James Grissom studied at Louisiana State University and the University of Pennsylvania. He has written for HBO, Showtime, CBS, and NBC. He lives in New York.
“A portrait of Tennessee Williams that is richer, more enthralling and, yes, stranger, than any heretofore. . . . This is an extraordinary work. Not only for those who love theater, but also for those who would seek an understanding of the mind of the artist.”
“Amazing and quite wonderful. . . . A unique and stirring examination of the profound effect of numerous talented actresses on Williams’ memorable work. . . . Grissom’s book is among the most surprising and provocative journeys into the soul of a writer.”
“Grissom magically captures the vein and even voice of Tennessee in this beautifully written book about the actresses in his plays. Would that I had been one of them! There is no greater American playwright and Follies of God reveals why.”
“There have been plenty of books written about Williams over the past three decades, but few weave so many voices into an original and compelling portrait. Grissom honors the life and achievement of his doomed correspondent.”
“A unique personal blend of road trip and literary history. . . . Philosophical, pragmatic, funny, and devastating. . . . Grissom has succeeded in creating a kaleidoscope meditation on the people who entered Williams’ imagination—‘the fog’—to become his signature characters.”
I stumbled upon The Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog, by James Grissom, last summer. I saw a photo of Williams on the cover, and that was enough for me.
I got more than I bargained for.
I finished the book while sitting on a playground bench, as my husband guided our daughter across the monkey bars. All around me people were living and playing, while I sat frozen, startled, alert. The book had produced a quickening of the senses—a vitality that actors long for and thrive upon. When I searched for reviews, when I asked if others had discovered this strange book, I found little trace of public reception.
A few weeks ago, my sister shared a Facebook post by James Grissom. In it, Grissom recounted the story of discovering he had bladder cancer in 2007, and of his reaching out for the help of his senator—Hillary Clinton. Her support had saved his life. The post went viral.
James Grissom, author of The Follies of God, was suddenly a topic of conversation; his story was picked up by Clinton herself. She thanked Grissom for his post and her campaign created a video to feature his story.
Grissom next created a hashtag: #puttingwomenintheirplace. He began to publicly recount stories of other women who had been champions in his life, and he encouraged others to do the same. The connection to his book—and to the women who shine in its pages—was instantly clear. I had no doubt of Grissom’s sincerity, but I also had no doubt that the lessons he absorbed while researching his book were finding a second platform in his post.
The Follies of God stretches in breadth from the history of the American theatre to the intimate musings of dozens of actors and actresses, using as its spine the confessions of one of our greatest playwrights. It is also a thank-you letter to many of the great actresses of Tennessee William’s era.
“I have been very lucky . . . because I have offered my soul to so many women,” Williams told Grissom, “and they have filled it, repaired it, sent it back to me for use.” The political moment has merged with Tennessee Williams’ musings as transcribed by James Grissom. A book that might have been relegated—tragically—to a dusty shelf in the theatre section of the bookshop has grown suddenly pivotal.
In the autumn of 1982, James Grissom, an aspiring playwright, wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, stamped it, and sent it to Tennessee Williams. It’s safe to say hundreds, if not thousands of fans had done just that before him, never dreaming of any response.
Williams called Grissom on the telephone.
“Perhaps you can be of some help to me,” the playwright said.
Williams next invited Grissom to New Orleans, and Grissom—naturally—accepted.
So began Grissom’s odyssey into the heart of a lonely and deeply depressed icon who felt caught in a “knot of time,” unable to write, a victim of his own ill-use of his mind and body.
That’s a lot to lay on a twenty-year-old, but Grissom listened and took notes. Williams made no pretense of being anything but a man in desperate need of validation. Grissom was led down winding passages, traveling deeper into another person’s soul than perhaps anyone should, but Williams was so hungry for communication and so urgently needy that Grissom forged ahead.
He spent many days with Williams, who felt maligned as a “hack” and discredited by contemporary critics. He longed for a return to his heyday, a time in which he had basked in the love and appreciation of a rapt audience. He had been considered, rightly, the voice of a new generation. He wondered if he had ever been worthy of such praise. Eventually, Williams tasked Grissom with an enormous project: could he find the actresses Williams had worked with, give them personal notes he’d written for them, and speak to them in person?
To see if he had mattered to them.
Over lunches in dingy diners, “Tenn,” as Williams asked Grissom to call him, offered detailed remembrances—from notes he had kept—of the women with whom he had worked. Armed with “Tenn’s” personal notes, Grissom eventually found and gained the trust of such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Geraldine Page, Jessica Tandy, Kim Stanley, Lillian Gish, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, and Maureen Stapleton, to name only a few of the seventy people who appear in The Follies of God. Somehow, from the substance of many voices, one narrative emerges, that encompasses not only Williams’ insights, but those of a multitude of stars in the theatrical firmament.
A pattern emerges throughout these interviews. As we flash from Williams’s accounts to the actresses themselves, in their own words, one after another establish themselves as titanic intellectual forces.
Laurette Taylor, who ushered in a new model of acting in The Glass Menagerie—had a profound effect on Williams. “Absolutely nothing escaped her attention or merciless sense of detail”—he says.
Of Elizabeth Wilson, Williams said, “Imagine yourself committed but distant; passionate but professional.”
“I reflect on Marian,” Williams told Grissom, of Marian Seldes. She says, ‘Life goes by. Your use of time defines the kind of person you are off the stage—and on. When you are in charge of that time—the time of your life—you are happy.”
And of Frances Sternhagen, Grissom writes: “Tenn felt he could see her brain at work, that her intelligence—one he described as ‘astringent’—fueled her every action.”
“Look,” Katharine Hepburn told Grissom, “. . . most of those women on your list—on Tennessee’s list—made very conscious decisions about their lives and about their actions in their careers to become good and to become some sort of inspiration to people. It is a struggle—a perpetual struggle—to do anything worthwhile.”
Geraldine Page is, of all those Grissom spoke to, the most astonishing: every word she utters makes up a kind of gospel on how to conduct a life of dignity and significance. “Page,” Grissom writes, “hated inactivity, idle minds or chatter, conversations for which there was no point or theme or purpose. She had no patience or sympathy for unintelligent, unexamined people or situations.”
“Geraldine,” Williams told Grissom, “has an intellect that I would match against that of anyone else in the world.”
And yet this fearsome intellect—who, in Grissom’s words, had “impossibly high standards of conduct and creativity that have led her to be compared to any number of ferocious and wild animals”—read the note provided for her from Williams, clutched James Grissom’s hand, and cried. She had much to say on the subject of Tennessee Williams: she hadn’t known how fragile he was, how much he had longed for friendship. Williams aspired to behave like the women he admired, but he hadn’t known how to ask for help.
When Williams muses about these women, he is telling us what to pay attention to—what he wished he had paid attention to. It is perhaps upon Page whom Williams most wishes he had modeled his conduct: “She believed that every single thing, every moment, should serve some bigger purpose. . . . She had no fear of beginning, of jumping off where she should, over and over, to get to where she needed to be. I would like to emulate her in her impatience with delusion. I delude myself all the time, still, and it offers me no reward.”
Page replied to this, through Grissom, saying, “Dreaming is a negative thing, in a way, and I think Tennessee’s dreaming—that lifelong plunge into darkness—was a negative thing. . . . It’s very poetic, but it’s not a state in which I care to work. I need all of my senses when I’m working. The dreams are the first act, I guess. The overture. And the work begins. One should always be beginning to work.”
In 2015, a great distance from that 1982 phone call, Grissom at last produced a volume overflowing with insight, both poetic and direct—from the many actresses Williams had worked with. In his effort to convey the rich life of the mind in which fine artists dwell, Grissom quotes Robert Edmond Jones: “They seem so much more aware than we are, and so much more awake, and so much more alive that they make us feel that what we call living is not living at all, but a kind of sleep.”
Uta Hagen wrote in her own seminal book on acting, that “an alert mind is an actor’s prerequisite.” In The Follies of God, Grissom conveys the quickening of the senses that is embodied by the art form. Grissom has succeeded in simultaneously introducing his reader to the almost supernatural awareness of the actor’s mind on the one hand, and on the other, the pragmatic quotidian work ethic she must apply in order to succeed at her craft.
Uta Hagen also wrote: “Art is mysterious enough without our making it more so.” Hagen was a firm believer in being grounded: “Theoretically, the actor ought to be more sound in mind and body than other people,” she wrote in her own book, “since he learns to understand the psychological problems of human beings when putting his own passions, his loves, fears, and rages to work in the service of the characters he plays.”
Grissom pays homage to the mystique of famous actresses but reveals, often through their own words, their sweaty struggle to make their work—their life on stage—real. Grissom also got an answer to Williams’ question: Had he mattered to the artists who breathed life into his work?
Yes, he had mattered.
Why women? Why were women so important to Williams? Why was he able to recognize their power, why was he so hungry to learn from them and seek shelter in their lessons? The answer may lie in his childhood. He had looked to his mother for shelter from a brutal and abusive father—and he had felt betrayed when she was unable to provide it. He had expected more from her than from his father, a man locked inside ignorance and bigotry. Williams spoke to Grissom about this wound: “I hated my mother for blandly accepting the mediocrity that was our life, and until I jumped on her train of outward-bound dreams, I hated her for moving out of the real world, where I felt she might have offered me some aid.”
No matter how fast he ran, he could never outpace his guilt. Williams might have loathed his mother, but he also felt great love for her, eventually recognizing that it was from her that he had inherited his talent.
“I would suddenly realize,” Williams reflected, “that the person I thought I hated had made me someone who could appreciate images, illusions, and who had probably made me a writer.”
His life’s work—his plays—gazed back at the woman who haunted him. By 1982, he was able to see his mother’s influence as a gift. Even this fragile, delusional woman had given him a kind of wisdom: a penetrating ability to feel pain and recognize the raw material upon which an artist seizes.
Williams fancifully believed that women were a magical force that had lifted him repeatedly out of despair. He spent, as he recounts to Grissom, decades seeking shelter in and friendship from many of the actresses who appeared in his plays. It wasn’t until later—1982 to be exact—that he began to understand how much more than merely shelter these women had to offer. It is in this latter day recognition that the power of The Follies of God lies.
My own mother, an actress herself, was fond of the expression “Too late we learn.” This sentiment is the clarion call, the urgent warning that drives Grissom’s narrative.
The Follies of God affirms that theater is only as great as the people who understand not only how to act, but how to think precisely, how to love completely, and how to work very, very hard. It also suggests to those outside this world that they might awake from the kind of sleep that Jones had written of, and to live more fully, more sensually, and with more purpose.
In 1982, Grissom traveled to New Orleans and met with a bereft soul, broken from childhood, who had risen above the cruelty of his upbringing, but had lived on borrowed time. By the time Williams reached out to the young Grissom, his demons had outpaced him. Williams had an appointment with self-destruction and he kept it. Still, although unable to write another play, he had much that he longed to express. It came out in the form of advice and remembrance, and it was left to Grissom to weave the words with those of the women Williams achingly described.
When the twenty-year-old Grissom left “Tenn,” having filled several notebooks, he did not rush to begin the project with which Williams had tasked him. Just as Williams had left a broken mother behind in New Orleans, so had Grissom needed to leave Williams to get on with his own life. Ultimately though, he honored his promise. What made him cast a backward glance at the haunted playwright? The answer lies in Williams’ description of his mother: “I knew that my mother saved things—odd things—that helped her to remember what she was and what she could have been. . . . Each had a story and each had a place in her home,” Williams told Grissom.
“Totems—I wanted to give my mother something she could place on a shelf and love, something as fragile and transparent as those perfume bottles. Something as beloved and fraught with meaning as those rose petals and those napkins.”
Grissom crafted a totem for the playwright, something to honor his insights and recollections. From pages of scribbled notes—Williams’s “odd things”—he constructed a masterful narrative. Williams offered Grissom advice and philosophy tinged with depressive regret, and Grissom poured every poetic bit into the final product.
Williams surely would have loved this totem—loved it for his mother, who was halted in her ambitions for a better life, and loved it for all the women he later reflected upon and deemed underappreciated. It is a coming full-circle. Grissom received Williams’ keening confessions and crafted a totem from them, as Williams had wanted to do for his mother.
Serendipitously, Hillary Clinton saved James Grissom’s life, and he crafted a Facebook post, an ode to her, another “totem.” That totem went viral.
Hillary Clinton has said that she is more comfortable with the “servant” part than the “public,” part of her work. Her legendary reserve has been used as a cudgel against her reputation. It has been easy for her detractors to characterize her as “suspect” in a culture hungry for confession. She is a private person in a chatty world. In this way, as in the driving, focused nature of her work ethic, Clinton is reminiscent of the actresses who haunt the pages of The Follies of God. Grissom unearthed the ruminations of artists who were as reserved as Clinton about their personal lives and their methodologies. They did not publicize their intellects; it would have been contrary to the very private nature of artists. This privacy serves to protect their resource, their “inner theatre,” as Tennessee Williams called the artist’s brain.
Tennessee Williams didn’t live to see a woman save his young friend’s life, but no one would have been less surprised by Clinton’s efficiency and warmth. Had he lived to see hashtags, he couldn’t have crafted a more fitting one than Grissom’s. He loved women because he had witnessed so many fine actresses at work both on stage and in life. He craved their partnership and guidance. Tennessee Williams knew as well as anyone the importance of #puttingwomenintheirplace.