Most people who write to celebrities get an autographed 8 x 10. James Grissom got a vocation.
In 1982, as a college student, Grissom sent a letter soliciting advice on a writing career to fellow Louisianan Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III. The famous playwright responded by phone with an entreaty of his own.
“ ‘Perhaps you can be of some help to me.’ These were the first words Tennessee Williams spoke to me in that initial phone call to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” Grissom writes in Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog. “It was September of 1982, a fact I noted in a small blue book. The book was new and had been purchased for an upcoming test in World History that I would not be taking because Tennessee invited me to lunch in New Orleans, and I accepted.”
Williams was 71. The glorious inspiration that birthed A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie—which he imagined as a “fog” billowing across the boards of a stage in the theater of his mind, conjuring a female form on whom he’d stake a hit play—hadn’t visited in years. To speed its return (and kick-start Grissom’s career), Williams offered an assignment: go to New York, interview the actresses who inspired and embodied his heroines, and ask if he still mattered to them.
“ ‘I need to know that I mattered,’ Tenn told me, ‘and your letter led me to feel that I did. Surely, there must be others who can tell me that I mattered, that I was of some value,’ ” Grissom recalls Williams saying.
The “others” he had in mind included Jessica Tandy, Lillian Gish, Marian Seldes, Eva Le Gallienne, Jo Van Fleet, Maureen Stapleton, Barbara Baxley, Frances Sternhagen, Geraldine Page, and Katherine Hepburn.
Grissom had no journalistic experience. (“I was a shy kid, always on the corner looking at everybody else,” he says.) So, in a series of subsequent visits, Williams prepared him for his mission with background, opinions, and advice—Grissom taking diligent dictation in small blue notebooks.
“I had to get older to understand a lot of what Tennessee was telling me about ‘time knots’ and limitations and glandular flexibility. I’m like—what the? I’m 20! What are you talking about? I have all the time in the world,” Grissom says.
Sadly, their time together was brief: Williams died in February 1983.
“Of course I didn’t take any of his advice, which is the human folly. Here I was given this treasure chest of wisdom and went and made all the stupid mistakes people make—to which Tennessee would say: you have to. You really have to,” he says.
It took him five years to relocate to New York and begin the assignment in earnest. Marian Seldes, an early champion of the undertaking, made key introductions. Grissom approached others named by Williams at theater district events or cold-called them.
“A lot of the subjects had to wait an hour or two to figure out ‘Who is this?’ because they didn’t know who I was, but they wanted to honor Tennessee Williams,” Grissom acknowledges. “I was either some kind of incredible Edgar Cayce clairvoyant—because in conversations before I met them, I said, ‘Tennessee told me this and that,’ and they were things that I couldn’t have known—or there’s some validity to this. But I’m coming here representing a dead man, and no one knew quite what the project would end up being, so I needed a lot of trust. That was sometimes over in an hour or two, if it ever existed.”
One stipulation was that he read aloud Williams’ opinions of the actresses to them—opinions that ran the gamut from flattering to querulous.
On Sternhagen: “She was like some heavily buffed apple, shiny and good for you, that had been placed on the stage as if it were the teacher’s desk, and everything around her became immediately superfluous.”
On Seldes: “There is a fantasy Marian, who is erudite, glamorous, beautiful, and I have seen her become consumed by this fantasy at rehearsals and parties, but it truly thrives on the stage. The stage is her narcotic, which she needs to keep herself alive.”
On Tallulah Bankhead: “She could upstage a crucifixion with the right dress, and she would gladly do so, if the pay was sufficient.” (Grissom never got to try this line; Bankhead died in 1968.)
Their responses to his assessments—and the tokens of esteem purchased by Williams in New Orleans antiques shops and delivered by Grissom—were often emotional. For these gifts, they returned Williams’ insight and incisiveness.
“He wanted an example, but he never realized that he was an example to me—so brilliant and sharp and funny,” Hepburn told Grissom. “He was extraordinary by birth and by effort, but he was a victim, or chose to see himself as one. He foolishly believed that I had escaped any sort of doubt in my life, and that my flawless past, as he saw it, could rub off on him.”
“He was a great writer…but a flawed man. Emulate the writer, not the man,” Le Gallienne told Grissom.
Stapleton addressed Williams’ ghost: “We need you and we love you. Your writing is glorious and—fuck you—it mattered.”
The definitive proof of how much Williams mattered radiates from every page of Follies of God. Grissom’s gorgeous, polyphonic portrait shows he’s grown from a protégé to a bona fide writer who’s qualified to give his own advice.
“What is your definition of home? Where are you most comfortable? If you’re most comfortable writing plays, write plays, no matter how many times they’re rejected, no matter how many times they’re done in basements with mice,” Grissom says. “The key is to get the work right. The work fulfills you and makes you happy. I just wanted to tell stories; I couldn’t wait to share them.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.