[book review] FOLLIES OF GOD (James Grissom): Validating Tennessee Williams

Review of: James Grissom, Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

Follies of God cover

James Grissom, FOLLIES OF GOD: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND THE WOMEN OF THE FOG, 2015, jacket design by Carol Devine Carson (Photo credit: Cecil Beaton)

When 21-year-old budding writer and Louisiana State University student James Grissom wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams in 1982, asking him for advice on a career in the theater, he was surprised to receive a call from the famed playwright several months later at his parents’ home in Baton Rouge, and especially by the first words ‘Tenn’ spoke to him: “Perhaps you can be of some help to me.” Williams, a long-term abuser of alcohol, pills, and cocaine, had been experiencing a crippling writer’s block after suffering “a sort of creative breakdown in 1973,” leading some critics to proclaim that his work “had been overrated” and that he “had never mattered.” Because Grissom’s letter made him feel that he did matter, Williams summoned the young man to New Orleans to “bear witness,” in order to validate the value of his work and himself.

They met and talked; Grissom recorded their five days of lengthy conversations with detail and artistic flourishes, not on tape (because, he explains, he was “not a journalist”), but manually, in college exam blue books and on scraps of paper. During their first meeting, Williams gave Grissom an assignment: he was to go to New York to interview the people who had had the greatest impact on the playwright and his career, to deliver to them his words of praise, and to ask if he mattered to them as much as they did to him. The list of names he dictated, which he ordered the student to write on a restaurant menu, was comprised primarily of women. They were some of the most respected artists of the stage and screen of Williams’ day, whom he referred to as “the follies of God”—such noted stars as Maureen Stapleton (“the old shoe” that was always a comfortable fit for Tenn), Lillian Gish (a “titanic sprite”), Jessica Tandy (Tenn’s “Big Lady” and the epitome of refinement), Kim Stanley (“a tortured woman” and, according to Grissom, a “self-confessed fabulist”), and Katharine Hepburn (a  “willful, wonderful rapid stylist”)—all now deceased.

Williams confessed:

By finding these women in my life, I no longer felt the great need to connect with and know my mother. I began to look outside of my mother’s heart and my own biography for answers to things.

Despite Tenn’s suggestion to “try to make something of this as quickly as possible,” Grissom (who also studied at the University of Pennsylvania) neglected his mission until 1989, six years after Williams’ death. The resultant book, FOLLIES OF GOD: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND THE WOMEN OF THE FOG (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), was compiled over the next three decades. It combines quotations relayed to him with drama and tears by the renowned subjects of his interviews, with his own reminiscences and observations about Williams,  his friends, and colleagues. The topics range from their lives, work, and relationships, to their politics and religion, to fascinating backstories of the casting and inspiration for many of Williams’ most compelling female characters (including Lady Torrance from Orpheus Descending, Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda and Laura Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie, and Maggie Pollitt from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)—the women who, he said, came to him from out of the fog. By 1982, he lamented to Grissom : “I have not seen the fog in years.”

Both Tennessee Williams and those on his list (including some significant men along with the women) revealed their neuroses, insecurities, and their desperate need for recognition, as well as their creative processes, triumphs, and the roots of their talent. As director Elia Kazan advised Grissom:

Go back to the beginnings . . . The greatness of . . . people lies in how they got from their squalor—real or perceived—and became artists. Always go to the beginnings. The real person will always be found there.

Grissom does that, and more.

[ISBN: 978-0-307-26569-2] release date March 3, 2015; facebook.com/FolliesofGod

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.