COLUMBUS, Miss. – Behind a glass frame on the wall of the Tennessee Williams Home is a treasure that was almost tossed in the trash.
Faded with time, the laurel wreath once lay on the famed playwright’s body at his 1983 funeral. “It was saved and given to us by Tennessee Williams’ assistant,” a tour guide said.
It seems only right that the funeral wreath is displayed in the home where Williams spent the first three years of his life. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, Thomas Lanier Williams grew up to win two Pulitzer Prizes – for his plays “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Many of the lines in his plays came from here, from his hometown,” said local historian Jack White. “Even though his family moved away from here, Tennessee Williams returned to visit often because his grandfather lived here.”
When the Blount cruise ship Grande Caribe stopped in Columbus, passengers were offered a tour of the Mississippi city with a stop at the Tennessee Williams Home and at Waverly Plantation. I’ll save Waverly for another story.
A big tour bus with Jack White as guide arrived at the dock for the three-hour shore excursion. We left shortly after breakfast and would get back about lunchtime. That is one of the benefits of traveling with Blount – they know the stops along the rivers and have scouted out the best shore excursions and tour guides.
Columbus is a lovely Old South city with tree-lined streets and antebellum mansions. Once the rectory for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the colorful Victorian home where Williams lived has been renovated and is now the city’s Visitor Center.
NEW BABY ARRIVES
The story goes that Williams’ grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, rector at the Columbus Episcopal Church, was preaching the Palm Sunday sermon while his grandson was being born at the local clinic. An ornate Bishop’s Cross displayed at the home was once worn by Dakin.
Williams’ parents, Edwina and Cornelius Coffin Williams, already had a daughter named Rose when they brought their baby son home from the clinic. They later would have another son named Dakin.
Rose was a delicate girl prone to bouts of mental illness. Years later, her parents had a pre-frontal lobotomy performed on Rose. The operation was a failure and Rose was left incapacitated for the rest of her life. Tennessee Williams never forgave his parents for allowing the operation.
A traveling shoe salesman with a penchant for drinking, Cornelius Williams often left his family to live with his wife’s parents. That seemed to suit young Tom just fine. When the boy was seven years old, however, his father was promoted to a job at the home office of the International Shoe Company in St. Louis and moved the family there.
Tom was unhappy in St. Louis, especially when his father forced him to withdraw from school and go to work in a shoe factory. But it was in the factory that the budding writer met a man named Stanley Kowalski who would later be immortalized in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Marlon Brando played the role in one movie version.)
“At the age of 14, I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable,” Williams wrote.
‘TOM’ BECOMES ‘TENNESSEE’ WILLIAMS
Moving to New Orleans in 1939, Tom changed his name to “Tennessee” – a nickname given to him in college because of his southern drawl. In 1947, Williams met and fell in love with Frank Merlo who would become his partner for 16 years. When Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963, Williams fell into a deep depression that lasted a decade.
Williams himself died on Feb. 24, 1983, at the Hotel Elysee in New York City. According to official reports, he choked to death on a bottle cap. He was buried in St. Louis.
For the funeral, Williams’ longtime assistant John Uecker searched for a simple casket that would reflect the world-renowned writer’s humble beginnings. “All the other coffins were so overly ornate and in such bad visual taste we did not want Tennessee to rest in one,” Uecker wrote.
Instead of large bouquets of flowers, a poet’s laurel wreath was placed on Williams’ body for the funeral. “People touched the wreath as they walked by to pay their last respects,” Uecker said. “After the viewing of the body was over, the doors were closed and locked to finalize the last public pass-by of the body. I remained there with a few people for our own final moments.”
Paying his final respects, Uecker noted a funeral home employee who had come into the room to clean. “He started to look at the wreath,” Uekcer wrote. “He then looked at the waste paper basket. I interrupted him and asked what they were planning on doing with it. He told me he was going to throw it into the trash.”
Instead, Uecker asked if he could keep the wreath. He presented the touching memento to the Tennessee Williams Home in 2010.
“I knew I would be keeping this wreath for a long time,” Uecker said. “And that eventually this wreath would find its own resting place, so far away from the waste paper basket for which it had been inadvertently intended.”
For more information: Contact Blount Small Ship Adventures at (800) 556-7450, www.BlountSmallShipAdventures.com or the Tennessee Williams Home at (800) 327-2686, www.columbus-ms.org.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch