functional or Dysfunctional? In one of his letters he started with writing this: “Reality is at best a collective hunch.”
We lived two realities that year: his, a happy ending where we sail off into the Aussie sunset and mine, we depart as friends realizing the age and experience differences could not be ignored, and I would chart my own life. In 1982 I was at a crossroad, having to decide between life as a struggling, independent filmmaker and life as a sales person working for Xerox. My preference was film, but I was destitute. A trip to Key West would be the elixir to my dilemma. When I met TW I thought perhaps he could help me figure out what to do with my life. Instead, it would be the year I lived his life, not entirely understanding his protean behavior, but immensely intrigued. It would be his last year, and a defining moment in my life. We were like sailors traveling from port to port, sharing personal, at times painful, stories of our lives, each looking for a different reality.
Tony Narducci is the author of In the Frightened Heart of Me: Tennessee Williams’s Last Year