(Helen Shaw’s article appeared in the New Yorker, June 5, 2023; Photo: Grissom says that the playwright gave him a life-changing mission. Illustration by Valentin Tkach.)
James Grissom says that he met the playwright and his famous muses, and quoted them extensively in his work. Not everyone believes him.
Sometime in September, 1982, James Grissom, a twenty-year-old English student at Louisiana State University, receives a life-changing phone call from Tennessee Williams. It doesn’t come completely out of the blue: Grissom had sent a fan letter to the playwright, enclosing a picture and a few short stories, and asking for advice. But the response, Grissom would write decades later, surpasses his wildest hopes. When he picks up the receiver, a rough voice drawls down the line, “Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”
On the phone, the famously dissipated playwright tells Grissom that he is having a creative crisis. He has always begun his plays by imagining a woman walking across a stage, “announced by the arrival of a fog,” but he hasn’t seen this fog in years: the calcifying effects of time and “monumental accretions of toxins self-administered” have left him unable to write at his “previous level of power.”
Grissom drives from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and, at the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant, Williams dictates to him a list of writers, directors, and (mostly) actresses. Grissom jots the names down on a menu. Williams wants Grissom to convey his thoughts to these muses—specific praise, a memory—and then find out what Williams has meant to them. “I would like for you to ask these people if I ever mattered,” the playwright says.
So begins “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog,” a book by James Grissom, which was published by Knopf in 2015. (Knopf is the publisher of several New Yorker collections and writers.) Grissom’s haunted, nonlinear, detail-rich book intertwines interviews with the playwright (who is by turns garrulous, melancholy, transported, resolute) and Grissom’s subsequent wide-ranging conversations with those who influenced him. In “Follies,” Grissom writes that, in the course of five days that September, the two men—one a seventy-one-year-old giant of American letters, the other a lanky college student scribbling notes in a blue exam booklet—pinballed around New Orleans while Williams talked about his favorite performers, his faith, his lovers, his great plays, and his determination to return to work. In the St. Louis Cathedral, the white wedding cake that towers above Jackson Square, Williams bought Grissom a rosary, naming each bead for an inspiration: Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Stella Adler . . . the catalogue went on.
Grissom recounts that weeks before Williams died, in February, 1983, the playwright called his house and left a message: “Be my witness.” It took Grissom six years, but once he moved to New York he began reaching out to the names on his list, bearing Williams’s words as his calling card. It’s astounding the interviews Grissom managed to get—the book includes a constellation of twentieth-century luminaries, among them Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando. There are also less widely known figures, like the elegant trouper Marian Seldes, who won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, and two women who performed in revivals of “The Glass Menagerie”: Jo Van Fleet and Lois Smith, who won a Tony in 2021, at the age of ninety, for her role in “The Inheritance.” Grissom chronicles a remarkable intimacy with his subjects. He describes sitting with Stapleton as she drinks Blue Nun sweet wine; talking with Hepburn over bowls of ice cream; and lying in bed next to Kim Hunter, the original Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” so they can listen through the wall to a play at the theatre next door.
Victoria Wilson, a legendary Knopf editor whose writers have included Anne Rice and the biographer Meryle Secrest, acquired the book and worked on it with Grissom for almost ten years. In the intervening decade, Grissom started releasing some of his material online, which brought him into various Williams orbits—he spoke at the 2009 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, as part of its “I Remember Tennessee” panel. Over the years, Grissom launched Twitter and Instagram accounts, a “Follies of God” Facebook page (which now has more than a hundred and ninety-four thousand followers), a Substack newsletter (which currently lists more than seven hundred posts), and several blogs, including one dedicated to “Follies of God.” On these platforms, he began publishing quotations from Williams and his muses, as well as reflections shared with him in the nineties by Alec Guinness, Arthur Miller, Mike Nichols, Eartha Kitt, and others. (One blog, mainly pictures, is called “Faking the Fog.”)
In 2015, Grissom went on a book tour, and Wilson interviewed him at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. “From the moment I got this manuscript,” Wilson said, “I knew this book had greatness.” In a video of the event, Grissom—then fifty-three, his fine, graying hair combed back, the “Follies” rosary around his neck—is an easy and gracious raconteur, chatting about how he and Williams used to do impressions together of the comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly. Wilson herself is steeped in American performance history: she edited the letters of Williams and his longtime friend Maria St. Just, and wrote a biography of Barbara Stanwyck. Wilson told the crowd, “This is without question, as far as I’m concerned, the best book on Tennessee Williams ever written.”