National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 81: Tennessee Williams & Christopher Isherwood

William Inge’s screenplay combined with Elia Kazan’s direction and a young Natalie Wood’s acting to produce a classic cultural intervention into the numbing routine of life in America in the 1950s and early 1960s, the film “Splendor in the Grass” (1961). It set millions of teenagers, including myself, pondering the correlation between growing into conformity with the adult values of a dull yet savage society and the quashing of the idealistic passions of youth.

All three major players in this project, the gay but closeted Inge, Kazan and Wood, were tight in the circles of the eminent gay writers of that era, generally orbiting around the life-long friendship of Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. Kazan directed Williams’ classic “A Streetcar Named Desire” and other triumphs, and Wood was among the many fine performers such as Elizabeth Taylor who often preferred the company of such gay geniuses.

In fact, Wood’s closest personal aide, the gay Mart Crowley, went on to write the screenplay for the first major Broadway (1968) and film (1970) play devoted entirely to the urban gay lifestyle of that period, “Boys in the Band.” It’s a little-known fact that Crowley appeared in drag in a brief cameo role in the final scene of “Splendor in the Grass” as one of the girls driving the truck carrying the Wood character away from the farm of her once-passionate lover.

The friendship between Williams (1911-1983) and Isherwood (1904-1986) is a fascinating study in its own right, if only because both gay men as prolific writers devoted great energy to keeping diaries, published only many years after their deaths. Both diaries recorded, from their differing standpoints, the time that the two first met in Santa Monica, California, in 1943.

Williams’ diary was published as “Notebooks: Tennessee Williams” in 2006. In there, on May 23, 1943, Williams wrote, “I met Christopher Isherwood. Liked him, he was not so much as I had thought he would be. But he has ignored me since the one meeting, in spite of a letter I sent him. It was foolishly done, the letter.”

Isherwood’s diary has been published as two volumes so far, going to the end of the 1960s. In the first volume, “Diaries, Volume One, 1939-1960,” published in 1996, he wrote of meeting Williams for the first time. Dated May 13, 1943, the entry read, “Yesterday I had lunch with Tennessee Williams, the writer. He’s a strange boy, small, plump and muscular, with a slight cast in one eye; full of amused malice. He has a job with Metro. He wanted to buy an autoglide to ride to work on. I tried to dissuade him, but he insisted. We went to a dealer’s, and he selected a very junky old machine which is obviously going to give trouble.”

Much later, in 1972 Williams first published his “Memoirs,” his major, general public-directed “coming out” life testament. It appeared in the midst of the early, most explosive period of the modern gay liberation movement, and in it he wrote again of meeting Isherwood in 1943:

“We became great friends. We used to go out on the pier at Santa Monica for fish dinners. This was during World War II when almost everything was blacked out. There was an almost sentimental attachment between us but it didn’t come to romance: instead, it turned into a great friendship, one of the continuing friendships of my life, and one of the most important ones.”

(Nearby at the same time, as I reported earlier, I was being conceived by my parents.)

In his “Memoirs,” Williams wrote from his heart, more concerned for that than any memory lapses or deviations from his own earlier diaries. But he identified four features of his personality as a youth that I can directly relate to from my own life, and perhaps holds for many other gays, as well.

First, he suffered a “phobia about the process of thought.” He wrote, “Abruptly, it occurred to me that the process of thought was a terrifyingly complex mystery of human life.” He called it, “The terrifying nature of cerebration,” which was lifted from him as if by a miracle as a teen and never returned.

Secondly, he wrote, “My adolescent problems took their most violent form in a shyness of a pathological degree….I developed the habit of blushing whenever anyone looked me in the eyes….I don’t think I had effeminate mannerisms but somewhere deep in my nerves there was an imprisoned young girl.”

Thirdly, he had an “early childhood disposition to his art.”

Fourthly, he held a belief in God, though not of religion or ceremony. He wrote. “I have never doubted the existence of God nor have I ever neglected to kneel in prayer when a situation in which I found myself (and there have been many) seemed critical enough in my opinion to merit the Lord’s attention and, I trust, intervention.”

To be continued.