Entertainment

30 Years Ago Monday: Tennessee Williams Dies In Manhattan Hotel Suite

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams at the Cannes film festival in May 1976. (Credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — On Feb. 25, 1983 — 30 years ago Monday — playwright Tennessee Williams was found dead in his home at the iconic Hotel Elysée in Midtown Manhattan.

Williams was 71 when he was found in his suite at the hotel, at 60 E. 54th St., where had also written his last play, “In Masks Outrageous and Austere.” The play was completed in 1982 but did not premiere until April of last year.

Prior to his death, Williams had been dividing his time between New York, New Orleans and Key West, Fla., for decades. He was, and is, considered one of the greatest and most popular playwrights of all time.

He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Miss., in 1911, and wrote his first play, “Beauty is the Word,” as a freshman at the University of Missouri in 1930. His first produced play was, “Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay,” which was staged in Memphis in 1935.

In 1944, Williams’ iconic “The Glass Menagerie” came to Broadway after a successful run in Chicago. He had a successful run with several other plays on Broadway in the years to come, and won Pulitzer prizes for “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1948 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955.

But Williams struggled with depression and alcoholism later in life – particularly after his longtime partner, Frank Merlo, died in 1961. The openly gay playwright was also the victim of a hate-fueled attack by a group of teenagers in Key West in 1979, according to published reports.

Meanwhile, many of Williams’ later plays were unsuccessful both at the box office and among critics, compared to his legendary mid-century work.

Following his death, initial reports indicated that Williams had choked on a cap from a nasal spray bottle. But those who knew him later said he actually died of Seconal intolerance, in what CUNY professor Annette J. Saddik called “kind of a Michael Jackson situation, but not as drastic” during a 2010 talk with the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Saddik said Williams had been taking Seconal – a barbiturate derivative – to help him sleep, and also had been drinking the night he died.

“When this happened, John Uecker, who was his companion and assistant at the time, was still around and told the (New York City) Medical Examiner, ‘Look, people are going to think it’s suicide or AIDS or something bizarre and we don’t know what happened,’” Saddik said in the interview. “So the Medical Examiner, said, ‘OK, he choked on a bottle cap.’ But really, his body just gave up and the eventual diagnosis was intolerance.”

Williams was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. He was inducted into the Poet’s Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side in 2009.

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