Rick Nelson and Claude Peck dispense unasked-for advice about clothing, etiquette, culture, relationships, grooming and more.
CP: He’s Brick. He’s Tom. He’s Blanche. He’s a little bit Stanley. How did one playwright work himself into so many legendary roles in the theater?
RN: That’s exactly what I was thinking while roaring through John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” It’s the best book I’ve read this year, and I was thrilled to see that it’s up for a National Book Award.
CP: It’s the only book on Williams I have read and it both makes me want to read more and feel like I don’t need to read another thing about the tortured dramatist.
RN: Tortured is right. The man must have been exhausting to be around. And utterly captivating.
CP: I love how Lahr opens, in 1945, with “Glass Menagerie.”
RN: Laurette Taylor’s performance as Amanda Wingfield is a theater legend, despite her need for a vomit bucket waiting in the wings.
CP: Taylor, 16 when she made her Broadway debut, was 61 by then, and “she’d been hibernating with a gin bottle for 12 years.”
RN: I love Lahr’s writing. It’s as if he’s channeling his subject.
CP: His book is great at showing how much a playwright depends on the kindness of strangers to create what Williams termed “the catastrophe of success.”
RN: Has any playwright ever had a more fertile string of evocative titles? “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “The Night of the Iguana.” “The Rose Tattoo.” “Suddenly Last Summer.” And his dooziest, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
CP: And to think “Streetcar” was originally titled “The Poker Night.”
RN: Reading about the play’s director, Elia Kazan, and his long and exceedingly fruitful professional relationship with Williams, made me order up his 1988 autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life.”
CP: I want it when you’re done. Williams found Kazan “indispensable,” and Lahr says they were the most important duo in the history of 20th-century American theater. They were very different, but for mainstream America, the onetime communist and the unapologetic gay man were equally suspect.
RN: Contemporary gay men owe Williams an enormous thanks for living his life out in the open at a time when that must have been extraordinarily difficult. Ditto his longtime partner, Frank Merlo. Christopher Isherwood referred to Merlo as Williams’ “safe harbor.”
CP: With Williams’ penchant for booze, pills, drama, trauma, infidelity, self-doubt and hypochondria, that was one storm-tossed harbor.
RN: In 1949 — hardly the Gay Pride parade era — Hollywood mogul Jack Warner asked Merlo about his occupation. Merlo’s response was, “I sleep with Mr. Williams.”
CP: The book does not skimp on sexploits. Neither did Williams.
RN: Tom was a real tomcat. Lahr also illuminates Williams’ scattered and undisciplined writing process, a revelation this unorganized writer appreciates to no end.
CP: Kazan and Williams’ longtime agent, Audrey Wood, tried every trick in the book to coax those brilliant pages out of him. Just like your editor here.
Twitter: @claudepeck and @RickNelsonStrib