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ISSUE 80: A Suitcase Named Desire

A Suitcase Named Desire

Illustration by Tom Martin

Victor Campbell carries a chunk of Tennessee Williams’s soul around New Orleans every day in a black leather briefcase. He keeps the rest of it in the back of his bedroom closet, in an olive-green Samsonite suitcase, the weight of half a man. I first learned of Victor when I read “The Night Was Full of Hours,” an unpublished prose poem. The poem depicts Williams in predawn insomnia, and details the tools and techniques and drugs he used to try to sleep. Williams describes himself wandering around his apartment,

past Victor’s clothes thrown over a living-room chair but no sign of Victor except the thermos of chicory coffee which he always prepares before retiring to his separate bedroom or changing to an outfit more suitable for cruising the all-night streets of the Quarter. (Dear Victor, relinquished as lover because more needed as friend.)

I wondered about this Victor, who must have been important to Williams. Years later, in 2003, at a literary salon in the French Quarter celebrating an anthology I had edited, in which “The Night Was Full of Hours” was published for the first time, I made a surprising discovery. It was my turn to read, and as I walked from the balcony to the microphone, a friend grabbed my arm and introduced me to a thin-lipped man in a three-piece flannel suit: “This is Victor Campbell.” I was so surprised that I spilled red wine all over my friend’s white linen trousers.

Campbell told me he’d come back to New Orleans a month earlier, after living in Florida for 25 years. He said he had some things of Williams’s that I might want to take a look at. I got his phone number and soon arranged an interview.


 

Victor Campbell in the Dumaine Street apartment

Victor Campbell in the Dumaine Street apartment, 1974

We decided to meet at Napoleon House, one of the country’s oldest restaurants. When I arrived, tourists and locals were sandwiched along wooden tables older than their grandparents. I was ten minutes early, and so was Campbell, sitting near the entrance. He wore blue jeans and a madras button-down, and held a black leather briefcase between his legs. He stood to shake my hand with a grave, resigned expression.

After we moved to a small, more private table in the dark back room, Campbell ordered a Budweiser and then cautiously scrolled through the combination locks on his briefcase, eventually releasing the golden latches. He sifted through manila folders filled with photocopies of the treasures Williams left him: a parking receipt from a hotel in Rome; the 1950 contract with Warner Bros. optioning Streetcar for $380,000; a note written at 12:10 a.m. from Tennessee, asking Victor to join him at Marti’s Restaurant when Victor finished cruising the streets; a letter from Truman Capote. Campbell took out a faded passport. Underneath the black-and-white headshot was the name “Thomas Lanier Williams,” and underneath that, in pen, “known as Tennessee Williams, Occupation: playwright.”

“His first passport,” said Campbell. “He gave it to me as a symbol of the first serious money he made after Streetcar. He’d never really been able to travel before that.”

Campbell then displayed a seven-page list of the items Williams left him. “Dakin, Tennessee’s brother, recently sold a one-page letter for $750, and a poem at Sotheby’s for $7500,” he said. He waited until I made eye contact again, then cleared his throat. “You see, Tennessee was worried about his name fading over time. He asked me to begin a memoir of him in the year 2000; that’s why he gave me these things. It was to be a secret project. Until I started it, no one, not even his closest family member, could know.”

Campbell claims that it was during Williams’s stay at the Barnes Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis, in 1969, that he conceived of his secret memoir. Then one Saturday, in February 1971, Williams showed Campbell fifteen early poems. The next day the two bought the Samsonite suitcase, a big hard body made of fiberglass. It was to be Williams’s time capsule. He put the poems in first, then gave Campbell one key and kept the other. Williams added items to the suitcase over the years: unpublished poems, a one-act play that, to this day, no one besides Campbell and Williams have read—and, perhaps most significantly, a set of journals dating from 1944 to 1946.

Across from me, Campbell pulled from the briefcase an old photograph of himself at 21, the year he met Williams. He had been working at a small hotel in South Miami when the manager asked him if he wanted to be the private tour guide for the playwright, who was vacationing there. When I looked at the photograph, the only notable difference I could see between Campbell then and now was that his hair had turned silver. It was still thick, parted with long bangs combed to the side, a few strands hanging straight down over his ears, the same as in the photograph. Even at 54, Campbell’s face and blue eyes held a boyish, angelic quality, and his voice maintained the comforting lilt that Williams, the self-described “loneliest man on God’s green earth,” no doubt found appealing.

Williams was 59 when the two met at the hotel, and at the time Campbell didn’t know who the writer was, though he had seen the movies based on his plays. “He introduced himself as Tom, his real name,” Campbell told me. Campbell had been involved in homosexual relationships since he was 17, and it didn’t take long for him to guess Williams’s sexual disposition. That afternoon, Campbell took him to a beach frequented by gay men.

“We were lying on the sand when a hustler stood up, dropped his swim trunks, and shouted to Tennessee, ‘Hey old man, give me some money and I’ll let you play with this!’” Campbell recounted. “Tennessee took a look and responded, ‘Only if you have change for a dollar!’

“Being around the man was fun—plain and simple,” Campbell explained. Williams eventually hired him as his personal secretary and moved him down to his Key West home, and a year later, the two moved into the fabled apartment at 1014 Dumaine Street, in New Orleans’s French Quarter, keeping the place in Key West as a vacation getaway. Williams paid Campbell $300 a week, plus all expenses. He told Campbell: “I’ll find things for you to do.”


 

Outside Napoleon House the day had died and the light had shrunken into the tiny bulbs of street lamps. Campbell, who had hardly touched his beer, removed a tape player from his briefcase. Over the years, he recorded Williams reading his poems. “I told him a dirty joke right before I started to record, this first time, to get him relaxed before he read.” It took some prodding, but Campbell divulged the story. He stood up at the table, placed one hand behind his back, and cleared his throat. “I said, ‘Hey, Tom, I was over at the pharmacy this morning and guess what I got? A penis enlarger.’ Tom looked at me, a bit shocked. He wanted to know how it worked. I said, ‘I’ll show you.’ So I pulled down my pants.” Campbell feigned unzipping his fly and yanking down his pants. Couples sitting at two nearby tables cast furtive glances toward us. Campbell pantomimed bringing something from behind his back, holding it over his crotch. “Then I held up a magnifying glass.”

He resumed his seat, hit play, and Williams’s raspy laugh exploded from the tape recorder. The other diners were quiet, staring. Campbell adjusted the volume as the couple nearest us tried to home in. Williams’s voice asks “Is this going to be a clean tape?” Beginning with “Faint as Leaf Shadow,” he then reads several poems with the high-pitched, raspy, slightly nasal Southern accent masked with a twang of the Queen’s English that Southerners of a certain age still tend to display. “Faint as a leaf shadow does he fade and do you fade in touching him …” As we listened, Campbell handed me the very book from which Williams was reading, In the Winter of Cities, its pages yellowed, its spine cracked. I saw little pencil marks next to the poems Williams read.

During the seven years Campbell was his personal secretary, Williams worked on various short stories, poems, and plays. Typically, he would wake up at 5 a.m., write for a few hours, return to bed with Campbell, and together they would get up around 10. On occasion, he invited Campbell to watch him write, and Campbell would sit silently at the far end of the room, behind him.

“On a good day, Tom could look around him and see what he called a ‘silent movie’ playing. He could make the room vanish and replace it with the stage and props for whatever play he was working on. The actors could be moved around the room and brought to life, and, on a really good day, he could become part of the play himself, become a character in it, allowing him to watch the play from different perspectives. And he would record the dialogue and action all on his typewriter. Simple.”


 

Campbell’s family knew who Tennessee Williams was, but had no knowledge of the playwright’s sexual orientation until Rex Reed’s 1971 interview in Esquire, which described Campbell—“the latest in a line of secretaries and traveling companions”—as “a young muscular beachboy.”

Travel receipt

Travel receipt for a Cuban hotel

“My grandmother was the only one in my family who had no problems at all with my being gay. In fact, she thought it was the best thing going. If that was part of my relationship with Tennessee, she figured that was fine because I got exposed to the theater and I got to travel. I’d never been out of the country, so two months out of the year he’d take me traveling with him because he wanted me to see the world. Tahiti, England, Japan, Hawaii, Sicily, everywhere.”

The interview session lasted three days. Campbell told me that every time Reed could get him alone, he would bombard him with questions about Williams. Campbell said that he never responded. What Reed did get was Williams’s declaration, “This child doesn’t know Carson McCullers from Irving Berlin. He’s a product of the television generation, aren’t you Victor? At home in Key West, he stays up and watches the Late Show and then comes up to my room and tells me the plots.” Reed also described the duo browsing in a curio shop:

Young Victor is preoccupied with a drawing of a skull. A trompe l’oeil: on closer inspection, the skull becomes a woman looking into an oval mirror. It is called Vanity.

“Can I buy it, Tom?” asks Victor gently. Only Tennessee’s closest friends call him Tom.

“Absolutely not,” he cries, visibly upset by the skull. “I will not have it in my house. It’s all about death and I cannot stand anything around me that reminds me of death.”

Williams preferred to decorate his environs with Campbell’s youth and vivacity.

The lights grew even dimmer in the restaurant, and I noticed that the other patrons had cleared out. Closing time. Campbell insisted on paying for our two beers, his still a third full. He closed the briefcase, deliberately scrambling the numbers on the locks. We shook hands and he walked out into the night, down the same streets he cruised 25 years ago, while Williams wrestled with his demons in the solitude of their apartment. But now Campbell carries Tom with him.


 

Over the next few months, Campbell and I spent more time together. At parties he would typically stand in a circle of people, intently watching the conversation swirl around him, not so much listening as self-consciously absorbing, until he eventually moved on to another group. It was a process he repeated until he made a final shy move out the door. On occasion, if someone prompted him, he might rattle off an anecdote about Williams, then grow silent again, as though hitting the pause button on his tape recorder. At one cocktail party, during a discussion about a new luxury hotel, Campbell uncharacteristically entered the conversation to ask if anyone had heard of the new cheap motel pants. “No ball room,” he said gleefully. It was a quip he might have used to get Williams loosened up before a recording, and I could hear perfectly the guffaw the joke would have elicited, but the humor was lost on this crowd. They exchanged politely miffed smirks and Campbell eventually moved on to another group.

Campbell, Williams, and a friend in London

Campbell, Williams, and a friend in London, 1971

Marda Burton—who hosted the salon where I first met Campbell—recalled that he phoned her one day to ask what the word “neurosis” meant. Williams had used it in his journal. “I told him that I have this marvelous book on my desk,” said Burton to me later. “I use it all the time. It’s called a dictionary. Maybe you should get one.” She laughed with genuine affection. “You’ve got to love Victor,” she said. “Then I asked him how ‘neurosis’ was used in the sentence and he figured it out himself. I felt like a grammar-school teacher.” As it happened, Burton had written about Campbell, and his rare type of ingenuousness, before she ever met him. Her book Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, about New Orleans’s legendary restaurant, includes a story Tennessee Williams once recounted about taking his handsome young companion to the famous, mirrored dining room for the first time: “Victor studied the menu carefully, then asked the waiter: ‘Does this mean you don’t have hamburgers?’ ‘No hamburgers,’ the waiter replied. Then Victor asked: ‘How about pizza?’ … But before long Victor loved it—once he had discovered the mirrors.”

 


 

Williams spent several weeks every year at his second home, in Key West. He especially loved cruising the streets when Navy men were given short leave, paying a few of them to come back to his house, for swimming—and whatever else. Campbell relayed these details with obvious relish during one of our meetings at Napoleon House. He also recalled a party from 1971. While groups of young men casually engaged in sexual acts around the pool, Truman Capote conversed with him and Williams on the patio. Capote stopped each man who passed and held a magnifying glass to his genitals (the same one Campbell had used for his penis enlargement joke). “Each time, Truman would say, ‘I’m just checking for skid marks, because I’ve seen plenty of rear-end collisions today.’” Campbell smiled proudly, asking if I liked that one, then added, “If someone wants to know what went on in the private life of Tennessee Williams, my book will have it all.”

With so many playmates around, I asked whether they were ever jealous of each other. “Gosh, no,” Campbell responded. “From day one, when I was with Tom, he always went and found a lover, and I had my friends. There were times he would watch me and my friend, and sometimes I would watch him and his hustler do their thing. But we never traded sex partners. And I was to never sleep with his writer friends.”

“I can remember a time up in New York, there was Truman, Tom, and me at this dance club. I saw this cute guy I liked, took him back to the table, introduced him to them both, and took off with him, spent the night with him. There was never any problem with that stuff.” Campbell grins. “Imagine saying that to your wife, about some girl. Right in front of all her friends, too.”

“In New York the Hotel Elysée was off limits to me. Hotel ‘Easy Lay,’ Tom called it. That was his playground. There were high-class hustlers there. He didn’t want me around because they’d be attracted to me, not him. Same thing when he’d go cruising the streets. I’d never go with him. But he knew the kind of guys I liked. Once he paid for a hustler for me as an extra little treat.”

“Was he in love with you?” I asked.

“Uh-huh,” Campbell murmured.

“Were you in love with him?”

“I was fond of him. To me the word ‘love’ is so generic. What I like is the word ‘lovers.’ Tom and I had that, a close affection—not infection.” Campbell smiles at his joke, smooths his hair over with his palm.

“We were close at heart. No one was as close to me as Tom during those years, and it was the same for him. Emotionally, I had the same feelings that were between my wife and me. But I guess it was just my upbringing that if you’re in love with someone it has to be a woman. But don’t print that Victor never loved Tom.”


 

Letter from Williams to Campbell

Letter from Williams to Campbell, 1971

Williams often teased that Campbell would someday leave him to get married. Eventually, in August 1976, Campbell did just that, returning to Florida for good. “I think he respected me for going out into the workforce. It would have been easy to sit here, year after year, collecting $300 a week, plus expenses, and travel around with him. From day one, right on through, I felt like I was on vacation. We talked a lot about it before I left. He said, ‘If you can’t make it on your own, let me know. Come back.’”

The 27-year-old Campbell, Samsonite in tow, moved with his grandmother to Punta Gorda, a small island near Sarasota, and went straight. “Tom and I agreed I should just fade into the woodwork. He didn’t want reporters trying to find me.” And so, indeed, Campbell faded away, entrusted with a set of valuables that were meant to keep Williams’s name from doing just that. Six months later, Campbell met a girl named Linda, from Minnesota. Another six months passed, and Williams’s prediction came true: the two married and later had a son. Campbell did not hide his past from either of them, but it was never mentioned outside the household. And the Samsonite quite literally went into the closet as well. When Linda expressed curiosity about the green suitcase in the back of their bedroom closet, he only said it contained something Williams wanted him to work on one of these days. As promised, he shared its secret with no one.

Campbell settled comfortably in Punta Gorda and got a job selling radio parts (listening to CB radios was an old hobby of his). Williams’s life took a very different turn. His depression, the pills, the drinking during that period are all well-documented. “His brother Dakin thinks it was because I left him,” says Campbell.

“Victor was the most gorgeous young man I have ever seen in my life,” Dakin Williams told me when I talked to him in 2007. “I met him down in Key West. I got Tennessee’s address and hopped over the wall there late at night and banged on a big sliding glass door. Victor came down in his underwear. He looked terrific. He found out who I was but wouldn’t let me in. He went back upstairs, came back down, and said Tennessee would meet me for brunch tomorrow. They appeared in these matching Santa Claus-looking suits the next day. But I didn’t see much of them over those years. My brother was still angry with me for locking him up in the Barnes Psychiatric Hospital.

“Victor contacted me a few years ago, after he started writing his book, and said, ‘I got this suitcase full of items. I think they belong to you.’ I was very surprised at his offer; it was very generous. But I told him to keep them. I thought no one deserved them better than him.”

 


 

Tennessee Williams called Campbell frequently over the years following their split, and Linda treated him like an old friend. Then, in 1983, Campbell was working at a Motorola two-way radio shop, when Linda called and told him that Tennessee had died. Across from me, at Napoleon House, Campbell stared down into his drink, his eyes watering. This was the only strong emotion he had shown during our interviews.

“So, later that night we listened to the story of his death on CBS News. She asked me if I wanted to go up to St. Louis and attend the funeral. She thought it would be a good idea. I said no. Funerals are kind of hard on me, just emotionally it drains me.” Campbell’s eyes searched the room, resisting the blink that will knock tears down his cheeks, eventually giving in, twin streams sliding down his face.

“She … She called me over at the two-way radio shop … radio shop there in Punta Gorda … ”
His voice broke off as he looked down at an October 27, 1983, copy of the
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the town’s local newspaper. “Autopsy Shows Williams Choked on Bottle Cap in the Hotel Elysée.” Then Campbell added, “It was hard on me when she died too.”

In 1995, after seventeen years of a “perfect family life,” as Campbell describes it, Linda developed a brain tumor. Two months later Campbell watched from a ladder while painting the house as she dropped the laundry in the yard and went into seizures. “She was okay minutes ago, you know. She was just taking the dry clothes out of the thing and then—” His voice fell away, but his eyes were dry again. His speech had returned to its matter-of-fact cadence, as though he mentioned his wife only to change the subject from Williams’s death.

Campbell and his 15-year-year-old son spent much of the following two months next to Linda’s hospital bed while she was in a coma, until she suddenly opened her eyes and took a last gasp right beside them. “It was kind of spooky being in that house after her death,” he said. He sold the house and moved into an apartment with his son. A few months later he began dating Jean, a friend of the family, and soon asked her to move in. Campbell told her about his time with Williams but kept their homosexuality a secret. Five years passed, and when the millennium rolled around, he pulled the suitcase from the closet and slowly began working on the memoir Williams had asked him to write.

In 2001, when he finished the first chapter, he showed it to Jean. It included a few gay stories. “She said, ‘I never slept with a queer!’ And that was the end of us,” recalled Campbell. “She said there was no way I could publish the book. People in town would know about me.” The couple continued to share the apartment platonically for two years, and Campbell’s son eventually joined the army. When Campbell felt he had exhausted any possibility of reviving their relationship, he packed his bags and headed to New Orleans, a place he hoped would welcome his ambitions and lifestyle.

Campbell was approaching Williams’s age when they first met. His old New Orleans friends were gone, his old haunts disappeared, and the gay scene had mostly turned to techno-cranking dance clubs chockablock with young men. At that point, Campbell had not yet resumed work on the memoir. He told me that he needed time to get used to life without Jean, without his son nearby, without the St. Augustine grass that homogeneously carpets the fluorescent lawns of a small Florida town.

 


 

Campbell and I said goodbye as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city. He returned a few months later. The storm had passed, though its destruction was still everywhere, and a new hurricane season was nipping at the city’s heels. Campbell had crawled back into his life here. On an afternoon in May we sat together in the kitchen of his French Quarter apartment, bathed in a greenish fluorescent light that seemed to clear the room of texture and shadow. A fan whirred overhead, covering the bulk of the small ceiling. Next to a laptop on his dinner table, his right hand was resting on the inch-thick stack of pages he had written since our last interview.

In Campbell’s open left palm, a tattered gray piece of twine looped through three keys—one for Williams’s old Dumaine Street home, one for the Key West residence, and the last for the Samsonite suitcase, which sat upright on the floor beside him. He hefted it up and down, conveying its ample weight, and then opened it to reveal piles of folders, some of which have been cycled through his smaller briefcase. From its bottom he removed copies of its most valuable artifacts: Williams’s journals from 1944, 1945, and 1946, when he was in his mid-thirties. The original journals were in a safety deposit box. He opened one to its last pages.

October 27, 1946

A doctor talks on the radio about phagocytes and their battle with bacteria. How casually they talk about the immense mysteries of organic life! Cells, antibodies, atoms and at the other extreme of magnitude, solar systems. And not one sign to betray the presence of a reason. Lately the sense of this mystery has filled me with a very controlled panic. Perhaps because signs within tell me I may be near to that collapse, into the inorganic which every individual goes to after an unbroken chain of organic being that extends all the way back to the first living cell.

He flipped backwards.

Monday, October 2, 1944

I am suffering a severe case of nerves. Physical manifestations. I have attacks of panic mostly on streets. Must rush into bars for drinks to steady myself. I get breathless. I have a weight on my chest. How much is sheer anxiety, how much real cardiac symptoms? All I know is I can’t afford to slip into the ghostly neurotic state of the time before. I sent home for train fare, but I’ve already spent most of it without leaving for home. I wonder who will help.

October 8, 1944

I spit up a mouthful of blood. What charming notes, so nicely integrated. Better let this go.

Later. A Manhattan night. I suppose it’s about 2 am. I lie in bed. Traffic rumbles distantly, the elevator now and then groans up and down, showers run somewhere, reminds me that I have lost my swimming cap, a real calamity.

Still later. This will be one of the famous nights, I feel myself close to the shapeless black thing one smells at the back of a cave. I turn the light back on and on the dresser is a bottle of elixir of sodium bromide. But there isn’t much left. I should save it for tomorrow but I can’t sleep and the situation is so thin. I shall of course be a man. Always when my back is really against the wall I recover a little manhood. Enough. Just barely enough to cover up and go on. This I will do again and again and again if need be. I shall act a little manlier than the terror in me suggests. Alright, what now? Another hot shower? Dress and go out? Or shall I be as one who dines with such a dark ambiguous beast, that neither mind nor matter quite divines which one is feast, which one the beast.

Still later. Remain wakeful. Imagine it. 6 am. The place begins to stir. Suppose I take another shot of elixir, another shower. In God we trust. The state I’m in is less concentrated at any rate, more general, and I continue to find it silly as well as dreadful. Yawning but not at all sleepy.

Later. Slept.

Morning. I’m up. That is all I will say at this point. Some sort of loving philosophy or attitude may pull me through today. We’ll see. En avant.

Campbell showed me a note Williams wrote twenty years later, in 1966, after he read through these notebooks:

Discovered this old journal, so full of concerns so similar to those I have now. … I will try to fill it with what is going on now, 20 years later.…

Tonight. Still exhausted.

Another ten years passed, in which time Campbell came and left, and Williams composed “The Night Was Full of Hours.” Speaking of himself, he writes,

He has gone through his usual ritual of preparation for sleep, which usually evades him till near daybreak. … He then goes to the work-desk in his bedroom, sits down before his enemy and lover, his Smith-Corona electric portable, and with nothing to write about but what you read here, an account of his passage through a tunnel of night, he sits there and writes about that

It is written for you, some of whom may also be among the loneliest ones on God’s green earth.

For Williams, loneliness was innate. Admirers and friends and other warm bodies were unable to offer a lasting reprieve. But for Campbell, loneliness arrived for the first time when this very project killed his relationship with Jean and drove him from his home in Florida. And so he assumed the role of the unwilling solitary from Williams, without the income or fame to surround himself with admirers and friends, or to find a boy less than half his age to simply take along as a companion for seven years.


 

Campbell crouched on the tile floor, and pulled out two man-sized Rubbermaid containers from beneath the kitchen table. They held a vast overflow from the Samsonite. He lifted the top off the first and started rifling through the contents—folders, papers, cards, photographs—until he found the passenger list from the Raffaello, an Italian cruise ship. It marked Campbell’s first trip out of the country.

“During that voyage Tom said, ‘Victor, I’m going to give you a little assignment. I want you to write a short story.’” Campbell went through the container again and pulled out the story he began onboard and finished in Italy. “When we got back to Key West, I used his electric typewriter to type it. Tom edited it. He told me to go make one hundred copies and give them to all my friends. So he was showing me writing, editing, publication, and distribution. He invited a local author over—James Leo Herlihy, who wrote Midnight Cowboy. That was the time Truman Capote was visiting.”

Williams had Campbell read his story to them. “I had their complete attention. They didn’t know why, but they knew Tom wanted me to be able to write, so they were my mentors down the years. Did it ever get seriously published? No, but that wasn’t the point.”

The title was “Man Damned Planet,” and underneath it, “A short story with significance.” It was 1950s-style sci-fi, Campbell explained. He composed it during the Vietnam War, which he avoided. “I told the Miami draft board the truth. If they wanted a gay Victor in the army, then fine.” In the story, two superpowers, whose capitals are Moose Call and Wishingbone, vie for military control of the planet Quando, exterminating all life on it. Its relevance to both the Vietnam era and Campbell’s newfound fascination with the stars was clear. It ends,

This evening on Earth gaze up into the sky and admire all those beautiful stars. Look around for Quando. It’s there somewhere. You just have to use your imagination to find it. Better yet, maybe one day our astronauts will be able to visit that planet. However when they land on its dead surface they will find only a simple primitive planet that contains nothing but rocks, dust and mountains. When that time comes our president in Washington will appear on the nationwide television network, and he will tell the world that man has discovered another lifeless planet in our man damned universe.

Campbell put the story away and produced a photo of a young girl in bell-bottoms. “An occasional fuck,” he said. “She was sweet. I forget what her name was.” Behind that picture was one of Frank Merlo in a white tuxedo, smoking. Williams met Merlo in New Orleans in 1947 and hired him as his secretary. But more than that he was a confidant and artistic adviser, as well as the love of Williams’s life. Campbell next pulled out a letter from Yukio Mishima, the Japanese author who committed ritual disembowelment in 1970. The letter expresses condolences over Frank Merlo’s death from lung cancer in 1963. It ends, 

Buddhism counts five sufferings of life: the suffering to live; the suffering to get older; the suffering of disease; the suffering to die; and the suffering to be separated from the most beloved person. You certainly experienced the fifth one. The only way to stand such a suffering must be to think of the world as “the world of dew.” 
Your friend Yukio Mishima, November 19, 1963

Many years later, Campbell was also in middle age when he lost the person closest to him, his wife. But for Williams, solving his loneliness was not as easy as selling his house and moving in with a new friend; nor could life be viewed as a transient dewdrop. The writer went into a deep depression that lasted seven years, which he later described as his “stoned age.” This time included the stay at Barnes Hospital, where he developed the idea for his secret memoir. He resurfaced in the outside world and found Victor, the young man to whom he wanted to entrust his time capsule.

A World War II veteran, Merlo’s beauty was on par with the youthful Campbell’s—yet Merlo’s dark Sicilian eyes conveyed a marked wisdom, one that Campbell could at best feign. It’s little wonder that Campbell succeeded Merlo in the life of an artist who bore weight upon self-inflicted weight. In comparison to Merlo, Campbell was fair both in mind and complexion, but Campbell’s youth, vivacity, and beauty stood in relief against Williams’s age, his preoccupations, and his despair. In some sense, the two created a whole.

Campbell fished out a Christmas card. A gray-haired and clean-shaven Charlie Chaplin beamed from a family photo. Inside, Chaplin wrote, “I loved the speech you didn’t make at the Academy Awards”—a reference to Williams’s intention to speak at the ceremony in Chaplin’s defense, after the actor’s reentry into the U.S. was prohibited because of “un-American activities.” At Chaplin’s behest, Williams simply declined to speak at the Oscars.

Campbell flipped through a University of Iowa yearbook until he found a small picture of a young Thomas Williams in a play. His character was in drag. “This is the only time Tom ever dressed in drag,” Campbell said. “His only line in the play was ‘I can’t go with you.’”

Williams's wishes concerning the disposal of his remains

Williams's wishes concerning the disposal of his remains

 


 

The bells of St. Louis Cathedral tolled seven times and a light rain fell as Campbell and I left his apartment, the sunlight tinting the air the color of honey. Dr. Brobson Lutz, who bought the Dumaine Street property from Williams the year the playwright died, had invited us to dine there. He is the French Quarter’s unofficial surgeon general, and during Katrina’s aftermath he hung a banner from this gate declaring his home the “French Quarter Health Department in Exile.” He has kept the property split into six apartments, just as Williams had it. Campbell followed him through the courtyard, up the thin stairs to the second story. He waltzed into the modest two-bedroom unit he once shared with Williams and began describing everything that used to be in the house as though he were a real estate agent selling the past.

“There was a walk-in closet here,” he said, standing in the slim hallway between the master bedroom and the bathroom. “That’s where we kept the Samsonite.” Past that, in the only functioning bathroom, is a shallow, worn turquoise bathtub, the same one mentioned in “The Night Was Full of Hours”:

He gets up, then: fills the bath-tub with hot water, as hot as he can stand it, a practice that usually numbs his muscular system long enough to subdue the spasms for a while that may be sufficient for him to sleep before daybreak. This night it doesn’t, the spasms recurring shortly after he’s hauled himself back to bed. 

Campbell walked back through Tennessee’s bedroom, through the living room, and into what was once his own room, which is barely large enough for a bed and desk. Only a thin wall separates the two bedrooms. “So you’d hear a little squeaking at night sometimes,” said Campbell, grinning sheepishly.

We stepped through ceiling-high windows, onto the covered balcony. The rain thickened until it seemed like we were standing behind a waterfall. Campbell pointed to some black cords dangling from the roof, saying they must be from the antenna he put up there for his two-way radio. He recalled listening, absorbed, to Mississippi River shipping traffic for hours each day. Every so often, Williams, introducing himself as “The Poet,” would recite his work for the boat captains and river pilots over a Citizens’ Band two-way radio.

Dr. Lutz emerged with a bottle of wine and the three of us sat around a table on the balcony. Victor removed a piece of paper from his briefcase and passed it to Lutz. It was Williams’s blood test, full of numbers that are incomprehensible to the untrained eye. “You can keep it.”

Several neighbors joined us, milling about inside the sheltering walls of rain that surround the balcony. More wine was uncorked. Campbell sat quietly in front of his untouched glass. Someone from the group heard that Campbell once knew Tennessee Williams and cajoled a story out of him.

Campbell told us all about playing cards with Dick Cavett, here on this balcony, in 1974. As Campbell finished the story with the two streaking naked across the street, launching into a rendition of “Duke of Earl,” he stood and sang, “Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl,” over and over again, snapping his fingers and swinging his hips wide beside our table.

The group roared with laughter. Campbell smiled at himself, then faded from the conversation. Across the empty street, where he and Cavett once danced, a green garbage bag slouched against a duct-taped and graffitied refrigerator, the farthest objects visible due to the rain. Hours later, night had risen and the downpour had lessened to an occasional trickle off the roof, when Campbell asked, during a lull in the conversation, if anyone had heard about the cheap motel pants.

“No ball room.”

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Somewhere in the South

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