Grave Sightings: Tennessee Williams

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Poor Tennessee Williams. He gave us The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (among hundreds of other works), and what people often tend to remember him for is his rather unusual death, which probably didn’t even happen. I mean, his death definitely happened. But how it happened is up for debate.

As the story goes, and has for many years, the 71-year-old playwright was staying alone at the Hotel Elysee in Manhattan on February 25, 1983. That’s where he made the fatal mistake of placing the cap to a bottle of eyedrops in his mouth. With the cap still in his mouth, Williams tilted his head back to properly lubricate his dry eyeballs. Though he had allegedly done this exact sequence of actions many times before, this time, the cap became dislodged from its position in his mouth and slipped down his throat, choking him to death.

Strange, and tragic. But not true. Decades later, friends said that he actually died from “acute intolerance to Seconal,” a barbiturate he habitually used. It’s said that Williams’ companion John Uecker talked the medical examiner into putting the choking story on the official report in order to avoid scandal and speculation.

Against his wishes, Williams is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis (the back of his tombstone is shown above). In his memoirs, Williams had requested to be buried at sea near the same spot where poet Hart Crane jumped to his death from a cruise ship. Despite his very public wishes to be “sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard 12 hours north of Havana,” Williams’ estranged brother, Dakin, decided otherwise, saying that his sibling had converted to Catholicism and would have wanted a proper Catholic service and burial.

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September 18, 2013 - 1:00pm
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