11 April 2009

A Tennessee Williams Treasure Hunt

Between September 1996 and September 1997, I was engaged in extensive research on Tennessee Williams’s plays Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale for a forthcoming reference book, Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Toward the end of this work, I consulted the chapter on Summer and Smoke of Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan (1961) in which Nancy M. Tischler quotes a letter that she asserts Williams wrote to columnist Irving Hoffman of The Hollywood Reporter. She cites the playwright's complaint of the “exorbitant demands which are made by critics who don’t stop to consider the playwright’s need for a gradual ripening or development . . . a degree of tolerance and patience in his mentors during this period of transition.” Williams blamed the critics for the “failure of Summer and Smoke” on Broadway in 1948, Tischler states, and was “crushed” that they had “turned against him” after their support of The Glass Menagerie. She quotes Williams further:

Painters have it better. They are allowed to evolve new methods, new styles, by a reasonable gradual process [sic]. They are not abused for turning out creative variations of themes already stated. If a certain theme has importance, it may take a number of individual works to explore it fully. . . . It would help enormously if there were professional theatre centers outside of New York, so that the playwright would not always be at the mercy of a single localized group.

Seven years later, J. William Miller also quotes some of these same passages in Modern Playwrights at Work, directly connecting the letter to Williams’s bitterness about the reception of Summer and Smoke. I felt that I ought to see the whole letter in case it revealed information about Summer and Smoke useful to my research, so I began to look for it.

Williams’s “wrath broke into print,” writes Tischler, and Miller asserts Williams “denounced the critics . . . in a letter in Irving Hoffman’s column, ‘Tales of Hoffman’. . . ,” indicating that the columnist had published the letter. Neither Tischler nor Miller, however, give the precise source of the letter, published or otherwise, and no other writer quotes the letter, though a few refer to it. The only Williams bibliography that even mentions the letter, George W. Crandell’s Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography, does so as part of the description of Miller’s book; no other reference work lists a letter to Hoffman or any column by Hoffman in which it might have been printed. Other references to the letter--for example, Signi Falk’s Tennessee Williams--cite Tischler’s book, not any primary source. Neither the letter nor any mention of it is in any file at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Billy Rose Theatre Collection, including files and scrapbooks on Williams, Summer and Smoke, The Hollywood Reporter, or Irving Hoffman.

I was certain that if one of America’s most famous playwrights, the winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize in drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire), had written such a bitter, complaining letter to a Hollywood gossip columnist, Hoffman would have published it immediately. That was his job, after all. Taking as my only lead the facts that Williams had written the letter after Summer and Smoke opened on Broadway on 6 October 1948, that the reviews began to appear on 7 October, that Williams had left for North Africa in December, and that Summer and Smoke had closed on 1 January 1949, I began searching through back issues of The Hollywood Reporter for that period at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Nothing turned up, however, in Hoffman’s daily column. I had noticed, though, that the issue of 13 October contained no “Tales of Hoffman,” so I flipped back to see why. I found that the issue had been mutilated--someone had slit out the page on which Hoffman’s column always appeared. Because this was just about a week after Hoffman’s own review of Summer and Smoke had appeared (7 October), and because I had run into previous instances of material pertaining to Tennessee Williams having been similarly removed from books and journals, I was convinced that this column contained the elusive letter and had been cut out by a souvenir-hunting researcher.

I set about in search of a complete copy of the 13 October 1948 Hollywood Reporter, but no one in New York City had back issues that old. I could not obtain a copy of the issue or the column in question through interlibrary loan or any other process, including a pleading letter fired off to the Los Angeles Public Library, so it took me months--until I was in Washington and paid a visit to the Library of Congress--to discover that my deduction had been wrong. “Tales of Hoffman” was there, all right, but it dealt with something entirely unrelated to Williams or Summer and Smoke. That left me with no clue to when this letter might have been written or published. I contacted The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles directly in the hope that they kept an archive or maintained an in-house index, but they had no records or archives at all and could not help. My only recourse was to conduct an issue-by-issue search, so on subsequent trips to Lincoln Center on other business, I usually requested additional volumes of The Hollywood Reporter (which are stored off site and require a delivery request in advance) and browsed through Hoffman’s columns one by one, a few volumes at a time. I went up through the end of 1950 before I decided that Williams was unlikely to have written a letter about Summer and Smoke so long after it had closed, and gave up looking. My deadline had arrived some time before this, and I had sent off my copy to my editor without ever seeing the letter, but my scholarly curiosity was still piqued.

A few months later, frustrated that I had failed to find this elusive document, I attempted to locate the letter in the various Tennessee Williams archival collections around the country. I wrote to all of them that I could identify, but those that responded said they had no record of such a letter and could find no reference to it in their files. On a whim, I decided to try to track down Tischler, and found that she was on the faculty of Pennsylvania State University. (It turned out that she had retired a few months earlier but, after several abortive attempts, my letter to her was eventually forwarded.) After I reached her, Tischler wrote me that she could not locate a copy of the Hoffman letter or remember where she had originally seen it. She surmised that she may have learned about the letter in an interview, presumably of Williams, “back in the fifties.” She was, however, in the process of editing a collection of Williams’s letters for publication, and she had on hand a letter Williams wrote to New York Post columnist Max Lerner. She sent me an excerpt from this letter, written on 21 March 1951, which had language identical to that quoted in both her book and Miller’s. Tischler suggested that Williams may have quoted his own letter to Hoffman when he wrote a similar one to Lerner. From this suggestion, I determined that the letter to Hoffman would have had to appear in The Hollywood Reporter a little before he wrote to Lerner, so I once again leafed through back issues, from the date in 1950 when I had previously left off up to May 1951, the end of the bound volume that contained March. There was no letter from Williams, and I again assumed I had come to a dead end. I was ready to argue that Williams never wrote to Hoffman at all, that Tischler had made a mistake or been misled, possibly in that interview with Williams in the 1950s, and that Miller, using Rebellious Puritan as his source, had perpetuated Tischler’s error.

A week or so later, I had an opportunity to look up Max Lerner in one of the Williams bibliographies, John S. McCann’s The Critical Reputation of Tennessee Williams: A Reference Guide, which are in a different building in a different part of Manhattan from the Theatre Collection, and found that he had written a New York Post column on 16 May 1951 called “Letter From A Playwright.” The description matched the letter whose excerpt Tischler had sent me. I found the column--in yet another New York Public Library facility--and, indeed, it was the same letter from which Tischler had sent me the excerpt, and was identical in every way to the passages quoted in her book and Miller’s. As far as I was concerned, this was unquestionably the letter from which Tischler and Miller had drawn the quotations and that someone had erred regarding the attribution.

(Ironically, a clipping of this column is in one of the Tennessee Williams files at the Billy Rose Collection, but as it is under Lerner’s byline in the 1950-1956 folder--and in bad condition; I never would have located it, or recognized it if I had found it. I was still looking for an Irving Hoffman column from 1948-1949 concerning Summer and Smoke. I found the clipping in the Williams file much later, after I already knew what it was. The fact that the New York Public Library theater files, including The Hollywood Reporter, are in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center at 65th Street and Broadway--which covers productions but not plays and playwrights, which are considered literature in NYPL’s taxonomy; the two books in question here and the newspapers on microfilm are in the History and Social Sciences Library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue--where the materials on literature, including playwrights, are housed; and the bibliographies are in the Mid-Manhattan Branch at 40th Street and 5th--the main circulating branch containing the largest literary reference collection outside HSSL--helped protract my search. This accounted for my having searched The Hollywood Reporter after learning of the Williams-Lerner letter but before locating Lerner’s column. As a result, I searched the wrong issues of The Hollywood Reporter for the Hoffman column that I eventually found, delaying the discovery about a week.)

The text of the letter Lerner published in his New York Post column contains language identical to that quoted first by Tischler and then by Miller. Except for the switch from the Post’s American spelling of ‘theater’ to Tischler’s British ‘theatre,’ both she and Miller reproduce sections of this letter exactly, including the strange grammatical construction “reasonable gradual process,” instead of “reasonably gradual process.” It seemed odd that Williams, a poet and a playwright renowned for his lyrical language, would write such an awkward phrase. It was even odder that, if he had rewritten the same letter first to Irving Hoffman and then to Max Lerner, that he would repeat this infelicitous wording. It is well known that Williams was an inveterate rewriter: all his plays exist in several versions, the products of his constant revising. It turns out that he also does this with his correspondence. Tischler sent me an earlier version of the letter Williams wrote to Lerner, this one dated 19 March, which contains very different language from that in the 21 March letter. It also became obvious, once I saw the entire letter and the column in which Lerner published it, that Williams had written it specifically to Lerner. It also clearly had nothing to do with Summer and Smoke, which both Tischler and Miller maintain and which assertion set me on the search to begin with. The columnist had written an earlier piece entitled “Number One Boy” (6 March 1951) in which he used the recently-opened Rose Tattoo “as a jumping-off point” to discuss the critical treatment of successful artists. In his preface to Williams’s letter, Lerner explained, “I pointed out that we generally have some leading playwright who is our Number One Boy.” In that first column, which is oddly also absent from the major bibliographies of Williams despite its discussion of both the playwright and The Rose Tattoo (which had opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway on 3 February 1951), Lerner had written:

Every play of theirs must be a hit, every effort must strike twelve and keep chiming even beyond that. If they once falter, it is a sign of inner decay. There are few areas where the pressures on the successful are as merciless as in writing for Broadway. . . . But every one seems grimly to set standards for the Number One Boy to fulfill.

Wolfe Kaufman, press agent for Rose Tattoo producer Cheryl Crawford and the press representative for the play, had sent “Number One Boy” to Williams in Key West. (Apparently, Lerner also sent Williams his column, but it arrived after Kaufman’s clipping.) The playwright responded enthusiastically to Lerner’s opinions, which he saw as a reflection of his own, even though Lerner thought The Rose Tattoo was “overrated” by most critics (and “underrated” by “one or two” others). The letter that Lerner published on 16 May, and which Tischler and Miller quote, was not a letter discussing general ideas that Williams might have sent off to several correspondents. “I think that you, for the first time to my knowledge, have placed your finger directly on the most demoralizing problem that the American playwright has to face,” applauded Williams early in his letter (the emphasis is mine). He later added, “As far as I know, you are the first to reflect in print on the exorbitant demands made by critics . . . .” This very unambiguously speaks directly to Lerner about ideas he, alone, raised in “Number One Boy.”

All this suggested to me that Lerner’s column, not anything by Hoffman, was the source for the letter, that Williams wrote it to Lerner, not Hoffman, and that he had probably not copied his own letter and sent it to a second correspondent. The truth is very simple, as it turns out. Ironically, had I requested one more volume of The Hollywood Reporter and paged through the May issues, I would have uncovered it weeks earlier.

Just to be certain that Hoffman did not publish a similar letter from Williams, now that I knew when Lerner had published his, I did search further into back issues of The Hollywood Reporter. There it was at last! On 23 May 1951, Hoffman had reprinted Lerner’s entire Post column under the subtitle “Letterature.” Williams had, indeed, never written this letter to Hoffman; he wrote only to Lerner. Hoffman, like a good gossip columnist, simply reran something of interest to his readers from another writer’s column, spreading the news. Hoffman clearly gave Lerner full credit: “Post columnist Max Lerner published the following in his syndicated column last week. I thought you’d be interested in it, so I reprint.”

So the chronology of the elusive Tennessee Williams letter is thus:

3 February 1951: The Rose Tattoo opens on Broadway.

6 March: Max Lerner writes “Number One Boy,” a column about Rose Tattoo.

Between 6 and ca. 16 March: Wolfe Kaufman sends Lerner’s column to Tennessee Williams. Later Lerner sends a copy, too.

19 March: Williams drafts an appreciative letter to Lerner. 21 March: composes a final version which he sends the columnist.

16 May: Lerner publishes Williams’s letter in a New York Post column called “Letter From A Playwright.”

23 May: Irving Hoffman republishes Lerner’s New York Post column with Williams’s letter in his Hollywood Reporter column, “Tales of Hoffman,” under the subtitle “Letterature.”

1961: Nancy Tischler publishes Tennessee Williams: Rebellious Puritan, the first book-length study of Williams’s work. She cites Williams’s letter in the chapter on Summer and Smoke, writing that the playwright wrote it to Hoffman.

1968: J. William Miller publishes Modern Playwrights at Work and cites the Williams letter, repeating Tischler’s assertions.

1998: After 37 years of references continuing to cite the erroneous origin of the letter, the facts are sorted out.

11 April 2009: This writing is the first public attempt to correct the record.

Clearly, this resolves the confusion over the “missing” Williams-Hoffman letter and explains why no bibliography or library had any record of it: that letter does not exist. Tischler’s attribution of the letter to Hoffman was probably the result of an erroneous reference to his 23 May Hollywood Reporter column as the original source of what was actually the 21 March Williams-Lerner letter, first published in the New York Post on 16 May. Unfortunately, because of the second publication of the letter--and possibly influenced by something Williams had told her--Tischler cited it as one Williams sent to Hoffman and Miller picked up her mistake and restated it in his book. Why the letter, regardless of its recipient, was linked to Summer and Smoke is not clear. Tischler properly points out in a letter to me that “the issues . . . were continuing concerns for Williams,” but he did not write the letter until over two years after Summer and Smoke closed. Nevertheless, later writers accepted these assertions and, with no primary source to consult, gave Tischler or Miller as the provenience. Once published, the misattribution became “fact” and part of the record. Of course, the original source should have been the letter Williams wrote Lerner on 21 March 1951, or Lerner’s 16 May New York Post column.

Altogether, this search took eight months, though it was far from a full-time pursuit, particularly after my Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale copy had been submitted in November 1997. I continued to search for the letter in the hope that, if it turned out to be relevant, I might be able to slip a mention of it into the chapter in proofs. It is also fair to say that I wanted to pin down this reference for the scholarly satisfaction of getting it on the record somehow. All my efforts and deductions--most of which turned out to be wrong--would have been for naught, however, had I not reached Nancy Tischler and had she not provided me with the final clue to the whereabouts of, first, Lerner’s New York Post column and, then, the Hoffman column that followed from it. It is ironic that my search--which has ended up being no more than a scholarly treasure hunt since it was irrelevant to Summer and Smoke, my research subject--began with Tischler’s 1961 book and ended with her 1998 project, the publication of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. (If she had not been working on the letters, she would not have had Williams’s letter to Lerner at hand.) Tischler, as it were, initiated my frustration and then resolved it. It is also ironic that, though Tischler and I had been in correspondence over this letter and all it engendered, we had spoken by telephone only once and had never met until June 1999, when she came to New York City to see Not About Nightingales on Broadway.

1 comment:

  1. This is a real intellectual detective story. Just the thought of so much effort in the pursuit of one item makes me tired; but the result - a clear record of the facts - is surely worth it.