Below is an excerpt from the book Follies of God, by James Grissom, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Dana writes:
James Grissom wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams in 1982, when he was only 20 years old, asking for advice. Tennessee unexpectedly responded, ‘Perhaps you can be of some help to me.’ Ultimately he tasked Grissom with seeking out each of the women (and few men) who had inspired his work—among them Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando—so that he could ask them a question: had Tennessee Williams, or his work, ever mattered? This is Grissom’s account of their intense first encounters, in which Tennessee explains his thoughts on writing, writer’s block, and the women he wrote.
“Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”
These were the first words Tennessee Williams spoke to me in that initial phone call to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was September of 1982, a fact I noted in a small blue book. The book was new and had been purchased for an upcoming test in World History that I would not be taking because Tennessee invited me to lunch in New Orleans, and I accepted.
I know that pleasantries were exchanged, and he laughed a lot—a deep, guttural, silly theatrical laugh—but the first quotation attributable to Tennessee Williams to me was the one I wrote in my small blue book.
Perhaps you can be of some help to me.
How could I be of help to Tennessee Williams? How, when in fact I had written to him, several months before, seeking his help? From a battered paperback copy of Who’s Who in the American Theatre, I had found the address of his agent (Audrey Wood, c/o International Famous Agency, 1301 Avenue of the Americas), and had written a letter—lengthy and containing a photograph, and, I’m thankful, lost to us forever—asking for his advice on a writing career. I wrote that his work had meant the most to me; that I was considering a career in the theater. I also enclosed two short stories, both written for a class taken at Louisiana State University. It was a time I recall as happy: I was writing, and exploiting the reserves of the school’s library and its liberal sharing policy with other schools. I was poring over books and papers that related to Tennessee and other writers I admired.