In Search of Big Daddy: Tennessee Williams’ “Macon Period”
I guess it’s time I let you know where I am! I am in the hottest little town in America, known as Macon, Georgia, occupying a room in an attic, working nights as a bus-boy at a light-drinking establishment known as the Pig’n Whistle and spending my days at the typewriter and the lake.
– Letter to Mary Hunter from Tennessee Williams
Postmarked August 1, 1942
In the long hot summer of 1942, the honey-tongued playwright who would come to be recognized as “the American Shakespeare” found himself penniless and stranded in a rented room on Georgia Avenue in Macon. Little did he know it at the time, but Tennessee Williams was but a whisper away from an artistic breakthrough that would not only catapult him into fame and fortune, but also indelibly shape modern theatre.
With currently mounted revivals of The Glass Menagerie (starring Sally Fields) and an impending production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (starring Sierra Miller), it’s clear actors and audiences alike remain drawn, more 70 years later, to the dark corners and sticky places that Williams so fearlessly plundered, both as a playwright and as a person. If it simmers beneath the surface of polite Southern society and bears even a scintilla of barely-disguised moral duality, Williams captured it, nurtured it, and brought it to life on stage through lyrical dialogue, brooding storylines, and exquisitely etched characters.
One of those characters, Big Daddy, is commonly believed to be at least loosely based on one of Macon’s turn-of-century elite, W. Jordan Massee. Maggie the Cat, or at least the character’s moniker, is said to be drawn from a Macon woman, Margaret Lewis Powell. Both stories seem probable, and as is clearly illustrated in the reams of personal correspondence and private journals he kept, Macon no doubt left its mark on Williams. Though his stay here was brief, it occurred during a sort of deep professional and personal valley between two great peaks – a crucial second act that fueled his rise to creative brilliance. “Clearly, this is not my most successful period,” Williams wrote in his journal, noting also that “a period that is rich in neuroses is a time rich in invention.”
The Setting: Macon
As it has for so many other incendiary American artists, Macon seemed to serve as a kind of melancholy muse for Williams, providing him with a revolving door of bigger-than-life characters, memorable scenery, and a veritable feast of Southern “breast of milk-fed chickens.” Not the formerly feathered variety one might batter and fry, either, but rather the type of young beautiful men he never lost a taste for.
Proving an unexpectedly rich source of “amatory debacles,” Macon was also a poultice for the playwright, one that drew out a darkness in Williams had that plagued him since childhood. Maybe there really was something in Macon’s water – he did spend a great deal of time at local swimming holes. Perhaps it was feeling like out an outsider with his nose pressed against the glass while living in an affluent part of town, or the almost eerie “peace and quiet” that is neither peaceful nor quiet some nights in Intown. Then again, maybe it was just that relentless, oxygen-depriving swelter otherwise known as summer in these parts.
Whatever strange sway it is that Macon holds, it seems to clamp down on the most creative and sensitive souls – like Williams – with all the fierceness of a possum’s bite.
“My actions these past few days – since coming to Macon – have been cramped and conscious – why? – I see a terrifying and narrow vista of time like this – no real escape anywhere; effort and endurance – thirst of the body and of the heart that I cannot slake any longer. Am I beginning to walk across a long desert under a merciless sun? If I am become my enemy at last – my own relentless antagonist – what is the use?” Williams pondered in a June, 1942 journal entry, adding. “No, I know that finally death will seem the only complete, undivided thing left.”
And yet, he had scarcely begun.
Act 1: From Tom to Tennessee
Tennessee Williams was not born into privilege on March 26, 1911, but he didn’t lack for life’s basic necessities either in his early childhood in Columbus, Mississippi. Occasionally caught in the crossfire of the complicated marriage between his mother Edwina and his free-wheeling father Cornelius, little Tom Williams nonetheless enjoyed what he would later summarize as an uncomplicated and carefree boyhood.
That would change when Cornelius Williams took a job as a salesman with a shoe company and uprooted the family to St. Louis – or “St. Pollution” as Williams dubbed it. Leaving behind the bucolic countryside of rural Mississippi and the polite rules of Southern society where “we never knew we were poor,” 7-year-old Tennessee, his beloved older sister Rose, and later his younger brother Dakin, settled uneasily into the urban landscape of St. Louis, shuffling back and forth between “mustard and blood-colored” apartments that shamed his socially ambitious mother. His philandering father was largely absent. But the Williams family paterfamilias was brutishly present often enough to deride his oldest son’s love of literature and writing – a devotion that earned Tom the cruel nickname, “Miss Nancy.”
From 1929 to 1937, Tom, already a budding young writer, managed to enroll in college, drop out, endure a series of failed stints at odd jobs, and witness his sister’s horrifying and violent slide into schizophrenia, along with her subsequent hospitalization. Tom also withstood a breakdown of his own, a wobbly, fevered state that was, in the end, his ticket out of “St. Pollution.” At 24, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Tennessee.
Through all of it, however, he wrote. Typing daily, tirelessly – often to the point of physical exhaustion – Williams spun numerous short stories, poems, and plays, continuing to push himself and evolve as an artist, albeit a starving one.
By 1938, Tom had officially christened his own rebirth as “Tennessee.”
Liberated from his mother’s manipulative mewling, his father’s contempt, and a blue-collar world he had hated, Tennessee landed in New Orleans, where he promptly lost his virginity and any illusion of heterosexuality. It didn’t take the 27-year-old long to make up for lost time. “I’ve never known anyone who accepted being homosexual more and who really thought the day was lost if he didn’t get into bed with somebody,” said fellow writer and Southerner Donald Windham.
In letters to friends and in his journals, Tennessee used the terms “bohemia” and “trade” to describe the anonymous, frequently violent sexual encounters, and occasional small-scale orgies he indulged in. It was during this period of personal discovery and slow-building success as an artist that Tennessee met his lifelong agent and confidante, Audrey Wood. She encouraged him to move to New York, and in 1940 he did. There, he befriended a cadre of other young struggling writers and artists, among them Paul Bigelow, who would remain a friend for many years, and who, along with his lover and companion Jordan Massee, ultimately drew Tennessee to Macon.
Act II: Southern Discomfort
Forcibly evicted from one of his New York apartments by an irate roommate, then briefly ensconced in a penthouse with a middle-aged author “at the price of my virtue,” Tennessee embarked on the most transient and ultimately transcendental period of his career. From 1941 to 1943, the young playwright was almost always penniless, moving from pillar to post and leaning heavily on the kindness of strangers and friends as he grappled to gain a foothold as an established artist. He had become a “professional guest,” he wrote to his mother in May, 1942, asking her to send him a copy of poem he had written years earlier.
“I don’t know whether to ask you to send it here or to Macon, Georgia, as I have been invited down there for as long as I care to stay by the family I visited on Sea Island last summer,” he wrote to Edwina. “I would alternate between Macon and Sea Island and probably find it a very stimulating change – the Masseys (sic) are the best family, in Macon, or so I have heard.”
Like his greatest characters (Blanche Dubois, Maggie the Cat, Brick Pollitt, Alva Starr), Tennessee didn’t lie exactly, but he wasn’t above embroidering the truth, and he plainly played to his audience. In the letter to Mary Hunter (a respected theatre director and producer), Tennessee mostly describes his tenure in Macon as welcome respite from New York. To his mother, he played up the Massee’s social status – while in truth, the invitation had come from the Massee family in the most roundabout way – from Jordan via Paul Bigelow.
There were no plans for summering part-time on the beach or in the well-appointed homes of wealthy Maconites. Rather, he would share a small rented room with Paul in the home of Wesleyan theology professor G. E. Rosser, bicycle, swim incessantly at Recreation Park, visit the Washington Memorial Library, read, write, and engage in a “prolonged Southern invasion” of local “chickens.” His favorite seemed to be Andrew Lyndon (who had met in New York), or “A” as he refers to the young Maconite when writing of their encounters.
In the pages of his journal, Tennessee scrawled the subhed “The Macon Period,” including notes on his writing while here, additional personal encounters with those who opened up the “gay-made world” on Orange Street and elsewhere, and rich source material that would continue to show up both subtly and directly in his work for years afterward.
Act III: The Reckoning
In August, Tennessee bid his leave of Macon and headed for Florida, where he briefly resided and worked a Civil Service job. By 1943, two important life events occurred: His sister Rose underwent a heart-breaking lobotomy and he landed a job as a Hollywood screenwriter for “Metro Goldmine Mayer” as he called it. For the first time in his adult life, money was not a struggle, and success was swift.
Tennessee pitched The Gentleman Caller to MGM, a script that was based on his controlling mother and mentally ill sister. When they turned it down, Tennessee packed his bags and headed back to New York, where he reworked it into The Glass Menagerie. It was a smashing success. A Streetcar Named Desire followed in 1946, and in 1955, while still remaining on his perch as the toast of Broadway, Tennessee memorialized a little piece of Macon forever in the critically acclaimed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
It was, and would remain, he later said, his personal favorite of all of his plays.