In the small hours of 25 February 1983, the playwright Tennessee Williams died in his suite at the Elysée, a small, pleasant hotel on the outskirts of the Theatre District in New York City. He was 71: unhappy, a little underweight, addicted to drugs and alcohol and paranoid sometimes to the point of delirium. According to the coroner’s report, he’d choked on the bell-shaped plastic cap of a bottle of eyedrops, which he was in the habit of placing on or under his tongue while he administered to his vision.
The next day, the New York Times ran an obituary claiming him as “the most important American playwright after Eugene O’Neill”, though it had been two decades since his last successful play. It listed his three Pulitzer prizes, for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana, adding: “He wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humour about outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.”
He was also a kind, generous, hard-working man, who rose at dawn almost every morning of his life, sitting down at his typewriter with a cup of black coffee to produce what would amount to well over 100 short stories and plays. At the same time, he was a lonely, depressed alcoholic who managed by degrees to isolate himself from almost everyone he loved. A sample entry from his diary in 1957 reads: “Two Scotches at bar. 3 drinks in morning. A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch and 3 of wine at dinner. Also two seconals so far, and a green tranquillizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reserpine or something like that” – an itemisation made more troubling by the fact that he was in rehab at the time.
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