Thomas Lanier Williams, born 26 March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, was the son of Cornelius Coffin Williams and his wife, Edwina Dakin, who married on 3 June 1907, in Columbus. By 1910, they had a daughter, Rose, and Cornelius was a salesman for a clothing company. The family moved to St. Louis by 1918, where they lived at 4633 Westminster Place. The 1920 census shows that baby Walter Dakin had been born at the end of 1919.

Tom’s mother bought him a typewriter when he was eleven years old, and he began to write poems and fiction. Much of what he would eventually write was autobiographical; his most famous characters were almost completely based on real people.

In 1926, the family moved to University City. Tom transferred from Soldan High School to University City High School, where he graduated in 1929 in the bottom half of his small class.

Tom wanted to be a poet, but his father objected, so Tom enrolled in the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. Tom’s college career was entirely controlled by his father, who by this time was a manager for the International Shoe Company in St. Louis. Because of poor grades, Tom left college and took a job as a clerk at International Shoe, where he spent his time after hours writing.

Between 1935 and 1938, the family lived in University City at 6634 Pershing. During 1936–1937, Tom attended Washington University, after which he enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he graduated in 1938. He took a new name, calling himself “Tennessee,” which was a college nickname based on his father’s family’s association with the state.

Not long after graduation, Tom, now Tennessee, moved to New Orleans and then to California to work on movie screenplays, one of which, called The Gentleman Caller, evolved into The Glass Menagerie. It opened on Broadway in 1945 to huge critical acclaim. Based on his family’s experiences in St. Louis, The Glass Menagerie secured Williams’s place in American theater./p

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams, circa 1929
Photo in the collection of the Historical Society of University City; used with permission

Tennessee Williams became one of America’s most famous playwrights. He won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955). He won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for The Glass Menagerie (1945) and Night of the Iguana (1961).

During his adulthood, Tennessee Williams returned to St. Louis often to visit his family. His father Cornelius ultimately separated from his wife and died in Knoxville, Tennessee, but Edwina Williams remained in St. Louis, where she died on 1 June 1980.

Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams died in New York on 25 February 1983. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, along with his mother and his sister Rose, who died in 1990.

(Sources include death records, obituaries, printed biographies and newspaper articles, and U.S. federal census records)

Written by Ilene Kanfer Murray
February 2017 (excerpted from a longer essay originally written in 2009)
© 2017, St. Louis Genealogical Society

Return to St. Louis City/County Biographies.

Last Modified: 26-Oct-2018 19:39