Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911 to a family that his biographers are fond of comparing to the dysfunctional ones of his plays. Williams's father, Cornelius, was an inveterate gambler and alcoholic whose indulgences kept the family constantly on the move. Williams's beloved sister, Rose, suffered from schizophrenia, was ultimately forced to undergo a frontal lobotomy by their mother, Edwina. This event—recounted in his play Suddenly Last Summer—particularly horrified Williams, who became his sister's caretaker. In 1931 Williams left home to begin studies at the University of Missouri. While at school, he both received the nickname “Tennessee” from a college roommate (although his close friends generally referred to him as “Tom”) and decided to become a playwright upon seeing a production of Ibsen's Ghosts. Williams's plans were abruptly thwarted by his father, who demanded that he leave school to come work at his shoe factory. There, he befriended a man named Stanley Kowalski, who would later appear as the antihero of his perhaps most famous play.
Ultimately Williams resumed his schooling at Washington University, finishing his degree at the University of Iowa where he locally produced some of his plays. He then moved on to New Orleans where he staged his first major success with The Glass Menagerie (1945). Steeped, like many of Williams's works, in what irresistibly appear as biographical references, the play imagines the tumultuous struggles between of a son, his disabled sister, and their controlling mother Amanda. Shortly after Menagerie closed, the playwright went to work on a new piece about a woman stood up by her fiancé, producing his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, followed in 1955. The crux of this latter work concerns the conflicts of a Mississippi family following the diagnosis of its patriarch, Big Daddy's, stomach cancer and the revelation of his darling alcoholic son's homosexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered in New York under the direction of Elia Kazan, who revised the third act to give the play a more redemptive (and anodyne) resolution. In 1958, director Richard Brooks adapted Cat on a Hot Tin Roof into a hugely popular film that was almost perfectly cast–including a stunning Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, an incredibly handsome Paul Newman as Brick, and a corpulent and irascible Burl Ives as Big Daddy. To Williams's dismay, Brooks excised all explicit references to Brick's homosexuality in deference to the studio censors.
For many years from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, Williams was in a long-termed relationship with Frank Merlo, who had served in the US Navy during World War II and was a part-time actor. During this time, Merlo, who also worked as a personal secretary for Williams, provided stability for Williams, who dealt with bouts of depression throughout his life. The two shared an apartment in New York City and a house in Key West, Florida. After Merlo died of lung cancer in 1963, Williams experienced deeper depression, increased use of drugs, and a reduction in his creative output. Williams died at the age of 71 in the Hotel Elysée in New York City in 1983.
Williams is generally recognized as one of the greatest writers to emerge from the American South as well as a chief architect of the new American drama that followed in the wake of World War II. Certainly his plays shocked their contemporary audiences in their unprecedented treatment of the violence, rape, incest, alcoholism, and other secret traumas that haunt the everyday. Ultimately their insight, however, goes far beyond their “shock value”—that is, their capacity to offend conventional morality. If such were the case, Williams's impassioned, seductive, and often nightmarish visions of American life would be far easier to forget.