Name at birth: Thomas Lanier Williams
Tennessee Williams wrote smoldering, passionate, conflicted dramas that attracted top actors and gave 20th-century American theater and film some of its most complex and enduring material. Reared in Mississippi and Missouri, Williams experienced the beauty of the South and the warmth of family as well as turmoil--including his father's emotional volatility and his own and his sister's depression--that later showed up in his plays. His greatest hit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), featured Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski bellowing for his wife, "Stellaaaaah," and Jessica Tandy's Blanche DuBois declaring, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Original productions and revivals of Williams' work on stage, screen and TV drew the likes of Karl Malden and Anthony Quinn (Streetcar), Christopher Walken (Sweet Bird of Youth), Katharine Hepburn (The Glass Menagerie), Burl Ives and Ben Gazzara (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and Bette Davis (Night of the Iguana). Troubled by anxiety, alcohol and drugs throughout his adult life, Williams choked to death in his New York City apartment when the cap of a medicine bottle, which he apparently used as a spoon for pills, got caught in his throat.
Among Williams’ numerous honors were another Pulitzer (Cat, 1955) and a Tony Award for best play (The Rose Tattoo, 1950)… He first used the pen name “Tennessee” in 1939. According to his Memoirs (Doubleday, 1972), he chose it because his ancestors had lived there. Reportedly, he also sometimes claimed to have gotten it from college classmates who couldn’t remember which Southern state he was from… He began writing poems, stories and plays as a student at the University of Missouri, Washington University in St. Louis, and the State University of Iowa, where he finally graduated in 1938 at age 27… Never married, he had long-term companionships with two men: Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez and Frank Merlo.