I was reading Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, (a subject on which I’ve done a certain amount of research at source). The book is sort of all right (though not nearly as good as the reviewers seem to say it is, if you ask me), and I came across a passage in which she describes Tennessee Williams in Sicily, in 1954:
“He sat in his friend Franco’s bar till closing time and then walked with him down the main street reassured by the music drifting from a nearby club. But when he turned for home alone, the club had closed and panic rose in him as he strode faster and faster down a road that that seemed to stretch on endlessly, his chest constricted and his breath coming in gasps.”
Her source for the story is Williams’ own Diary in which he writes, “My chest felt constricted. I breathed hard and fast. I wanted to break into a run but didn’t have the breath to. The street was empty. Its length seemed to stretch forever. Every step built up my panic and I seemed to be going further rather than closer to my hotel … Even after I reached the main square, in sight of the Hotel Ternio, my sanctuary, the panic persisted. In fact reached its climax when I was half way up the gradient, about 50 yds, in length, to hotel gates. I stopped and leaned against bank and plucked a leaf of wild geranium and tried to admire the stars which are said to calm fear.”
Well, is this an interesting bit of psychogeography isn’t it? I mean we’ve all looked at certain streets and said to ourselves, “No, I don’t think I want to walk along there.” And there are always reasons, which may be frivolous or serious, reasonable or irrational. Not wanting to walk down a certain street because it doesn’t contain an open bar? Well yes, that’s a rather specialized reason, but I can understand it.
Williams apparently wrote in his diary the moment he got back to the hotel: “Now in my room, the seconal is taking effect (my second today) and I have my liquor and I am quite calm and comfortable. But someday, I fear, one of these panics will kill me.”
One thing I know about Tennessee Williams’ writing habits, at least at a certain time in his life, is that when he sat down at his desk in the morning he liked to take a seconal and have a dry martin sitting next to the typewriter. He didn’t always drink the martini, but he needed to know it was there.
Of course as the morning wore on, the martini would get up to room temperature and therefore, it seems to me, less desirable, less of a temptation, and maybe that was Williams’ plan. But I’m not so sure. The serious martini drinker cares passionately about the temperature: the serious drunk less so.
And one thing I do know about Tennessee Williams’ walking: in 1979 he was walking in Duval Street, the main tourist drag in Key West.
He and Dotson Rader had emerged from a nearby gay disco, called Monster, and they were walking along singing an old hymn, sometimes known as “He Walks with Me,” sometimes as ”In the Garden,” written by Charles A, Miles in 1913, though both Merle Haggard and Elvis sang versions of it. The relevant lines were probably:
“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.”
Some might say this combination of the sacred and the profane was just asking for trouble, and certainly a group of young men thought so. Four or five young men jumped on the Williams and Rader. People magazine reported, “Rader says he was slugged in the jaw; Williams was knocked down and his glasses broken. ‘Let's run,’ Rader shouted. ‘They may have knives.’ Williams stood his ground. ‘I am not in the habit of retreat,’ he declared.”
Here’s a picture of Dotson Rader with Ruth Ford and Andy Warhol
Later Williams said, "Maybe they weren't punks at all but New York drama critics. That mugging received better and more extensive publicity than anything I ever wrote.”
Here's a picture of Tennessee walking in happier circumstances: