By Eve Berliner
Rose, Rose, roses of his eyes. She was always there before him, a figure of such pathos from the beginning. They were two fragile children together taking refuge in each other's imagination and tenderness, Rose slowly retreating into dark corners, solitary and wordless, Tom gripped by his own tenuous frailties.
The brother finding sanctuary in his room writing strange and sorrowful poems and stories, so fearful inside, the urges he felt, the loneliness.
His father, a violent, malignant alcoholic, would mock him and call him "Miss Nancy."
They were perfect companions in those early days in Columbus and Canton and Clarksdale, Mississippi, where they grew up in the magical intimacy of childhood. Thomas Lanier Williams born in the rectory of his grandfather's Episcopal Church in Columbus on March 26, 1911, his sister Rose two years his elder.
They would race their bikes and cut paper dolls from huge catalogue books, laugh uproariously and invent wonderful new games, her wild imagination a joyous counterpart to his own.
She had a fragile unearthly prettiness to her, the long copperish curls that swung below her shoulders, sea green gray eyes, thin, delicate, immensely shy.
She was always in his writing. His first poem entitled, "Kinder Garden", age 3, dedicated to Rose; his comic strip, age 9, Rose the avenging heroine on the trail of the bad guys; his first published short story, "The Vengeance of Nitocris," about an Egyptian Pharaoh and his warrior sister..
By age 18, he was writing every day, a discipline he practiced to the end of his life.
* * *
He was to delve the recesses of memory with a short story written in June, 1943, which he called, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," a deeply poignant reminiscence of his sister, the work of prose a prelude to his haunting memory play The Glass Menagerie, which followed two years later.
We are taken into the lost dream world inhabited by Rose and her collection of transparent glass animals, her fragile menagerie of colored glass that she softly held and polished and sang to in a faraway little voice, the small glass ornaments her magical kingdom that diffused into the colors of the rainbow in the sunlight.
And she had her music to which she listened over and over, day after day, on the old 1920's victrola, the scratched aged recordings -- old-fashioned melodies such as "Whispering" and "The Love Nest" and "Dardanella" -- a token left behind by their absent father as souvenirs of his existence in their lives.
Her room was her cocoon, the haven to which she would retreat. But a harsh glimpse of life's cruelties awaited her there. For the two bedroom windows at the far end of the narrow room looked out upon a dead-end execution chamber, an alley of death where cornered alley cats stalked by a vicious neighborhood Chow met a jugular and bloody end trapped in the cul-de-sac from which they could not escape, the ghastly feline screams resounding in Rose's terrified ears, the fight to the death, until finally, she pulled down the shades to live thereafter in her own perpetual twilight.
Somehow as the years passed, she flew into some far world, his Rose, with her fragile unearthly beauty, to whom he was so attached, so joined. He would recapture her softly slipping away from him in a tender and moving short story written in October 1939, entitled, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin," that once again penetrated the veil of memory.
In the story, Rose, age 14, a promising student of the piano under the inspired tutelage of Miss Elise Aehle, developed an overpowering obsession with a 17-year-old violinist named Richard Miles with whom she was to perform a duet at an upcoming recital.
But as Rose was overcome by the mysterious stirrings of first love, her brother Tom was to discover the shock of his own sexual awakening. With pounding heart, he would obsessively spy on the two as they practiced at the piano, hidden in his room, peering through a crack of the door, flat on his belly, on the cold floor, knees and elbows aching, not daring to move, unknown to them.
"Richard was light and he was probably more beautiful than any boy I have ever seen," he would write. "I do not even remember if he was light in the sense of being blond or if the lightness came from a quality in him deeper than hair or skin....He wore a white shirt, and through its cloth could be seen the fair skin of his shoulder. And for the first time, prematurely, I was aware of skin as an attraction. A thing that might be desirable to touch. This awareness entered my mind, my senses, like the sudden streak of flame that follows a comet. And my undoing... was now completed.
"...The afternoons were consequently unsafe. I never knew when the front door might open on Richard's dreadful beauty and his greeting which I could not respond to, could not endure, must fly grotesquely away from."
"The transference of my interest to Richard now seemed complete. I would barely notice my sister at the piano."
A shocking ambivalence of thought and sensation tortured him, "Yes Tom, you're a monster!" he would tell himself. "But that's how it is and there's nothing to be done about it. And so continued to feast my eyes on his beauty."
"The dreams perhaps went further, but I have already dwelt sufficiently upon the sudden triumph of unchastity back of my burning eyes; that needs no more annotation..."
In the end, the music recital was a fiasco, Rose in a state of frozen hysteria, unable to play, the duet close to collapse.
The family moved to St. Louis shortly thereafter, and Richard Miles was to tragically die, a victim of pneumonia, within the year.
* * *
A panic had begun to set in about Rose. She was alone. With her hunched shoulders, and unutterable shyness and strange withdrawn behavior, her mother Edwina began to fear for her. For a young girl 23 years of age, she seemed somehow devoid of youth, in a state of nervous anxiety, an almost hysterical animation in the company of a male.
There were chances.
There was the boy across the street in St. Louis, Roger Moore, brother of poet Virginia Moore, who took an interest in Rose, made an engagement to take her for a ride in his car. But just before her first date, he broke down from overwork and was taken to a sanitarium for a nervous breakdown. On the day he was to be released, he stepped in the path of an oncoming truck on the hospital grounds and was killed.
There was the beau she loved and lost, a promising young fellow, a junior executive at International Shoe Company where her father worked -- [how Rose would tremble as she desperately waited for his calls] -- who quickly disappeared from her life after a scandalous and violent poker night brought her father to ignoble public attention.
As Tennessee was to recapture in his "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," -- and again with painful beauty in The Glass Menagerie -- his mother Edwina pleaded, cajoled and begged Tom to bring home a proper "gentleman caller" for his sister.
He chose an affable fellow named Jim O'Connor, a boy his sister had, in fact, had a huge adolescent crush on in high school.
Edwina's preparations were extreme, washing the windows and putting on the chintz covers, polishing the wedding silver and removing the monogrammed table linens from the drawer, Rose wearing a black chiffon ankle length dress that belonged to her mother, and high heel slippers. When the boy arrived, Rose refused to open the door and ran to her bedroom to hide.
The dinner awkward, Mother carrying the conversation.
Afterward, Rose retreated to her old phonograph records in the living room.
"Hey Slim, let's have a look at those old records," Jim uttered to Tom. And soon Rose and Jim were sitting on the floor together, laughing.
"How about you and me cutting the rug a little?"Jim proclaimed.
And suddenly Rose was dancing with Jim, and he had freckles which she loved, and her music was playing, and he was so very kind.
"She's light as a feather. With a little more practice she'd dance as good as Betty." said Jim.
"Betty?" said Mother.
"The girl I go out with!" said Jim.
The gasp from Edwina, and silence from all.
"Thinking of getting married the first of next month," he revealed.
Rose, in the end, slipped quietly back to her room and closed the door, her last desperate hope, crushed.
* * *
The father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a travelling clothing salesman in the early years, absent without leave from the household most of the time, leading a life of drinking, gambling, and consorting with prostitutes. The family resided with their gentle maternal grandparents, The Rev. Walter Edwin Dakin and their grandmother, Rosina Otte Dakin, otherwise known as "Grand."
In 1918, when Tennessee was seven, the father was appointed sales manager of the International Shoe Company, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, and the idyllic years of Tom's sweet childhood came to an abrupt end with the family's move to St. Louis and a crowded tenement existence far removed from the lyrical beauties of the old South. One year later, Tom's brother, Walter Dakin Williams was born.
Cornelius was a man who turned savage with liquor. Episodes of maniacal fury, violent assaults upon their mother, constant fighting, her nose broken in one terrifying occurence in which she hit the door after he struck her. "I'm going to kill you," he shouted beating on the locked bathroom door where their mother, Edwina, had fled. "Come out of here. I'm going to kill you!" he screamed, all of this witnessed by the delicate Rose.
In one episode, Cornelius slapped Rose across the face when she dared to mildly defy him.
Severe pains in her stomach, mysterious gastro-intestinal ills which landed her in the hospital, Rose increasingly withdrawn and angry.
She was placed under psychiatric care. A short stay in a private sanitarium was recommended.
* * *
The Williams marriage a study in contradiction, the coarse and the delicate, the brute and the genteel lady, Edwina Dakin Williams, a Southern belle in true essence, with dainty white handkerchiefs and strict Victorian admonitions -- little Rose prohibited from crouching on the ground while she played with her ball and jacks -- morbid prudery, intense sexual aversions, piercing screams echoing through the house when her husband engaged her in the sexual act, sending the terrified children flying into the streets to take sanctuary at a neighbor's house.
Cornelius was drinking heavily hiding his whiskey bottles under the bathtub and in the sunroom and under the bed in alcoholic frenzy.
There was a shocking episode of gonorrhea acquired from a prostitute at a sex party and then the scandalous poker fight at an all-night poker party at the Hotel Jefferson in which half his ear was bitten off, necessitating the removal of cartilage from his rib to build a new ear, and leaving him with a cauliflower-like protuberance.
The International Shoe Company, disgraced by his conduct, instead of moving him into a top executive position on the Board as planned, now wanted him out -- and rather than fire him outright, gave him the option to resign gracefully.
It was at this juncture, his job hanging precariously in the balance, that Cornelius informed Rose that she must prepare herself for self-support, a terrifying prospect.
There had already been an abortive attempt to enroll Rose in a local business college but she was not able to memorize the typewriter keyboard, staring for infinite hours at the typewriter chart in the kitchen.
"Quiet," his mother would caution Tom. "Sister is looking at the typewriter chart."
Finally, she seemed to master its content -- until the weekly speed drill at the school froze her mind and her fingers!
In the end, she secretly stopped attending classes, leaving the house each morning as per her usual schedule, and spending her hours at the museum, the park and the movie theatre until her mother called the school to check on her progress and was informed that Rose had all but disappeared.
"Somehow or other -- precisely I
don't recall," Tennessee wrote in his "Memoirs,"
"They called us at home and we had to go to the office to persuade her to leave her place of retreat."
Thus ended her business career.
* * *
The story of Tom's "season in hell" began with graduation from high school and his acceptance to the University of Missouri where he became so totally consumed by his writing, to the exclusion of his studies, that his final freshman grades were very poor indeed.
His father angrily and summarily pulled him out of the school and forced him into hard labor at the International Shoe Company where he was sales manager. It was a radical adjustment for a poet who now had a job in a warehouse.
He was hired to deliver heavy sample cases and run errands "in the world's largest shoe company," and to type enormous piles of factory orders, almost exclusively numerals, digits. "I was a miracle of incompetence."
When he could, he would surreptitiously retreat to a flight of stairs that led to the roof of the 12 story building looking out over the Mississippi River and dream "so I used to linger up there for longer than a cigarette to reflect upon a poem or short story that I would finish that weekend."
He would stay up deep into the night writing and arrive at the shoe company in a state of exhaustion until the gruelling schedule took its toll. Two days before his 24th birthday, March 24, 1935, Tom and his sister Rose were returning from a movie when his heartbeat suddenly increased precipitously, he broke into a heavy sweat, short of breath, his legs numb. He immediately thought he was dying of a stroke or heart attack! They hailed a passing taxicab and headed for St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, where he was admitted.
It was a fierce anxiety attack. The doctors declared it acute emotional distress.
One month later, he submitted his resignation to the International Shoe Company and was released from bondage -- although he did contend in his fictionalized memory play, The Glass Menagerie, that he was fired for writing a poem on the back of a shoebox.
* * *
"I failed to properly observe the shadow falling on Rose, " Tennessee would write with poignant regret in his memoirs. "She was now very quiet in the house and I think she was suffering from insomnia. She had the peculiar habit of setting a pitcher of ice water outside her door each night when she retired."
One afternoon she came to him and whispered, "We must all die together," as she placed a kitchen knife in her purse and started to leave for her psychiatrist's office.
It was the her first real breakdown.
There were stays at the Catholic sanitarium on the outskirts of St. Louis and other private sanitariums during the mid-thirties, as her mental torments escalated into wild hallucination, fits of rage, and graphic sexual fantasies.
By 1937, the psychiatrists at Barnes Hospital diagnosed her condition as "Dementia Praecox." -- [ what is now known as schizophrenia] -- and at age 28, her mind wracked by delusion and fear, urged that Rose be sent to the State Asylum at Farmington, a snake-pit.
"The last time she went," Edwina wrote in a letter to her mother, "the doctor told her that what was the matter with her was that 'she needed to get married.' She has been raving on the subject of 'sex' ever since and I was ashamed for Dakin and Tom to hear her the other night."
"The old family doctor, Dr. Alexander, suggested a kind of therapeutic marriage," Tennessee would recall. "Obviously Doc Alexander had hit upon the true seat of Rose's afflictions. She was a very normal -- but highly sexed -- girl who was tearing herself apart mentally and physically by these repressions imposed upon her by Miss Edwina's monolithic puritanism."
During the summer of 1937, Rose went in and out of the state asylum at Farmington several times. During one of her visits home, she witnessed an inebriated attack by Cornelius on Edwina in which he beat her viciously. Rose went out of control and in Cornelius' attempt to subdue her, she charged that he touched her in a sexually intimate way and went off the deep end in a hysteria that went on for days.
The final stunning accusation came shortly before her last institutionalization at the state asylum in 1937. Edwina returned home one evening to find Rose in a state of frenzied hysterics, ranting accusations that her father had drunkenly entered her bedroom and made lewd overtures to her, insisting crudely that she go to bed with him.
The blood ran out of Edwina's face.
Two agitated days later, unable to calm her hysteria, they rehospitalized her at Farmington State Asylum. The possibility of truth was too great to bear.
Rose now had delusions of being poisoned and murdered.
By autumn 1937, one of the resident psychiatrists on her case told Cornelius that Rose's illness was so advanced that she was capable of extreme violence. "Rose is liable to go down and get a butcher knife one night and cut your throat," he told her alarmed father.
She was consumed by sexual fantasy.
When Tom and Edwina went to visit her at the State Asylum in Farmington, Rose took perverse pleasure in deliberately horrifying her puritanical mother:
"Mother, you know we girls at All Saints College, we used to abuse ourselves with altar candles we stole from the chapel," she laughed.
"And mother screamed like a peacock!," said Tennessee. "She rushed to the head doctor and she said, "Do anything, anything to shut her up!"
* * *
He never forgave his mother for it.
The drastic decision was made without his knowledge, while he was away at school in Iowa City attending the University of Iowa. He was not informed until the deed was a fait accompli.
At the beautiful age of 28, a prefrontal lobotomy of the brain, was performed on Rose Isabel Williams, one of the first such psychosurgeries ever to be performed in the United States.
It was a crude, experimental procedure that came to be known as the "Ice Pick Lobotomy" in which the white fibers that connect the thalmus to the prefrontal and frontal lobes of the brain are severed. Developed in 1937, the Freeman Watts Standard Lobotomy, a "precision operation" in which the brain was approached from the lateral surface of the skull, holes were drilled on both sides of the cranium, a six inch cunnula heavy-guage tubing was inserted 2.5 inches into the brain, "and, if no fluid oozed out...it was lowered to the bony...ridge at the base of the skull. The cannula was then withdrawn, and a blunt spatula -- much like a calibrated butter knife -- was inserted about 2 inches into the track left by the brain. After the spatula was inserted, its handle was swung upward so that the blade could be drawn along the base of the skull, and a cut was made as far to the side as possible. The spatula was then withdrawn, and the site was rinsed. That was only the first of four quadrants to be cut." - Eliot S. Valenstein, Great and Desperate Cures, 1986.
It was a blind technique with bits of blood vessel and brain tissue torn away in the assault.
It was performed at no cost to the family at the Missouri State Sanitarium.
"She gave permission to have it done while I was away."
Although Miss Edwina contended in her memoir, "Remember Me to Tom," that her husband made the final decision, only she had the legal authority.
"She gave permission to have it done while I was away. I think she was frightened by Rose's sexual fantasies. But that's all they were -- fantasies!...She is the one who approved the lobotomy."
"My mother panicked because she said my sister had begun using four letter words. 'Do anything. Don't let her talk like that!"
"Mother chose to have Rose's lobotomy. My father didn't want it. In fact, he cried. It's the only time I saw him cry. He was in a state of sorrow when he learned that the operation had been performed."
"Cornelius never visited Rose after her lobotomy," wrote Edwina. "To him, it was as though she disappeared from the earth.
"I think Tom always felt as though he failed Rose, that had he been on hand when the big decision was made, he might have been able to stop the lobotomy...I think his was a grief beyond words."
* * *
Post Lobotomy Medical Evaluation, August 14, 1939:
Rose Medical Report, under the signatures of Kuhlman/Whitten:
"Does no work. Manifests delusions of persecution. Smiles and laughs when telling of person plotting to kill her. Talk free and irrelevant. Admits auditory hallucinations. Quiet on the ward. Masturbates frequently. Also expresses various somatic delusions, all of which she explains on a sexual basis. Memory for remote past is nil."
Tennessee's private journal reflects his own tortured post-lobotomy visit to see his sister Rose, accompanying his mother to the Sanitarium, in December 1939. "Visited Rose at Sanitarium -- horrible, horrible! Her talk was so obscene -- she laughed and talked continual obscenities. Mother insisted I go in, though I dreaded it and wanted to go out, stay outside. We talked to the doctor afterwards, a cold unsympathetic man -- he said her condition was hopeless, that we only expect a progressive deterioration. It was a horrible ordeal. Especially since I fear that end for myself."
* * *
The connection to Rose went so deep, the abyss of guilt, the heartbreak, the terrible pity he could not speak.
No matter what road Tennessee travelled in his nomadic restless existence, Rose was dear to him as no other. Frail and haunted, a creature out of another time, childlike and delicate to the extreme, like a butterfly, like the frailest flower with her lost gray green eyes and soft little face and crooked little smile.
He treated her with the greatest dignity and tenderness.
He would take her to the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel for lunch when he came to New York and lavish upon her beautiful dresses which he bought for her at Bloomingdale's and the finest boutiques of Madison Avenue, as she had so loved clothes as a young girl, loved their colors, their magic. And then he would return her by limousine to Stoney Lodge, the sanitarium where she resided in Ossining New York, on a bluff overlooking the upper Hudson River, the grounds beautifully landscaped.
He would take her on brief visits to Key West, where she was overcome by invisible attacks of "crime-beasts."
And she would write him childlish haunted little mad sad letters:, this note with a sweet little blue flower on the cover, found in his Key West residence after his death, written in 1949, when she was 40 years of age:
Your distressed relative is pleased with the beautiful blouse. I love it! Received it this morning. Will implant it when I am clean, immaculate. I long to exhist [sic], wear it, to receive a dark brown skirt to implant it upon.
I miss you. Am sorry that I couldn't bestow a present upon you that isn't my love. I am implanting a stitch on a dish towel that I can allot to you. It is a brilliant trajic [sic] one that I love, hope to bestow upon you.
My blue dress which I received for Yuletide fits, is becoming! I am pleased with it, with the candy, cake, work basket, cookies. I do enjoy rich, flesh making delicacies.
I need some new gowns.
Come and see me soon. I love you.
* * *
She existed in a warp of time as a debutante of the old South, forever 28 years of age, feminine to excess, a faded belle out of some mad dream.
Placid now, becalmed, the savage act took the spark of her personality.
She lived in her own little world inside her private cottage at Ossining, her luxurious care paid for by her brother, Tennessee. And she passed her hours playing in the sunlight with the children of Stoney Lodge, her young institutionalized playmates, in her own timeless reverie.
She thought she was the Queen of England.
"She was the best of us, do you understand?" he wept to a friend.
And as he wrote in the final moving words of his "Memoir":
"You couldn't ask for a sweeter or more benign monarch than Rose, or, in my opinion, one that's more of a lady. After all, high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace."