The Glass Menagerie, A Streecar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — all plays that wouldn’t have existed if Tennessee Williams hadn’t existed first. The American playwright did more to transform 20th-century theater than anyone else, and to celebrate the 71 years of his life we bring you 71 facts about the man whose birthday falls on March 26. After the jump, learn about a schizophrenic sister, a distant father, and a lonely son who felt compelled to write.
1. While in his twenties, Williams did not handle rejection letters well. In his journal, he wrote, “Such a helpless, frustrated feeling — and all so silly! Like being scared of my own shadow and that’s what it is. I must somehow overcome this idea of defeat — overcome it permanently — completely — or it will drive me mad…”
2. Williams wrote a multitude of letters that he never sent.
3. In college, Williams was known for skipping classes and missing exams simply because he forgot about them.
4. Williams was born “Thomas Lanier Williams III,” but changed his name to “Tennessee” at the age of 28. Different sources report various reasons for the new moniker. Some claim he received the name from a college roommate, others argue that he picked it to pay tribute to his ancestors who lived in the state of Tennessee, and some think he simply wanted to break with his past and conceal his age.
5. When Williams’ older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he felt a mixture of shame and guilt. Trips to visit her at Saint Vincent’s sanitarium, where she was found “screaming incoherently like a wild animal,” left Williams feeling ill.
6. Williams spoke his words out loud while writing them.
7. Williams had his first sexual experience at the age of 27.
8. Williams once wrote a line he deemed too good to be used in a play. The line: “The past keeps getting bigger and bigger at the future’s expense.” He later inserted it into the play At Liberty.
9. On at least two occasions before becoming a noted playwright, Williams pawned his typewriter to buy food.
10. Williams once said, “My greatest affliction…is perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights.”