TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, American dramatist was born (d. 1983); born Thomas Lanier Williams III, Tennessee Williams, was a major American playwright of the 20th century who received many of the top theatrical awards for his work. He moved to New Orleans in 1939 and changed his name to “Tennessee,” the state of his father’s birth because he thought “Thomas Lanier Williams” sounded “like it might belong to the sort of writer who turns out sonnet sequences to Spring,” Tennessee won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama forA Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo (dedicated to his lover, Frank Merlo), received the Tony Award for Best Play.
Williams is nothing less than the stuff of theater history, on and off the stage. If at times Williams appeared to be his own worst enemy, he long lived with the pressure of having been the first publicly-known gay celebrity in America. It cannot have been much fun to watch his great Blanche DuBois undressed in quest for her penis by homophobic critics obsessed with proving that gay men know nothing about straight love. His other heroines have been similarly violated. If all writers pay a price for fame, Williams, being open and out as a gay man, paid more than his fair share.
Williams’s relationship with Frank Merlo, a second generation Sicilian American who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, lasted from 1947 until Merlo’s death from cancer in 1963. With that stability, Williams created his most enduring works. Merlo provided balance to many of Williams’ frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like his sister Rose, he would go insane.