With a flood threatening Collinsville, Illinois, in July 2014, Francesca Williams scrambled to transport her father Dakin’s legal correspondence upstairs from her basement. As she deposited box after box in her living room, a handwritten note caught her eye. Francesca immediately recognized the stationery of New York’s legendary Hotel Elysée, and the penmanship of her uncle Tennessee Williams. Seeing the note triggered a memory—more like a fragment, really, from when Francesca was seven—of one of Williams’s rare visits to St. Louis. Dressed in a crisp linen summer suit, the man she’d known as Tom was kneeling to embrace her.
Francesca began exploring the correspondence. The letters in the boxes depicted the mundane rhythms of Williams family life, but also described hospital stays and nervous breakdowns, the decision to have their sister Rose lobotomized, the years of struggling in anonymity, the intoxication of success and fame, the despair of a career in decline, the drug-fueled paranoia and recurring depression, and the family members’ abiding love and respect for one another. These personal dramas were the raw material that Williams would ultimately transform and recast in the characters of Amanda, Laura, and Blanche.
Francesca, who is herself a playwright, brought the letters to me. I was a friend of her father’s as well as a screenwriter and faculty member of the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, which both Dakin and Tennessee attended, and I had already written a screenplay based on Dakin’s book My Brother’s Keeper: The Life and Murder of Tennessee Williams. Francesca and I subsequently edited the correspondence and turned it into a play, ensemble, which has been produced in New York and St. Louis. Francesca’s real goal in sharing these letters with the public, however, was to provide a new look at her family’s legacy, one too-often considered merely dysfunctional and tragic. The Williamses were finally a modern family, one that faced the challenges and tumult of life with the same courage, passion, and hope we all aspire to.