Written By Stacy Davies
Finding Summer Fun – and Poultry Peril – in Laguna Beach
Tennessee Williams, one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century, was also one of the few who wrote successful screenplay adaptations of his own work, including scripts for A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo and Suddenly, Last Summer. Long before he secured his place in literary and movie history, however, he was simply Tom Williams, a Mississippi-born kid furiously penning essays, poems and plays in an attempt to unleash his stubborn muse.
Williams received the nickname “Tennessee” from his fraternity brothers during a brief stint at the University of Missouri (just one of several schools he’d attend) during the early 1930s, but didn’t formally adopt the moniker until 1939. That was also the year that his westward quest for inspiration found him in California, engaged in a bird-plucking gig at a squab ranch in Hawthorne.
During that stint, the struggling writer received a telegram informing him that he’d won a special award of $100 from the Group Theatre in New York for a collection of one-act plays called American Blues. In his memoir, Williams recalls it as “a huge piece of encouragement and boost of morale” that was “far more important to me than anything convertible into cash.” Instead of buying a bus ticket to Manhattan, however, he bought a bike, and with clarinet player Jim Parrott in tow, the two peddled their way down to Tijuana and Agua Caliente for further adventure and inspiration.
Once their sojourn across the southern border had ended, Williams and Parrott found themselves haphazardly cycling through Laguna Beach down a dirt road in Bootleg Canyon (now Canyon Acres), and it was there that they happened upon a chicken ranch. The homestead was owned by an elderly couple who were in dire need of a vacation, and they offered the drifters occupancy of a small cabin at the back of the chicken run in exchange for minding the flock. Williams and Parrott agreed.
“I don’t know why I was so committed to occupations involving poultry in those days,” Williams wrote. “No analyst has ever explained that to me.”
It was May 1939, and with little more than a typewriter and Victrola in hand (Williams felt both were indispensible to his writing), the two stayed through the summer. They established “friendly relations with the chickens the first time [they] scattered their feed,” found part-time jobs as a pin-setters at the local bowling alley, cruised the night spots, and lazed along the beaches.
“In the thirties, [Laguna Beach] was a fine place to pass the summer days,” Williams wrote. “There was constant volleyball, there was surfing and surfers, there was an artist colony … and all of it was delightful. It seems to me that the best part of all was riding our bikes up the canyon at first dark, in those days when the sky was still a poem.”
Williams was also in a tempestuous struggle to wrench out his muse, particularly through poetry. Drawn to the soul-searching allure of jazz, he began writing Tenor Sax Takes the Breaks, in which he describes a vociferous coastal affair:
Singing the latest jazz tunes
with trumpets, with trombones
the tenor sax taking the breaks!
Ride out, boy!
Send it solid!
Or at high noon
on beaches disporting our bodies
that imitate bronze
While the drums beat out a quick rhythm
Boy in blue trunks
girl with your breast half-naked!
Where is disaster?
Only in newspaper headlines!
“I suppose that summer was the happiest and healthiest and most radiant time of my life,” he would recall. “I referred to that season as Nave Nave Mahana, which is the title of my favorite Tahitian painting by Gauguin, and which means ‘The Careless Days.’”
During that idyllic interval, Williams also began receiving letters from agents on Broadway who’d heard about his Group Theatre award. One told him she was not looking for serious material, but rather a “good vehicle” – to which Williams responded that the only vehicle he had to offer was a second-hand bike. He eventually signed with Audrey Wood, known as “the little giant of the American theatre.” She would be with him for the next 30 years, first helping him attain a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and, by 1944, promoting his break-through play The Glass Menagerie. A few years later, she would oversee the publication of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Williams and Parrott stayed in Laguna until August 1939, “the month when the sky goes crazy at night, full of shooting stars which undoubtedly have an effect on human fate, even when the sun’s up,” but made a hasty exodus after they awoke one morning to find that a third of their flock had perished overnight from a mysterious disease.
Parrott actually left first, acquiring a beat-up Ford and heading up to Los Angeles to make quick money playing jazz, and Williams was briefly left behind. “This was, I believe, the longest time in my life that I went hungry,” he wrote. “I went without nourishment for about ten days except for some remnants of dried peas and some avocadoes I’d steal now and then from a grove in the canyon.”
As was his nature, Williams found inspiration in his obstacles – in this case, starvation – noting that after about three days, “God or somebody drops in on you invisibly and painlessly injects you with sedation, so that you find yourself drifting into a curiously, an absolutely inexplicably, peaceful condition, and this condition is ideal for meditation on things past and passing and to come.”
Parrott eventually returned and collected his friend, and they headed for the San Bernardino Mountains. New Orleans was soon to follow, where Williams would expand his jazz-beach poem, officially anoint himself “Tennessee,” and finally unleash in full the muse that had, at least in part, been helped along the way by the verse and adversity he’d found in Laguna Beach.