The troubled life of Rose Williams haunts the works of her brother Tennessee. Like a faded Southern belle eternally deserted, she is the model for the withdrawn, disabled "Laura Wingfield" who seeks refuge in her collection of glass animals in The Glass Menagerie. Her brother Tom declares, "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!"
Rose Isabel Williams was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1909, the first child of Edwina and Cornelius Williams. Her brother Thomas - Tennessee - was born three years later. The siblings became as close as twins; as Lyle Leverich writes in his admirable Tom: the unknown Tennessee Williams (1995), "Throughout his life, Tennessee Williams had two overriding devotions: his career as a writer and his sister, Rose." Initially proud of his daughter with her "expressive grey-green" eyes and auburn curls, their father later turned against his two elder children; his relationship with his wife also deteriorated, and her resultant bias against sex had a serious effect on Rose and Tom, "that of deep and permanent injury . . . Rose would remain a virgin all her life."
As a child Rose was given to telling far-fetched tales of hard-pressed family life, "perhaps trying to overshadow her brother's storytelling talents". But Tennessee doted on his elder sister, and felt a sense of betrayal when she entered puberty and began to be interested in other boys:
. . . At fifteen my sister
no longer waited for me,
impatiently at the White Star Phar-
but plunged headlong
into the discovery, Love!
It was additionally a betrayal for Tennessee, who would not come to terms with his own homosexuality until his late twenties.
This distorted, dysfunctional background (there was mental illness in both parents' families) inevitably influenced Williams's work. His backward- looking, over-heated Southern Gothic of regret and frustrated passion is suffused with the spirit of Rose, not only in The Glass Menagerie (1944), but in short stories such as "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" (1943) and "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin" (1950), in which he mourns "the magical intimacy of our childhood together", splintered by the oncoming of adolescence and sex.
Tennessee could take refuge in his "interior life of memories and fantasies"; Rose had no such resources to draw upon. She grew up outgoing, using make- up earlier than other girls, and was remembered as "very pretty and a bit standoffish". But by early teenage "her good spirits were turning into a kind of hysteria; her laughter was more nervous than natural; she was moody and was developing a strange little hunch . . ." Self-dramatisation had tipped over into pessimism: "Everything was, as she kept saying, 'just tragic!' " Such dialogue, delivered with a Southern accent, is echoed in the forlorn character of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, who, like Rose, was ever disappointed in love.
By 1925, Rose's behaviour had become too erratic for her ailing mother to deal with, and it was decided to send her away to school in Vicksburg - a further separation from her brother. But the "wild jazz age summer" of 1925 was for Tennessee a remembrance of Rose and her boyfriends dancing the Charleston, memories again to resurface in his own work. Rose was preoccupied with pretty clothes and looking beautiful; from exile in Vicksburg she wrote to her brother in the languorous speech of a nascent Tennessee Williams heroine, "Here I sit in agony my face covered in green beauty clay . . . I don't need to tell you how striking the effect it. I think it's lovely of you to write to me so often even though I don't answer . . . as often as I should. You know stamps amount up and I am so busy." Her favourite song was "Poor Butterfly".
"Cruelly excluded" from the Williams family as Tennessee and his developing literary career became the battleground between his parents, at 18 Rose felt unloved, and relationships were inconstant: "My beau hasn't arrived yet, he comes in the morning and stays until one o'clock every night. I'm so tired of him I could scream . . . " Edwina her mother realised, "For the past few years something unknown and fearful had been taking place in the mind of our spirited, imaginative Rose." It was hoped a good marriage would settle her, but her debut was "a fiasco from the first", wrote Edwina, "as everything in Rose's life seems to be". The local paper ran a large photograph of a wistful-looking Rose announcing she would be "the recipient of marked social attention", as she was, for a month; but none of the boys asked for a second date and, soon after, serious depression took hold. Severe stomach pains had Rose believing someone was trying to poison her; she fought bitterly with her father, who threatened to leave the family. She lacked self-confidence, and her failure to stick at secretarial jobs was diagnosed by her psychiatrist as a fear of sex.
Edwina determined that Rose should have respectable "gentleman callers" and wanted Tennessee to bring home "some young friend" - as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie exhorts, ". . . For Sister! To meet! Get acquainted!" (Mrs Williams "never stopped talking", recalled a friend of Rose's.) Yet Tennessee - still a virgin at 25, like his sister - hated her inept attempts at promiscuity: "Rose, I heard you offer yourself to Colin, and I want you to know that you disgusted me."
At 26, Rose's life began to go seriously out of kilter. Witness to a literary party given by her brother which got out of hand, she "informed" on him to their mother. it was a traumatic turning-point: "I hate the sight of your ugly old face!" Tennessee screamed at her; the cruellest thing he'd ever done, he said. In his diary, he wrote: ". . . The house is wretched. Rose is on one of her neurotic sprees - fancies herself an invalid - talks in a silly dying-off way - trails around the house in negligees. Disgusting." Re-reading this three years later, Williams added a note: "God forgive me for this!"
"You must never make fun of insanity," Rose once reproved her brother. "It's worse than death." "A distance measured in silence" grew up between the siblings, and the estrangement precipitated the tragedy to come. Cornelius objected to the expense of private treatment, and threatened to put Rose in the State Asylum. Tennessee found it all impossible to deal with: "We have had not deaths in our family but slowly by degrees something was happening much uglier and more terrible than death." "A pity the Church hasn't a place for girls like Rose," wrote her mother. Tennessee's diary was witness to the irrevocable: "R. makes the house tragic, haunted. Must be put away, I suppose. An incredible horror to face."
In the State Hospital in Farmington, "Dementia Precox (Schizophrenic) Mixed Type, Paranoid Predominating" was diagnosed, and insulin shock and Metrazol therapy prescribed. After six years of hopeless treatment, in 1943, Rose was given a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy, sanctioned by Edwina Williams, her husband having given up on Rose. Tennessee's only comment was a journal entry in blank verse:
Grand, God be with you.
A chord breaking.
1000 miles away.
Rose. Her head cut open.
A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking.
My father, mean as a
devil, snoring - 1000 miles
Tennessee had last seen his sister in 1939, "her talk was so obscene - she laughed and talked continual obscenities". Post-lobotomy, he found her "possessed of an unbridled imagination, and from then on it would bid them . . ." His own obsession with mental illness remained with him as Suddenly Last Summer (1958), its heroine also facing insanity, bears witness; as Leverich writes, "He knew that Rose's reality was never far removed from his own."
Tennessee's success with A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 allowed him to finance his sister's private care, and up until his death (he choked on a bottle cap) in 1983, Tennessee continued to pay for her upkeep, whilst intermittently blaming his mother (who died aged 94 in 1979) for having allowed the operation. Williams's estate was left to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with the bulk remaining in trust for his sister during her lifetime. With her death, the university will receive $7m.
Rose Isabel Williams: born Gulfport, Mississippi 19 November 1909; died Tarrytown, New York 5 September 1996.
Elegy for Rose
She is a metal forged by love
too volatile, too fiery thin
so that her substance will be lost
as sudden lightning or as wind.
And yet the ghost of her remains
reflected with the metal gone,
a shadow as of shifting leaves
at moonrise or at early dawn.
A kind of rapture never quite
possessed again, however long
the heart lays siege upon a ghost
recaptured in a web of song.
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