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Culture

Jew on a Hot Tin Roof

● Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
By John Lahr
W. W. Norton & Company, 784 pages, $39.95

An energetically gossipy biography of playwright Tennessee Williams has been written by the son of Irving Lahrheim, better known as Bert Lahr, filmdom’s Cowardly Lion. Williams, who wrote “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” among other stage successes, had an unruly life replete with sex, booze and pills, or as he once succinctly described it in a TV interview: “I cover the waterfront.” Lahr’s book is strong on waterfront-covering, but such habits rarely explain artistic achievement. Other sources suggest that Yiddishkeit was an unexpected influence on Williams’s writerly message.

Raised in Missouri in an Episcopal family, Williams showed an early tendency to rebel against homegrown bigotry. In 1935, according to a memoir by his brother Dakin Williams, his sister Rose Williams spread a false rumor that the rector of the family’s local Episcopal Church was Jewish. Tennessee Williams sometimes couched early letters home in somewhat derogatory terms about Jews, as if he knew that his family expected to read such things.

In October 1937, Williams writes to his mother from Iowa that a play of his would be performed “about an ignorant Jewish movie-producer revising a great classic for the movies.” In missives to others, Williams describes Jews as useful sources of experience for his writing projects. On the road during the Great Depression, in 1937 he writes from an Iowa boarding house to tell a friend that he has met a “young Jew who has spent several summers on the bum and he has given me a lot of information about the nature of transients. He has slept in flop-houses, jails, jungles, been deported, etc. and so provides excellent material of the sort I am interested in.”

Two years later Williams writes proudly to a former professor that he has “rivalled the wandering Jew — or perhaps your fabulous hero Paul Bunyan — in the extent of my peregrinations since last summer.” This identification with, and appreciation of, Jews is suppressed when communicating with his family. In January 1940, he writes from the West Side YMCA in New York to his grandparents that he went on a date with Florence Odets, the sister of playwright Clifford Odets: “Unfortunately she is Jewish. But very nice.” In a letter from early 1940 to his younger brother, he recalls how he had dated an “enormously wealthy young Jewish girl,” Anne Bretzfelder, whose “Hebrew ostentation” had made him “smile.” He adds, “I like the Jews, but they do have some funny traits.”

His family apart, Williams’s identification with Jews would gradually increase. His poignant early short story “Something by Tolstoi” concerns a bookstore run by the Brodzky family, Americans of Russian Jewish origin. Jacob Brodzky marries a gentile woman of whom his father disapproves. His wife leaves him to pursue a career in vaudeville, but returns 15 years later, unrecognizable. David Kaplan’s “Tennessee Williams in Provincetown” relates how in the summer of 1940, the aspiring playwright stayed at Captain Jack’s Wharf, which consisted of little shacks on a dock “rented to artists, to actors, and to Jews, which not every place in Cape Cod would do.” There Williams met Bernard Dubowsky, a Canadian of Ukrainian Jewish origin who attempted a career as a dancer using the stage name Kip Kiernan. Although Dubrowsky broke up with Williams after an intense six-week affair, the playwright held a torch for him for decades after Dubrowsky died of a brain tumor in 1944 at age 26. As Kaplan recounts:

First and last [Dubrowsky] held a glamour for Williams: of beautiful doom, of something too beautiful to last very long, of a love so ephemeral it needed to be remembered; all of those themes that repeat in his writing: the breakable glass animals of the menagerie, the sweet bird of youth… the brief narcotic of love at the end of Summer and Smoke, culminating in a cry from Eccentricities of a Nightingale.

Soon another encounter would further increase Williams’s empathy with Jews. In September 1940, he visited Acapulco, Mexico, where he wrote to a friend that fellow guests at his hotel, “predominantly pro-Nazi Germans, coarse, loud, overwhelmingly arrogant, descended on the hotel in a swarm the last few days. I tried to speak to one of the girls yesterday and she said, ‘Excuse me, I don’t speak Yiddish.’ Apparently she thought I was Jewish or else regarded all Americans as Jews — anyway the remark struck me as incredibly revolting in its racial nastiness and smugness… Hitler has ruined the Germans, he has so thoroughly sold them on his lowest of bourgeois ideology.”

Williams’s own ideology flourished in a series of memorable plays, alongside a series of writings explicitly identifying anti-Semitism with senseless rage, senility or insanity. His short story, 1973’s “The Inventory at Fontana Bella,” tells of a 101-year-old Italian princess:

Old ladies have a way, you know, of acquiring prejudice of race and class and gender, so it wasn’t surprising that Lisabetta had turned somewhat against members of the Hebrew race, mostly through a paranoid senility.

‘If there’s a Jew at the inventory,’ she shouted, ‘I want him to keep a shut mouth. Not a word out of him during the inventory. I know they’re an ancient race but not all ancient races are necessarily noble!’

Williams’s play, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel” concerns Zelda Fitzgerald who, as the author told The Paris Review in 1981, “was also terribly anti-Semitic, like most Southern women, and a touch of it goes into the play [Clothes]. I think I just couldn’t leave it out and do a true portrait of her. I have her make a single anti-Semitic remark in the play, which is about Sheila Graham, whose real name is Lili Sheil.” The columnist and former lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham was in fact born Lily Shiel in Leeds, England, to Ukrainian Jewish parents.

A final reference to Jews, and the author’s shared sense of vulnerability with them, is in “The Traveling Companion” about Vieux, an aging writer, victimized by a hustler, Beau. Vieux recounts anti-Semitism as a symptom of the insanity of a former companion, Tyler, who during a flight, “[s]houted out ‘This plane is full of Jews.’ Of course, this was true, being out of Miami. Shouting, near riot resulted. I quickly moved to other side of plane with carry-on bag, closed my eyes, faking sleep. Personally have no racial prejudice in me, no belief in the individual nor the collective guilt. Appalled by Holocaust, World War Two. But God, do you know when the Holocaust was shown on TV, poor sick Tyler applauded as Jews lined up for death chamber.”

Williams’s reference to the 1978 “Holocaust” TV mini-series starring Tovah Feldshuh, Sam Wanamaker, and Meryl Streep underlines his empathy, a useful reminder amid the hectic tittle-tattle of John Lahr’s entertaining new biography.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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