HIS OTHER LIFE: Searching for My Father, His First Wife and Tennessee Williams

Melanie McCabe Click to read more...

mccabe-1Melanie McCabe is a high school teacher in Arlington, VA and the author of two poetry collections, What the Neighbors Know (FutureCycle Press, 2014) and History of the Body (David Robert Books, 2012).  Her work has appeared on Poetry Daily, as well as in Best New Poets 2010, The Georgia Review, The Massachusetts Review and others.

At night in bed, waiting for sleep to make my mind stop chasing itself, I began praying to Hazel Kramer. Well, not exactly praying. More like bargaining. More like begging. Let me tell your story, I said to her. Let me undo your death. Because I didn’t believe that she really wanted to die.

She was only 38 years old. A tall, willowy woman whom Tennessee Williams described as “a redhead with great liquid brown eyes and a skin of pearly translucence.” A voice that was so lovely, she had sung on the radio. Enough money that she could afford to live without a man. All the gossips were quick to share that she was a wealthy woman. Her friends had received happy letters full of plans for the future.

I petitioned her in the darkness, the only light in the room the red numbers of the digital clock that told me, again, I had stayed up too late, searching for signs from her.

Did you regret leaving my father? For, of course, I assumed that she had left him—not that he had left her. Did you miss him— even his teasing, his bad jokes, the way he could embarrass you by drawing every cab driver and sales clerk into a long-winded conversation? I knew something about that.

Or was there another man who made you happier? A man you turned to instead of my father?

This was the story that had been hinted at by my mother, her voice dropping to a whisper even though we had been the only two in the room.

Am I making snap judgments about you? Do I have it all wrong? Then let me know. I can be evenhanded. Believe me, I know what it is to be misunderstood. I know how rumor and innuendo can create a woman who never really existed.

My prayer was absorbed by the blackness.

***

My father had a secret that he believed needed keeping. As best he could, he kept the details of it from my mother throughout their marriage, offering only a skeleton-truth for her to flesh out in some way that she could accept and live with. To my sister and me, he gave no hint at all. Everything I knew of my father’s life occurred either when he was a child or after he met my mother. The decades of the thirties and the forties were empty. I knew nothing of them.

It was September, 1973, a hot Virginia night in which the only cool air to be found came from the box fan that whirred by the sofa where my father sat with his Manhattan and the evening paper. It was one of the last weeks that I had with him before he went into the hospital and, several months later, died. That evening, as always, he wanted to know what I was studying in school, and I hurried through the math, Spanish and history, and then added, “In English, we’re reading The Glass Menagerie.”

‘How hard must it have been for him to hear that and to say nothing? To not take advantage of that moment to impress me by remarking, casually, Oh, yes, I knew Tom Williams. My father, who craved fame and revered writers, must certainly have considered for a moment telling me at least a little of what he knew. He needn’t have said anything to me about Hazel; he could have kept that hidden, and let me think that he had met Williams in some casual way.

Instead, he said only, “That’s a good play. Do you like it?”

I never got to hear him tell me the story that was his to tell. That story was then locked in a steamer trunk in our basement, the contents of which not even my mother had seen. Indeed, she had vowed never to open it—a vow that she would one day break. A very small part of the story would be revealed in Tennessee Williams’ Memoirs, which came out just a year after my father died. More of the story was mine with Lyle Leverich’s Tom, which was published in 1995. Had I known where to look, much of the story waited in the file drawers that held my father’s unpublished plays, short fiction and novels.

But I didn’t know then that there was any story worth seeking.

****

Only a year before that conversation, when I was fifteen, Dad gave me an unsolicited piece of advice that I have never forgotten, so vehemently was it imparted. That I could have done anything to merit it seems unlikely, as my experience of the opposite sex at that time in my life was –much to my sorrow—severely limited.

We were sitting together on that same sofa in the living room, and he looked me straight in the eye and even shook his I’m-teaching-you-a-valuable-lesson finger at me.

“Always,” he said, and then repeated for emphasis. “Always be a lady.”

I laughed. “How do I do that?”

He leaned in closer and he didn’t smile back. “You want to know how to be a lady? Watch your mother. That’s a lady. You couldn’t have a better example.”

I nodded, though from my perspective, such a role model didn’t allow for much in the way of fun over the rest of my long, dull, ladylike life.

“So, who’s someone who’s not a lady?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t you worry about that. There are plenty of ‘em. You just act like your mother. Your mother would never do anything she had to be ashamed of.”

He settled back and picked up his newspaper, but I could tell he was still agitated by whatever had motivated this shared wisdom. I wondered at the time about the ladies in my father’s past.

***
If my father looked at my mother– a quiet magnolia-blossom of a woman from a small Alabama town, who, as far as I could see, had never committed a sin in all of her unimpeachable life– and then held her up to me as the light I should hold aloft as I moved into the future, what would he have thought of my secrets? What would he have made of his firstborn had he lived to see me grow up?

He died when I was just sixteen. I had then been kissed by only three boys, and that had been the extent of my romantic history. Would my father have forgiven me for the wild, smoke-and-beer-blurred ride I had taken through the late ‘70s? The boys whose names I have forgotten? The marriages that creaked and broke beneath the weight of bad decisions? Would he have disowned me as one of the fallen, the women who were not ladies, who blackened their good names and could never undo the deed?

Or would my father have come to accept the woman that I became?

***

I found out nothing about any of the less-than-ladies in my father’s life until after he died. I was 17 when my mother spilled to me what she took to be a great scandal. She told me in a hushed voice, her soft Alabama drawl even softer than it normally was:

“Your Daddy was married before he married me. For quite a while.”

I was astonished. And mesmerized. “What? When? For how long?”

“He met her when they were both at the University of Wisconsin. They got married back then. In the 1930s sometime. I think they were married for about fifteen years.”

Fifteen years! That was a very long time. “Did they have children?” I asked her. I immediately began to fantasize about the long lost brother or sister I had out there somewhere in the world.

“No,” my mother said. “No children.”

“What happened to her?”

My mother’s voice dropped even lower. “She died.”

I could tell from her tone that this was no ordinary death.

“How?”

“I don’t know exactly. Your Daddy never wanted to talk about it. But they weren’t living together when she died…. She was somewhere—I don’t know—somewhere foreign, I think.”

Her voice fell to a whisper. “I think there was another man with her at the time.”

“Oh my God!”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name,” my mother replied, automatically.

“But how exactly did she die?”

“I don’t know. I think it was something maybe about her heart?”

“Didn’t you ask Daddy what happened?”

“I told you. He didn’t like to talk about it.”

“Well, don’t you know anything else?” I implored her.

She paused, and then offered “Her name was Hazel Kramer.”

“Hazel!” I said. “The same name as you!”

Mama smiled. “Yes, your Daddy didn’t like it one bit when he found out that was my name. He didn’t like to remember her.”

“So—is that all?” I pushed. “All that you know?”

“Well, I know that she used to be Tennessee Williams’ girlfriend.”

If the top of my head could have come off from sheer astonishment, that would have been the moment.

When Williams’ book Memoirs was published, I eagerly thumbed through the index in the bookstore, looking for my father’s name. And there he was, Terrence McCabe, on page 38:

The onset of my cardiovascular condition occurred in the spring of 1934, and …was triggered by two things. First, the quite unexpected marriage of Hazel to a young man named Terrence McCabe, whom she had been dating at the University of Wisconsin. I felt as though the sky had fallen on me, and my reaction was to start working every evening on short stories, overcoming fatigue with black coffee.

One evening I was at work on a story titled “The Accent of a Coming Foot.” I had arrived at a climactic scene when I suddenly became aware that my heart was palpitating and skipping beats.

I had no idea then how to process what I was reading. Tennessee Williams was a famous playwright, and this was a major book put out by Doubleday & Co. It all had to be true, then, didn’t it?

I showed it to my mother. She read through the pages in which he went on to describe his episode with his heart, and how he ended up in the cardiac ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital for ten days.

She wrinkled her nose disdainfully. “Oh, I don’t like this at all. He’s saying that your Daddy gave him a heart attack.”

It would be many years before I understood that what Williams was likely experiencing was closer to an anxiety attack. And it would be many more before I caught the factual errors in his story. My father and Hazel Kramer married in 1935, not 1934. And it was not in the spring, but in September.

All I cared about then was that my father was famous. If he had caused the renowned Tennessee Williams to have a heart attack, then that was a story with teeth in it. I told it often, loving the reaction I could elicit from my listeners.

Years later, another book came out that gave me more material to work with: Lyle Leverich’s very well-respected study of Williams’ early years, called simply Tom. I rushed to its index as I had to the one in Williams’ memoir, and found the following passage:

…on an occasion when Miss Florence was giving one of her impromptu recitals at Edwina’s piano, she suddenly stopped and announced that Hazel was engaged to be married in September to someone she had met in Wisconsin. His name was Terrence McCabe. Characteristically, Tom gave no outward sign of his feelings. Years later, however, Tennessee admitted that Terry ‘was a personable young Irishman of fantastic humor, and we hit it off well. I recall an hilarious evening the three of us spent together, after getting quite drunk—at least I did at the St. Louis Athletic Club. We drove around town, singing and exchanging mad jokes.’ But such ‘an hilarious evening’ must always end sadly when ‘the three of us’ became the two of them and the one of him. Regarding Hazel, he confessed, “I never loved anyone as I loved her,” and long after she married McCabe, Tennessee told his mother that the beautiful redhead was very much the deepest love of his life.

This was so amazing I couldn’t quite take it in. My father had gone out for an evening with Tennessee Williams—had gotten drunk with him, sang with him, told jokes with him! Moreover, here Williams was not blaming Dad for the onset of a health condition, but conceding that he was “personable” and good-natured, full of fun—all things I knew to be true.

At this point, I did not pursue any further investigations into Tom Williams’ life. But I took great pleasure as I began teaching my favorite of Williams’ plays, A Streetcar Named Desire, in regaling my students with my connection, however peripheral, to the playwright’s past. It made a good story. And I love a good story. I didn’t yet know that the story I knew was merely a fragment of what there was to tell.

In May of 2013, everything changed. A close friend sent me an email with an offhand question that so intrigued me that it set me on a course to uncover the story that I had not known existed. He asked me, “Did you know that, in his later years, Tennessee Williams wrote a play called The Red Devil Battery Sign in which there is a character actually named Terrence McCabe?”

No. I had not known. But I was about to find out—about that, and more.

***

I had moved just a year before, from a large 5-bedroom colonial where I had lived for nearly thirty years to a small townhouse. I had not planned on moving, but my marriage fell apart with a suddenness that left me reeling, and with my husband gone, I could no longer afford to stay in the house in which I had raised my daughters.

Many of my possessions were still in boxes, and I began to dig through them, looking for the artifacts of my father’s life that I had somehow managed to claim for myself when my mother moved from my childhood home. I remembered a black and moldering album of photos and clippings. I had thought that the album was my father’s, but when at last I came upon it again, I realized with a start that the album had actually belonged to Hazel. Here were not only photographs of her mother, her grandparents and my father, but also a to-do list scrawled on a tattered yellow paper of tasks to be accomplished before their wedding, newspaper clippings announcing their engagement and a hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign—a testament to a moment so intimate and yet so naively young and hopeful that it made my heart ache for both of them.

I looked through all the photos I found of them when they were young and in love.
One shows Hazel sitting on my father’s lap, smiling, almost laughing, directly into the camera, one hand resting on my father’s chest, the other around his neck. Daddy looks up at her with what can only be called adoration, a grin on his face, his eyes fixed on hers.

I have never seen a single photograph of my mother sitting on my father’s lap.

They look so blissful, so unaware of all that will happen later. Perhaps she went on to do terrible things to my father. Perhaps he may have done a terrible thing or two himself. But seeing them like this, I just couldn’t believe it. And I found welling up in me a kind of pity, a tenderness for this as yet undefiled love. I have known this place. What a grace it is that none of us know at the time that it will all be taken away, that what is surely love can be so thoroughly lost and ruined.

I found also a series of photographs that they clearly took of each other, experimenting with lighting. In several, she is lying back on a couch or bed, in what is so blatantly an effort to look alluring, seductive, that it made me embarrassed for her. She is not a classically pretty woman, but in each of these shots, a heat rises up from her, a languorous desire to be seen, to be admired, to be touched.

In one of the photos in this series, she even appears to be naked, though perhaps the top of her low-cut dress is simply out of the frame. And yet, I believe she would have easily posed naked for my father.

And I can also imagine what happened after they grew restless with taking pictures.

I have never seen photographs like this of my mother.

***

In a Playboy interview that ran in April of 1973, Williams spoke briefly of Hazel.

My great female love was a girl named Hazel from St. Louis. But she was frigid. She’d make me count to ten before she’d let me kiss her; we were both 11 when we met and we were sweethearts until she was in college. She said, “Tom, we’re much too young to think about these things.” But I constantly thought about sex….

I had to smile at this when I found it. Frigid! The woman who posed for my father in these photographs does not appear to be frigid. Maybe, Tom, she simply did not want you, despite how much you desired her. Perhaps she did not want to hurt your pride.

From the album that I return to, again and again, I gingerly pull out a picture of her that was clipped from a newspaper, faded and grainy with pixels I see and then unsee.

Here she is a songbird. A torch singer. She stands with her arms held away from her body. Her chin is lifted, her white skin lit even whiter by whatever light there is in the room. The enormous brown eyes watch me. Her mouth opens to release a note.

There is a caption below the photo: The thrills and frills of nightclub life are gaining favor with University of Wisconsin students this fall, and here is one of the reasons. She is Miss Hazel Kramer, co-ed from St. Louis, shown here in one of the Mae West numbers she enacts as a featured entertainer in the floor shows at the 770 Club… .

The year is 1933. Two Mae West films were released that year—She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, both with Cary Grant. They were the last of West’s films released before the censors clamped down on all the risqué wordplay, the suggestive lyrics.

I wonder which song she is singing here. Something sweet and romantic, perhaps, like “I Want You, I Need You”? No. I don’t think so. This is a Mae West revue, after all, and Mae West is known not for her sweetness, but for her sass. For her bawdiness. I turn back to the photo and put other West lyrics into her mouth…

Aw, come on, let me cling on to ya like a vine
Make that lowdown music trickle off your spine
Baby, I can warm ya with this love of mine
I’m no angel…

Why choose to sing Mae West if you are not going to play it up, sex it up, and wait for the whoops and whistles?

For a moment, I think of my mother singing hymns in the kitchen, her flawless soprano careful and sweet– O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made….

Back inside the photo, my father is at the piano. The caption continues, She is accompanied here by Terrence McCabe, campus pianist.

Campus pianist! Once upon a time, it seems, my father could play music. He could hear music — the deafness he was born with in one ear not yet having found its way into the other. He is all profile and chiseled cheekbone here– handsome in a way that startles me. Here he is not my father. I can understand why she wants him.

The father I knew wore a hearing aid, a device that seemed to me then a useless bit of plastic that often became dislodged from his ear, splitting the air with a piercing and frequently embarrassing whistle. It didn’t seem to be of any use in helping him to hear us. To communicate with him, the family relied on careful enunciation that he could lip-read, and often, laborious finger-spelling and hand signals.

And so I was shocked, near the end of his life, when he revealed to me something I had not known. He could hear—just a little bit. Sometimes. With great effort.

It was the evening of my 8th grade choral concert. I was decked out in my new dress and black patent leather shoes, twirling in front of Dad so he could admire me. I was sad that he was not coming to the concert, but I understood. What would be the point?

He saw the look in my eyes, and motioned me close to him.

“What’s your favorite song in the show?” he asked.

“ ‘To Dream The Impossible Dream,’ ” I told him. “From Man of La Mancha.”

“Sing it for me now.”

I raised one eyebrow, quizzically. “Why? You won’t hear me.”

He undid the buttons of his crisp white shirt to reveal the small amplification device he wore strapped to his chest. He turned a dial on it and beckoned me close. “Sing into this,” he said. “Sing real loud.”

I sat next to him on the sofa, lowered my lips to his chest and began, belting out the lyrics with more force than I ever had in chorus class. To dream the impossible dream/to fight the unbeatable foe….

I pulled back and looked at him. My question was wordless, but he understood it. He nodded and smiled. He could hear me! I sang the song through and he applauded. My eyes filled and I turned my face away so he would not see how much it meant to me that my father at last knew what I sounded like.

I left for the concert, happy, though I wonder now, looking back, if Dad had only pretended to hear my song. At least he had made the attempt. I think of Hazel, whose father had given her up to be adopted by her grandparents when she was just an infant– the man who signed away all rights to her, never seeing her throughout her childhood. She had a beautiful voice—one that he had never heard.

***

In the Playboy interview, Williams continued, skipping quickly over the years: Hazel and I both went on pills and liquor. She married another man but killed herself when she was still very young.

Suicide. This was not the story my mother was told.

Did my father see this interview? It appeared five months before he entered the hospital, eight months before he died. Certainly if he had seen the issue on a newsstand in our local drugstore, with cover copy advertising an interview with Tennessee Williams, he would have been curious to know what Tom had had to say.

***

Deep in the bottom of a large envelope that also contained a greeting card and several small photographs, I found a newspaper notice of Hazel’s death. Four words leapt out at me: suddenly, in Mexico City. Was “suddenly” a euphemism for what had really occurred? A couple of relatives, when questioned, had mentioned that they had heard she had died in a car accident. Was the accident a story my father had fabricated to hide the truth? If she had killed herself, why had she done so? Did it have anything to do with my father? Was this why he wanted the story to be told differently?

In another album, I have a snapshot that was taken of me as an infant. On the back of it my father had scrawled a message, no doubt to his own parents, with whom he shared photographs by mail, long before the internet made this unnecessary. It read: Whatever my sins, real or imagined, this little girl has absolved them for me. The first time I had ever read those words, I merely smiled. It showed me how deeply my father had loved me. But now I revisited the message, and read it differently. What were the sins that needed absolving? Had my father merely imagined some wrongdoing, perhaps out of guilt—or had he actually done something wrong, something of which he was deeply ashamed?

***
I went looking for the story of how Hazel died—and found it. Or found parts of it. Enough pieces to fit together to realize that there were pieces missing, pieces that would make all the difference in understanding exactly what had happened—not only to her, but to my father.

The ubiquitous slogan may well be “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” but I now think Mexico City could be more accurately substituted here in place of Nevada’s famous gambling town. At least in Las Vegas, people and events are still subject to the laws and recordkeeping of the United States government. In America, the past can be returned to if one knows where to look. But I soon learned that in Mexico, the past lives only as long as the memories of those who lived it. And a deep suspicion is harbored there for anyone who tries to uncover that past and drag it out into the light of the present day.

Only one lucky thing came from the location of her death. Because she was an American citizen who had died in a foreign country, the State Department had maintained a report of her death that had been archived all these many years.

My mother had told me she believed there may have been another man with Hazel when she died. And there had been—a man who discovered her body after she had succumbed to an overdose of Seconals. A man who told police that he had been given a key to her apartment in el distrito federal so that he might check on her, concerned because she drank heavily and took sleeping pills. A man who had checked on her twice that day, before finally finding her dead the third time that he checked. A man with a wife of his own. An American man who said he had known her several years before, when they both lived in New York City. A man with a name that was common enough that finding him would prove very difficult.

I spent the summer of 2013 pursuing him. I tried first to employ two separate Mexican private investigators, but both refused to take my job. The man I sought had been questioned by police and then released. I was told that in Mexico, no records would have been kept unless there had been an actual conviction. And even then, sixty-two years had passed since that night. I was searching for one small grain of sand along a beach covered by billions of such grains. They shrugged, said no, and wished me buena suerte. I was left to my own ingenuity.

Every night I would Google his name, along with other key words that might single him out among the countless hits that would turn up and lead me nowhere. I encountered a young man with the same name who suffered from a debilitating illness. I found another man with that name who was a noted outdoorsman. I searched his full name; I searched possible nicknames. I made a family tree for him on Ancestry.com, and found yet another gentleman with that name who had also lived in New York City, but was born twenty years too early to be my guy.

It was nearing the end of the summer, and I was growing desperate. I would return to my teaching job in just a week, and I knew that then my time to devote to researching would be severely limited. It was well after midnight and I tried yet another Google search, expecting to encounter the same fruitless links and wrong paths that I had combed through all August.

But this time there was something different: a wedding announcement, for a wedding that had taken place in 2009. The groom’s grandfather, referred to as “late” or deceased, was the name I was hunting for. Something about this hit felt unlike all the others. I felt a thrill of possibility.

The groom had an even more common name than his grandfather, but I knew the city he was living in. I searched for him on Facebook—and bingo. I scrolled through his friend list. There was a woman there who was a generation older and had the same last name I had been seeking. I sent messages to both of them. To the woman, I said that I was looking for this man who had once lived in Mexico City, and wondered if, perhaps, she was his daughter.

A week or more went by and I heard nothing. Another dead end, I presumed. And then suddenly, a message from her. “Yes,” she wrote me. “That sounds like my father.”

What followed over the next few months was a clumsy “courtship” in which I tried to get her to open up and talk to me, but she resisted. Ultimately, she told me very little. The most startling piece of information she shared was that her mother, a woman named Loretta, the wife of the man who had found Hazel, was still alive. She was 94, remarried and living in Florida.

The daughter questioned Loretta, and told me that her mother remembered nothing of Hazel or her unfortunate death. I tried writing to Loretta directly, sending photographs of Hazel that I hoped might jar her memory. I received no reply.

What did the silence mean? I considered several possibilities. Perhaps Loretta truly had no memory at all of Hazel or of that fateful night in Mexico City. Maybe her husband had lied when he told the police that both he and his wife were friends of Hazel’s; maybe it was only he who had known her; maybe he had hidden this relationship from his wife. Or perhaps Loretta remembered all too well, and did not want to relive the past – or did not want her daughter to learn unpleasant truths about her father.

This search to learn more about the man who was with Hazel the night she died—a search that is still ongoing– is only one small facet of the quest that has driven me since I began this research into my father’s first marriage. Seven months have passed, and what I have unearthed has been considerable. I have read virtually every book available, either by or about Tennessee Williams. I have read, as well, the Williams’ works that include characters modeled on either Hazel or my father. I have discovered my father’s own book about that marriage, a thinly-veiled memoir disguised as a novel. I contacted a cousin who had known Hazel, and searched for and found the daughter of my father’s best friend, who remembered Hazel from the days when she was a teenager. I have tracked down three court cases filed by Hazel in a dispute involving her grandmother’s will, traveling to Chicago to research two of those cases, and stumbling upon the testimony of my own grandparents. I contacted the daughter of Esmeralda Mayes, a close childhood friend of both Hazel and Tom, and enlisted her help in searching through her mother’s papers for information about Hazel. I searched for – and found—the grandchildren of Hazel’s biological father, to learn that Hazel had reunited with her father in her adult years, and that they remembered their Aunt Hazel and had photographs to share with me.

A friend joked that I have become a “stalker.” If it is possible to stalk a ghost, then I concede that it may be true. I have even dreamed about her, which is not surprising, for I have spent entire days sifting through her life, as well as the lives of those who knew her, and at night, when I lie in bed trying to unwind and sleep, my mind will not always let go of her.

What was it about the unraveling of this mystery that was so important to me? Why had I latched onto it with a single-mindedness that at times surprised even me? I spent the months between May and December of 2013 so firmly ensconced in the past, in the years between 1933 and 1951, that I had trouble keeping one foot inside the present day.

The year leading up to the onset of this preoccupation had been a difficult and unsettling one for me. My marriage had buckled under the weight of a revelation I found I could not live with. I had moved from the familiar home I had lived in since I was 27. My mother had died after a long and memory-devastating illness, and my beloved sister had been diagnosed with cancer.

Nothing seemed predictable or certain. The future was a slippery thing that could slide from my grasp in an instant. But the past was something that could not be changed. I might never know it fully. I might have to search relentlessly to uncover the life my father had lived before he married my mother, and to reveal the woman he had so deeply loved when he was a young man. But the story was real. It had an essential truth to it that could not be altered, if only I would look deeply enough.

***

The woman that my mother told me about all those many years ago, this first Hazel, my father’s red-haired bride, took on for me when I was still a teenager the hazy outline of a villain. A femme fatale who captivated and toyed with men and then cast them aside. A shady lady with dark secrets who somehow deserved to come to no good. It was true that she had broken Tennessee Williams’ heart. And that she then went on to break my father’s. I had no doubt of that then. And I have no doubt of it now.

What surprises me is how much I have come to care about her.

How difficult must it have been for her to grow up knowing that her father gave her away? To have to own up to friends that her parents were divorced in 1913, when she was just a baby, at a time when divorce was almost unheard of, certainly among “respectable” women? To have to cope with a mother who was possessive, demanding and immature? Who tried to compensate for the loss of her husband by placing an unnaturally heavy emphasis on her relationship with her daughter? With grandparents who were stern, emotionally-unavailable and obsessed with their vast fortune and who would inherit it when they died? A grandfather who had inspired her to announce when she was a young woman, “I will never marry a German”?

It is easy for me to see how she could have fallen in love with my father. He was honest, funny, outgoing, and most important of all, emotionally open—everything her family was not.

I believe that she loved him. I know quite well how possible it is to love someone deeply and honestly—and then to stop loving them. I know also what it is to be misjudged by those who don’t have all the details of the story.

I have been trying to restore not only my father’s story, but hers, as well. Someone should know who she was, what she felt, why she died. There is a truth there that has been lost. And I wanted to find it, not only for myself, but for her, as well.

***

The night before my father went into the hospital, he looked up from his reading, which I’m sure he was only half-looking at anyway, and asked me a question that so startled me, I have never forgotten it.

“Mel,” he said, “are you afraid to die?”

Even at the age of sixteen, a young girl, I knew this was not the sort of question a father was supposed to ask his daughter. It alerted me instantly to some things about my father that I had not previously known, or at least, understood—that he was mortal, that he feared this operation he was about to have, that he felt close enough to me to ask such a question and perhaps, did not feel able to ask such a question of my mother.

And somehow, I knew, too, that the appropriate response would be to say something reassuring, to help my father to feel less afraid. But in those few words he had spoken to me something that was true and unguarded. I could not give him back anything less.

“Yes” I said. “I am.” I paused, waited. Then added, “Are you?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

We looked at each other, without words, and I put my hand over his.

And then something changed. It was as though the Angel of Parental Discretion and Reason had laid a hand on his shoulder to remind him that he had ventured into a realm where it was inappropriate to take one’s child. The mood shifted. He made light of his anxieties, seeing the concern in my eyes, and that was that.

It was the last time I ever spoke to him.

***

Most people have the opportunity to someday meet their parents on a level playing field. To speak to them, not as a child to a parent, but as an adult to an adult. In the normal order of things, most people cross over from childhood and meet their parents in the world of grown-ups, come to know them in a whole new way. It was a transition that I was able to make with my mother. But the journey was cut short with my father. We remained forever parent and young child.

This search for my father’s early life has been more than just a quest for Hazel, a mysterious woman with whom I feel a strange kinship. It has also been a quest to continue the relationship I once had with my father—to somehow bring him back to me.

That night when he asked me if I feared death, he had taken the first step toward treating me as an equal, toward a more adult relationship. He had begun that conversation.

It is a conversation I am still trying to have.
_____
SOURCES
Devlin, Albert J. (ed). Conversations With Tennessee Williams. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.
Williams, Tennessee. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975.

 

 

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Discussion

5 Responses to HIS OTHER LIFE: Searching for My Father, His First Wife and Tennessee Williams

  1. Anita Sax says:

    What an interesting story and so well written. I would love to see photographs.

  2. Judith Richland says:

    What an amazing story! I loved it!!!

    I have been trying to find out information about Hazel Kramer, because of his relationship with Tennessee Williams. If you have any photos to share, I would love to see them.

    Thanks so much,
    Judy Richland
    judith.richland@gmail.com

  3. Melanie McCabe says:

    Thank you. This essay is the first chapter of a book that will be published this spring. University of New Orleans Press. There will be photos.

  4. Judith Richland says:

    What an amazing story! I loved it!!!

    I have been trying to find out information about Hazel Kramer, because of her
    relationship with Tennessee Williams. If you have any photos to share, I would love to see them.

    Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Thanks so much,
    Judy Richland
    judith.richland@gmail.com

  5. Judith Richland says:

    Wonderful!!! I look forward to seeing it.

    Best,
    Judy

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