The Accidental Biographer : Tennessee Williams Knew This Unknown Would be Kind in Writing His Memoirs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In December 1979, a great playwright gave Lyle Leverich an assignment for which he was a most unlikely candidate.

A quiet, unassuming man living in a small Northern California town, he'd never written a book, or published much of anything. But the playwright wanted him to write the authorized biography of his life, one of the most passionate, prolific lives in the American theater.

Tennessee Williams gave Leverich access to his vast archive of unpublished diaries and letters that formed the background for such uniquely poetic dramas as "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." By the late 1970s, Williams was notorious as a drug-taking, sexually outrageous, creative wreck. Sketchy biographies and memoirs, including his own, didn't promise the lasting respect he sought. When he told friends about this new biographer, a cry of dismay went up: Who is Lyle Leverich and why are you trusting him with your book?

But now, at 75, an age when most writers are finishing careers, Leverich is the author of a new 644-page volume, "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams" (Crown) (actually, the first of a projected two volumes), that critics say is all Williams might have imagined. They call it a "rounded portrait" (the New York Times) that brings to life "with gentleness and insight" (Time) how a shy young writer from St. Louis turned his family's psychological suffering into scaldingly powerful plays.

It took the unknown biographer 12 years to write and another five to publish after a rival Williams friend blocked the book. Leverich wrestled with financial ruin, depression and illness, until he outlasted her and vindicated the great playwright who plucked him from obscurity to mold his memory.

"For a good part of my life, I didn't know where it was going," Leverich says, describing his many inconclusive starts as frustrated writer, would-be reporter, theatrical agent, frustrated screenwriter, producer, encyclopedia salesman and beach-town bookstore owner. "But I guess some people do find success late in life. Our paths crossed and it does seems as if it was fated. How else can you explain it?"

He sits in a small room overlooking the courtyard of the Belle Bleu Inn, a quaint Santa Monica hotel from the 1940s with beleaguered-looking palm trees Tennessee Williams could have invented. He's large, a florid-faced man who looks like a weirdly benign version of Big Daddy from Williams' "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," yet his strangely gentle aura has something more of Blanche Dubois--a person who gives and seeks kindness as the basic currency of human exchange.

He says he never meant to be a biographer. Asked why Williams singled him out, then, he says, "I never asked him directly."

He was a fervent, longtime Williams fan--"in awe, absolute awe of him"--before they met in 1976, when Leverich wanted to stage a Williams' play in a small theater in San Francisco where he was a producer.

He approached Williams' agent, Bill Barnes, at a news conference and told him that he believed "The Two-Character Play," a later play critics had panned, was misunderstood. He wanted to prove this, he told Barnes, by running the newer play on alternate nights with "The Glass Menagerie," Williams' first big hit. He'd use the same actors and show audiences the link between the two works. This led to a meeting with Williams at Leverich's theater. "I kept talking to him and he kept staring at me," Leverich recalls, "and listening, listening intensely."

Williams wanted a drink. As they walked toward a bar, Leverich recalls, Williams started talking about his family in unexpected detail: his garrulous mother whose verbal energy inspired his own, his bluntly withdrawn father, his mentally ill sister. "We sat in that bar for hours and now I listened, fascinated. He said I should call him Tom but I couldn't. I called him Tennessee. He called me his personal friend, but I kept my distance. I was, I admit, afraid of him."

Williams made three transcontinental trips to oversee the play, helping Leverich choose actors and the director. "It received favorable notices," Leverich says. "I'd made a friend."

They stayed in touch over the next two years, meeting when Williams was on the West Coast or Leverich came to New York. Williams kept talking, and Leverich kept listening.

He also found Williams was curious about him, his story of a restless life, his family, his life as a gay man, his love of the theater and difficulty finding a niche in it. "Before the age of 40," Leverich says softly, "my motto in life was, 'If at first you don't succeed, go on to something else!' "

Born in Queens Village, Long Island, to a family he says lost a real estate fortune in the 1920s--leading a grandfather to commit suicide, his parents to divorce--he staged plays in his basement; by 16, he was the kind of stage-struck kid who combed his hair like Cary Grant and waited outside a stage door for Katherine Hepburn after "The Philadelphia Story."

He says he worked briefly for the New York Daily News and wrote plays. But his luck was bad: A play he'd written was being rehearsed in New York when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He ended up in the Navy, in the South Pacific.

In the 1950s, he wrote short stories and plays with which he was never happy. He tried Hollywood, doctoring movie scripts, but that didn't work out either. In 1960, he threw what he'd written into a fireplace in an apartment he had on San Francisco's Russian Hill, and soon left the city and opened a bookstore with a friend in the small west Marin County town of Stinson Beach. While there, he became active in the Atheneum Summer Arts Festival, which led him back to San Francisco, where he started theaters and staged productions.

To all this, Williams listened with "a fascination that he had in how other people survived."

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He never became a prominent member of Williams' circle or even known to many in it. But by 1978, in Atlanta, Leverich felt confident enough with Williams to tell him he felt the "Memoirs" the playwright had published in 1972, often stressing his love life, were a mistake. Leverich proposed a book about what it was like to work with Williams, putting up a production. "You write it, baby!" Williams told him. Although the book was never completed, Leverich wrote a biographical preface that Williams liked.

In 1979, Leverich was invited to attend the Kennedy Center honors, at which Williams was a recipient. "Afterward, we stood in the lobby," he recalls. "Tennessee, his brother, Dakin, and some friends. And Tennessee introduced me to his brother by saying, 'Lyle is writing my biography.' Dakin lowered his head and said, 'My book will come out first,' and Tennessee then said, 'Yes, but Lyle is writing the authorized biography.'

"Until that point, I had no idea. Really. I didn't believe it. As we left the Kennedy Center, I leaned over to one of the friends and said, 'Ho, ho, ho. So, I'm the authorized biographer.' I thought it was a joke."

But a very serious Williams started asking friends to help Leverich. One was Andreas Brown, owner of New York's most famous bookstore, the writer-friendly Gotham Book Mart. Brown has worked for many prominent writers as bibliographer, compiling records of their archives. He did this for Williams and would be a natural first stop for Leverich.

"I asked Tennessee," Brown recalls, " 'Who the hell is Lyle Leverich?'

"I knew pretty much all the scholars and writers on the theater. You'd expect him to chose someone like that. But Tennessee said, 'He's out in California and he understands my work.' I asked, 'But who is he? Has he written anything? Any books? Anything?' And Tennessee said, 'No, he hasn't written anything,' but I said he should contact me, and I'd help. When I hung up, I figured Tennessee had made a mistake."

Leverich himself thought Williams might have the wrong man. Halfheartedly, he researched the book between 1979 and 1983.

He told Williams he worried about his freedom to write about the playwright's darker side. Williams, Leverich says, responded: "You can always say that the ol' hound dog could be a son of a bitch and not shoot wide of the mark!"

In 1982, Williams repeatedly called Leverich to press him about his progress. "He kept asking if I was going to finish it," Leverich says. "And I said yes, but I had very little confidence."

They shared a somber dinner in New Orleans in January 1983, at which Williams gave the impression of a dying man. That wasn't unusual for Williams, a hypochondriac, but Leverich sensed that this premonition was more genuine. The next day, Williams dropped off at a theater where Leverich was working a second letter of authorization giving full access to his unpublished material, and left the city on a frenzied trip that led to Europe and back to New York's Elysee Hotel. There, on Feb. 25, 1983, he swallowed the cap of an eyedrops bottle by mistake and died. He'd apparently squeezed the drops into his eyes with one hand while holding the cap with some pills in the other--then tossed them all down.

The next day, Williams' agent phoned Leverich with the news. The letter Williams had given him the month before lay open on his desk. He felt "a sense of urgency" come over him, and, he says, immediately packed his bags and left for New York to become a full-time biographer.

In the summer of 1983, he spent six weeks at the University of Texas, in Austin, discovering the archive with new depth. He read Williams' diary entries about his agonizing life with his family. His pain at his sister Rose's derangement, a pivotal autobiographical drive behind "The Glass Menagerie" and other works, emerges in entries like the following one, from 1937. The initial M. stands for his mother and R. for Rose, who had recently entered an institution:

" . . . drove Mother to sanitarium to visit R.--waited about an hour--M. came out crying--R. has taken a dreadful turn--became raving--won't eat--thinks she is being poisoned--can't sleep--disturbed the whole ward, so has been isolated--looks a wreck M. says. She could not tell me about it till after we reached home."

Tracing Williams' awakening gayness, Leverich relied on his own experience as a gay man coming out of "the very big closet" of the 1940s and '50s. He says he also used his own troubled relationship with his father to understand the distance between Cornelius Coffin Williams and his artist son.

In late 1983, Tom Congdon, a former editor in chief of E.P. Dutton who had started his own publishing house, heard from Bill Barnes, who had been Williams' last agent, that Leverich had finished four years of work on a draft--and would he look at it? Congdon recalls that Leverich showed him "a big great big sprawling amateur effort. An enormous manuscript."

"I didn't know what I was doing," Leverich says. "I badly needed an editor."

Says Congdon: "It had a lot of indefinite references and dangling this and dangling that."

He asked Leverich to rewrite a section of the book, telling him he'd take it only if he proved he had the ability to take an editor's advice.

Leverich did a good job, and Congdon realized that he fit a tendency of the playwright to be shrewd in trusting certain people who were unproven.

A year later, though, Leverich experienced the bewildering transience of the publishing world. Congdon's house went bankrupt, and Leverich had to follow him to William Morrow, another house, where he got into a dispute two years later about the book's length--and left for a third house, Grove Weidenfeld.

"Lyle went through all kinds of trouble," Congdon says, "but he had access to these long, glowing quotes from Williams' diaries. You couldn't take that away from him."

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But someone tried.

After Williams' death, an official at the Southeast Banks of Florida served as the sole executor of his estate, until the will was probated in 1988. That's when Lady Maria St. Just, who soon denied Leverich's right to quote from the Williams archive, entered his life.

According to Williams' will, St. Just became co-trustee, with a New York lawyer named John Eastman, of the trust Williams set up to care for his sister, Rose (who, at 89, still lives).

A woman with an edgy sexual allure and a vicious sense of humor (most closely detailed in a 1994 New Yorker profile by John Lahr), St. Just was a struggling actress with social aspirations when she met Williams in 1948. She embellished her Russian-British background with aristocratic ties and had a talent for making glamorous friends like Gore Vidal and Williams. Williams ultimately turned to her as co-trustee of the trust he set up to take care of his sister after he died. She inflated the role, by all accounts, to that of arbiter of his literary legacy; and, starting in 1989, despite the approval Leverich had won from the estate's overseer before the will was probated, she sought to turn Grove Weidenfeld against him.

St. Just never explained her reasons for stifling Leverich (to protect her own secrets, many believe), but she justified it by saying Williams hadn't been specific enough in granting him permission to quote from the unpublished writing.

"He didn't give me specific permission to quote the material and they hung on to that," Leverich says today. "It was a legal point. He didn't say I could quote, but it was stupid. It was obvious he'd authorized me."

Williams clearly never intended for St. Just to turn into literary bully, but she convinced lawyers at Grove Weidenfeld that they faced a legal fight if they printed Leverich's book, and, in 1990, they dropped it.

Leverich sank into despair. He had spent his advance money and barely survived on Social Security and a veteran's pension. A friend let him live in his apartment for free. He believed he'd win a legal fight against St. Just but couldn't afford it.

He turned 70 that year, and started suffering from adult onset diabetes. "One result was that I had an ulcer on my left foot that wouldn't heal," he says. "I was running around New York with it."

Still, in 1990, piling up debts, he returned to California, to a one-room apartment in the small town of Kentfield, about 10 miles north of San Francisco.

"I spent most of my time submitting the manuscript to publisher after publisher, with the hope that someone would have the guts to stand up to the estate, because I had the legitimacy."

"He had nowhere to go anymore," remembers Herman Arrow, a theatrical photographer who lives a few blocks from Leverich and helped financially.

All through this, Leverich kept working on the book, refining it. But, Arrow says, "About a year and a half ago, Lyle was ready to roll it up and walk away, and he was ready to go to the old soldiers home up in Yountville."

On Feb. 15, 1994, Leverich and some friends had come back from a San Francisco restaurant, where they were plotting new tactics against St. Just, when a call from New York informed them she had died: The book was reborn.

Now that it's out, Leverich seems to enjoy his success, but isn't absorbed. He speaks of "the climb up the Matterhorn" of his second volume. He's intrigued by the struggle of the mature Williams to transcend his early artistic gains without losing his audience. He'll have to write about the world of the celebrity writer, surrounded by the glamorous and the glamour-seeking--and will no doubt come face to face with the Lady St. Just. How will he treat her?

"She made my life very difficult, but she took good care of Rose. So, I will be fair."

"Fair" is the word Leverich says Williams uttered the one time he was asked why he chose him. John Uecker, a New York director who worked as Williams' assistant in his last years, did the asking.

"Wrong," Uecker said, in a recent interview. "He didn't say Lyle was fair. He said kind. I kept questioning him over and over. He wouldn't answer. I said, 'I really don't know anything about Lyle Leverich. Have you read anything he's written?'

"Then, he yelled at me: 'Lyle's not a writer! A writer's the last thing I want! Lyle will write the truth, but he'll be kind.'

"And in the long run," Uecker added, "he was right."

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