Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens in New York, two days before his 44th birthday. The play would win Williams his second Pulitzer Prize.
Williams had been an award-winning playwright since 1945, when his first hit play, The Glass Menagerie, opened, winning the Drama Critics Circle Award. Two years later, he won his first Pulitzer Prize, for A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams led a colorful and tragic life. Born in 1911 in Columbia, Mississippi, he was a sickly child terrorized by his violent traveling-salesman father. When he was seven, the family moved to St. Louis, where his father became manager of a shoe company. Persecuted and taunted by his father, he took refuge in reading and writing and in a close relationship with his beloved sister Rose. At 14, he won a prize in a national writing competition and three years later sold a short story to Weird Tales magazine.
Williams studied at the University of Missouri at Columbia but left to work in his father’s shoe warehouse for three years. He later attended Washington University in St. Louis and finally graduated from the University of Iowa at age 27. Sadly, his sister Rose, who suffered severe mental disturbances that Williams blamed on his father’s violence, was lobotomized during this time.
Williams started writing plays during college and continued when he moved to New Orleans in the 1930s, where he changed his name from Thomas to Tennessee. In 1939, he won an award for a small production of his one-act collection American Blues. He worked briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter and later turned a failed screenplay into The Glass Menagerie. The play launched Williams to critical success, which he maintained until the 1960s, when the critics turned on him. However, he continued writing until his death in 1983, when he choked on a medicine-bottle cap.