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Review: Grissom's 'Follies of God' captures Tennessee Williams

The story of how James Grissom came to write Follies of God is almost as remarkable as the book itself.

When Grissom, a Louisiana native, was 20 years old and an aspiring writer, he wrote a long letter to Tennessee Williams, asking his advice, even though they had never met.

It was 1982, and the great playwright was depressed, fearful that critics and audiences were turning away from his works, that his creative days were behind him, that his achievements would fade — unlikely as that seems for the man who created A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and other classics of American theater, garnering two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other honors along the way. But Williams' insecurities and self-doubt were nearly as legendary as his talent.

Something in Grissom's earnest letter struck a chord, and Williams summoned the young man to New Orleans. After intense conversation, Williams asked Grissom to write this book — to interview the people who had mattered to him most, many of them women who had inspired his plays, to see if he had mattered to them.

Williams would die the following year; Grissom would work over three decades, between a career writing for TV, to conduct and compile the interviews with more than 70 giants of theater and film that make up Follies of God. The result is unique among the large number of books about Williams and his work, a conversation in many voices, including his own, among those who knew his plays most intimately, from genesis to apotheosis.

The book's subtitle is Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog, a reference to how profoundly his plays were inspired by women, producing such indelible characters as Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield and Maggie the Cat. As Williams told Grissom, "I do not know why this is ... but there is a premonitory moment before a woman, an important, powerful woman, enters my subconscious, and this moment is announced by the arrival of fog. ...

"When I was young ... I never sought out a woman, a character. She came to me. She had a story to tell, urgently, violently, fervently. I listened and I identified, and I became her most ardent supporter and witness."

In many cases, those women who inspired him were actors; in some cases, they went on to play the characters they had sparked in Williams' mind. He often became obsessed with these women — but that doesn't mean he saw them uncritically. Indeed, it was in many cases their weaknesses and weirdnesses that drew him to them.

For example, DuBois, Williams told Grissom, was an "amalgamation of me, my mother, my sister, and an actress with whom I had become incongruously obsessed." That last would be Lillian Gish. One of the major stars of early Hollywood, Gish became one of the playwright's close friends. As much as her beauty and talent moved him, it's clear from his conversations about her with Grissom that he also clearly saw her narcissism, her emotional distance, her peculiar views of the world and her judgmental personality.

Yet he wrote for her, first Portrait of a Madonna, then his masterpiece, Streetcar. Over several chapters, Grissom weaves the story of that play's creation and its birth on Broadway. Gish was originally set to play the role, but director Elia Kazan insisted she be replaced. Kazan told Grissom, "I had great respect for Miss Gish, and her film legacy is not to be slighted, but she quite simply failed to understand Blanche or any of the other characters in the play. Her intelligence was very simple, very openhearted, and Blanche was as alien to her as if she were playing a Martian. ..."

Fortunately, another woman was waiting, almost literally in the wings. Jessica Tandy had read Portrait of a Madonna (an earlier version of Streetcar) and, she told Grissom, "The moment I read it. ... my life began. I was, for the first time in my life, unafraid to be ruthless in order to get something I wanted." Her performance as Blanche in the original 1947 Broadway production of Streetcar, opposite Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, earned her a Tony award, and she too became one of Williams' muses and friends.

That complex story of Blanche's birth is, in brief, the story of Follies of God. The book is filled with portraits of stars; Grissom talked to Brando, Maureen Stapleton, John Gielgud, Julie Harris, Katharine Hepburn and a multitude of others. Its structure is a little like being at an astonishing party, walking in and out of conversations among legends that loop and diverge but never fail to draw us in. Those conversations yield both fabulous gossip — this is the real deep dish — and fascinating insights about the creative process.

Williams, I think, would have been delighted to read it, and to see how much he mattered to so many.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog

By James Grissom

Knopf, 404 pages, $30

Meet the author

James Grissom will be a featured author at the 23rd annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; festivalofreading.com.

Review: Grissom's 'Follies of God' captures Tennessee Williams 09/30/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 30, 2015 10:47am]
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