In the Frightened Heart of Me: Tennessee Williams’s Last Year Reviewed By Gordon Osmond of
Gordon Osmond

Reviewer Gordon Osmond : Gordon is a produced and award-winning playwright and author of: So You Think You Know English--A Guide to English for Those Who Think They Don't Need One, Wet Firecrackers--The Unauthorized Autobiography of Gordon Osmond and his debut novel Slipping on Stardust.

He has reviewed books and stageplays for and for the Bertha Klausner International Literary Agency. He is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and practiced law on Wall Street for many years before concentrating on writing fiction and non-fiction. You can find out more about Gordon by clicking HERE

Gordon can also be heard on the Electic Authors Showcase.

By Gordon Osmond
Published on August 26, 2013

Author: Tony Narducci

Publisher: iUniverse

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6594-0 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6595-7 (hc)

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6596-4 (e)

Author: Tony Narducci

Publisher: iUniverse

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6594-0 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6595-7 (hc)

ISBN: 978-1-4759-6596-4 (e)

One who, with some justification, might think that Tennessee “Tom” Williams’ last boy toy would be an unlikely chronicler of the last year in the life of America’s iconic playwright would be outstandingly wrong. For with unrelenting candor and superb writing skills Tony Narducci paints a portrait of the artist as an old man that anyone interested in the perilous nexus between art and celebrity would be a fool to ignore.

In the Frightened Heart of Me, a title taken from the final line of a exquisite poem featured in The Night of the Iguana, does have its share of fan-mag gossip and peek-between-the-sheets allure, but all of that is eclipsed by the author’s thoughtful analysis of what his association with the playwright during the latter’s final year meant to both and each of them.

The author and the playwright met in Key West at a bar called The Monster, somewhat apt, considering that there is much monstrous about the playwright portrayed in this book. Self-centered, inconsiderate, boorish, indulgent, and parasitic is perhaps a good start but hardly the end of the indictments. Most reprehensible, perhaps, was his chronic taunting of the author with the senior playwright’s somewhat pathetic appetite for other men.

Except for an incident in New York, when the author retaliates with an act of deliberate cruelty, Blanche du Bois’ unforgiveable sin, worthy of the master himself, Mr. Narducci is a sympathetic defender and apologist for Williams. It reminded me of Mel ‘the velvet fog’ Torme’s account of life with Judy Garland during the run of her ill-fated TV show as told in his equally fascinating memoir, On the Dawn Patrol. In both cases, the star’s dazzling talent produced in the fan a virtually abysmal ability to overlook and forgive.

Despite Williams’ grander-than-life persona, Narducci tells his tale with meticulous authenticity, eschewing all exaggeration. The story of Williams acting with atrocious manners at a dress rehearsal of a play at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago brought back memories of when I, presenting a definitive portrayal of The Waiter in a Columbia College production of Camino Real, learned that the playwright was in the audience swilling from a flask and repeatedly slurring, “There’s only one Kazan.” This didn’t make our director feel terribly well. I was fascinated by Narducci telling us that later in life, Williams’ effort to blame anything and everyone for his self-induced unhappiness extended even to debasing Kazan. Williams, in his 70s for heaven’s sake, kvetching about his unloving parents, was a, to quote Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, “bore, bore, bore.”

Further authenticity is provided by the reproduction of several letters from Williams to, variously, Dear Tony (colon), Dear Tony (comma supplied by the book’s editor) and Dear Tony (nothing, open punctuation). I may be old fashioned, but I think performing fallatio on an addressee allows for dropping the very businesslike colon in addressing him in a letter. These letters also contain more first person singular pronouns than your average Obama address.

Equally accurately and beautifully described are Key West, the Fire Island of the 60s, and The Saint, a New York non-breeding ground pleasure palace for good-looking gays in the late 70s and early 80s.

The book abounds with insider insights into Williams. One standout was the playwright’s atrocious taste in actors performing his works. It boggles the mind to think that he thought Ann-Margaret with her abundant titian tresses could represent Blanche du Bois more effectively than the incandescent performance of Vivien Leigh. One has to wade through a lot of actors on the totem pole, Bankhead, Harris, Danner to name a few, before arriving at Ann. And he should have thanked his lucky stars that Geraldine Page eventually played The Princess in the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth instead of Elizabeth Taylor. That said, I cannot quarrel with the playwright’s comparison of Anna Magnani and Vanessa Redgrave, having seen the latter on the Broadway stage in Orpheus Descending and the former in its film adaptation, The Fugitive Kind. But expecting a Brit to be as sensual as the quintessential Italian is asking a lot.

Associations between Williams and Blanche du Bois have been around a long time, but Narducci adds significantly to the thesis. Stella defends Blanche to Stanley by noting that she was radically more appealing when younger. Let’s hope that Williams was, too. The author also adds interesting parallels between Williams and Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, both being both devouring and ultimately devoured. The final comparison involving not Williams but the author himself is unstated but clear—the author’s feeling that in the dawn of AIDS he was a dark angel of death, not unlike the Richard Burton character in BOOM!, the film adaptation of Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Fortunately for the reader of this book, Narducci was a survivor.

Along the path of this fascinating memoir there are historical tidbits and rhetorical flourishes that make the journey from start to finish a genuine delight:

  • I was smitten by the heavenly sound of a black grand piano. Moonlight Sonata and For Elise lifted my spirit before I knew what spirit was.

  • I studied Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Chaplin, Welles and more. The flickering images flashed in my soul like downloading software.

  • Vanessa Redgrave eats Chinese food with a fork.

  • Narducci knows that older women shouldn’t wear long hair.

  • Harvard University has an interesting way of listing the occupation of honorees:

    • Virgil Thomson, Composer

    • J. Donald Monan, Boston College President

    • Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Missionary

    • Dr. Maxwell Finland, Infectious Disease

  • With the determination that guided his entire life, he would reach for one last hope, and I would be his sail on the journey that would take him to the land Down Under.

  • John was an expert talker and a deaf listener.

  • Bette Davis thought Ronald Reagan, her drinking buddy in Dark Victory, a simpleton.

There are some minor editorial mishaps: ware v. wear, there v. their, gentle v. gentile, find v. fid (sic).

Narducci caught and caught up with Williams in the final stage in the professional life of many successful playwrights: the first, astonishing artistic achievement born of the kind of passion and struggle only the unknown can know; the second, the smug complacency of knowing that whatever you write will be produced; and the third, the desperation resulting from what Narducci poetically refers to as a loss of voice.

Those who are fascinated by the arc of literary greatness in general and the career of Tennessee Williams in particular will find immense satisfaction and pleasure reading this masterful account of a man who also just happened to die at a poignant turning point in the lives of gays in America.

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