Alum Tennessee Williams’ b-day celebration draws diverse crowd

Francesca Williams, niece of the late playwright and author Tennessee Williams, visited Washington University on Thursday evening to celebrate the birthday of her late uncle. The evening consisted of a screening of the film “The Night of the Iguana” followed by a birthday reception and the unveiling of a maquette depicting Tennessee Williams.

Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III (1911-1983) spent his formative years in St. Louis, having graduated from Soldan High School—member of the St. Louis Public School System—and attended Washington University, where he wrote the play “Me, Vashya” (1937).

Tennessee Williams is also one of America’s greatest playwrights, and he is responsible for works such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Orpheus Descending” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Williams was more than just a playwright, however, professor Richard Chapman expressed in his welcome to the audience to start the evening.

“We’re honoring the more elegant and glamorous work of the multiple Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and filmmaker Tennessee Williams,” Chapman said. “The reason we in Film and Media Studies are opening new avenues of scholarship is that the films of Tennessee Williams stand alone as unique creations of their own.”

Chapman met Francesca Williams’ father more than 10 years ago and from there, despite Tennessee Williams’ own at-times tenuous relationship with the University, the Williams family has maintained a unique tie to Washington University, Francesca Williams explained.

“More than 10 years ago, Richard [Chapman] and my dad became friends and started working on a screenplay about dad’s life…so Richard and I have developed a friendship over time. Now I am friends with Wash. U.,” Williams said.

The makeup of the audience consisted mostly of older community members and friends of the Williams family. A few students attended, including senior Hayley Gadol, who echoed the sentiments shared between Williams and the St. Louis community throughout the evening.

“Overall, the event was really well-planned with close attention to detail, and it was really cool to see the close ties people in the area surrounding Wash. U. have with Tennessee Williams,” Gadol said.

At the birthday reception following the screening, internationally renowned artist and University alumnus Donald Wiegand unveiled a bas-relief maquette—a scale model or rough draft of a piece—that depicts Tennessee Williams in his iconic pose, staring out the window with a cigarette in hand.

Wiegand met Francesca Williams seven years ago at the Whittemore House on campus, when he did a live casting of the hand of Dakin Williams, Tennessee Williams’ brother. The relationship between Wiegand and Francesca Williams continued to grow, and two years ago she commissioned Wiegand to complete the piece of Tennessee Williams.

Wiegand was adamant about the importance that Washington University played in not only his relationship with the Williams family but with his career as a whole.

“I learned everything here. I learned the entire profession here that I’ve [now] spread around the entire world,” Wiegand said.

Alongside the maquette was a table of Williams’s family memorabilia. Francesca Williams explained the importance of the discovery to the Washington University community.

“I just want to see what this memorabilia I found in the basement can do for us, can educate, can pull forward scholars—interest from all angles,” Williams said.

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Alex SiegmanComment