Tennessee Williams, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cheever, Carver, Berryman… Six giants of American literature – and all addicted to alcohol. In an edited extract from her new book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing looks at the link between writers and the bottle
In the small hours of 25 February 1983, the playwright Tennessee Williams died in his suite at the Elysée, a small, pleasant hotel on the outskirts of the Theatre District in New York City. He was 71: unhappy, a little underweight, addicted to drugs and alcohol and paranoid sometimes to the point of delirium. According to the coroner’s report, he’d choked on the bell-shaped plastic cap of a bottle of eyedrops, which he was in the habit of placing on or under his tongue while he administered to his vision.
The next day, the New York Times ran an obituary claiming him as “the most important American playwright after Eugene O’Neill”, though it had been two decades since his last successful play. It listed his three Pulitzer prizes, for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana, adding: “He wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humour about outcasts in our society. Though his images were often violent, he was a poet of the human heart.”
He was also a kind, generous, hard-working man, who rose at dawn almost every morning of his life, sitting down at his typewriter with a cup of black coffee to produce what would amount to well over 100 short stories and plays. At the same time, he was a lonely, depressed alcoholic who managed by degrees to isolate himself from almost everyone he loved. A sample entry from his diary in 1957 reads: “Two Scotches at bar. 3 drinks in morning. A daiquiri at Dirty Dick’s, 3 glasses of red wine at lunch and 3 of wine at dinner. Also two seconals so far, and a green tranquillizer whose name I do not know and a yellow one I think is called reserpine or something like that” – an itemisation made more troubling by the fact that he was in rehab at the time.
Things got worse in 1963, when Williams’s long-term partner Frank Merlo, nicknamed the Little Horse, died of lung cancer. After that, he was far gone and out, barely perpendicular against the current, buoyed on a diet of coffee, liquor, barbiturates and speed. Hardly any wonder he found speech difficult, or kept toppling over in bars, theatres and hotels. Each year he put on a new play, and each year it failed, rarely lasting a month before it closed.
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Charles Bukowski wrote quite eloquently:
Take a writer away from his typewriter
And all you have left
which started him
I have always felt that there was a correlation not so much between writing and alcoholism but between that inner sickness and aberrant ways of self-medicating. I have had the chance of getting to know a descent number of alcoholics, had my fair share of issues with alcohol as has my lady and one thing I’ve seen is that alcohol is like a medicine used to suppress the pain or angst of a condition they mostly never talk about. Writing and drinking are both forms of self-medicating. But I’m curious about what you think about this?
- Olivia Laing drinks in the impact of alcohol on authors in The Trip To Echo Spring (metro.co.uk)
- What drives writers to drink? (guardian.co.uk)