Mississippi University for Women theater major Jessi Tidwell looks in awe at the laurel wreath which rested with Tennessee Williams on the day of his funeral in 1983. The wreath donated by John Uecker of New York City will soon be on permanent display at Columbus’ Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center. Behind Tidwell are, from left, Brook Hanemann, Brenda Caradine and Kayla Manzolilo. Photo by: Louisa Porter
December 5, 2009 1:43:00 PM
As her plane lifted off for New York City in November, Brenda Caradine''s thoughts were filled with the thrill of being part of the upcoming induction of Tennessee Williams into the revered Poets Corner of the magnificent Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
But this particular trip would also result in a very personal and poignant page of Tennessee Williams'' final chapter finding a new home in Columbus, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was born March 26, 1911. To the very house, in fact, where he spent the first years of his life -- the former rectory which now serves as the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center.
After a remarkable meeting with producer, director, actor and editor John Uecker that weekend in New York, Caradine returned to her hometown bearing a hat box she handled with great care. Inside, between cushions of tissue paper, lay a laurel wreath, its brown leaves brittle with age. Nearly 27 years earlier, that very wreath had lain on Tennessee Williams'' body, and later his coffin, on the day of his funeral in 1983.
Uecker, the author''s close friend and professional colleague, had protected this last memento for more than two and a half decades. Moved by Caradine''s zeal for preserving and celebrating Williams'' literary legacy, he came to a decision to entrust the laurel wreath to her care -- to rest in the city of his friend''s birth and the home of the annual Tennessee Williams Tribute, which Caradine founded and spearheads.
As pre-arranged before the journey, she went straight from the airport to meet with Uecker, whom she had been introduced to in Provincetown, Ma., by David Kaplan, curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival.
"I walked up these seven flights of stairs to his apartment in New York," she recalled. "I sat down in a chair and looked across and there it was, hanging on the wall. I thought, ''It''s just like Caesar''s.'' It evoked what they (his close friends) felt for Tennessee and so appropriate for what Tennessee was, that he be honored in a classical way."
A diverse career
Uecker''s prolific career has included directing or coaching such actors as Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter and James Gandolfini. He was strongly influenced by Williams, as well as novelist and short-story writer James Purdy, and worked extensively with them both.
In Williams'' later years, Uecker creatively assisted and edited many of Williams'' works, including "A Monument for Ercolé," loosely based on Raul Castro. The Uecker edit was approved by Williams with copy-edit corrections in Williams'' hand (the original manuscript is in Columbia University''s Tennessee Williams archive).
In correspondence with Caradine, Uecker unselfishly shared recollections of the day of the funeral:
"After the viewing of the body was over ... the doors had been closed and locked to finalize the last public pass-by of the body. I remained there with a few people for our own final moments -- Jane Smith, Vassilis Voglis and a few others, Tennessee''s inner circle of friends.
"We had ordered a simple casket with a laurel wreath, which more closely represented who Tennessee was and what he had done. It was the only possibility, as all the other coffins were so overly ornate and in such bad visual taste we did not want Tennessee to rest in one. They had nothing to do either with him or his work.
"The wreath had rested on his body in the beginning of the viewing. I believe the coffin had been closed by Dakin, his brother, who had final authority over the body, and then the wreath remained on top of it. ... People touched the wreath as they walked by to pay their last respects.
"While those few of us were still standing there for a few moments in silence, wondering and whirling through our minds what had happened in the entire chain of events leading to this, our final closeness with Mr. Williams, someone came into the room and began the cleanup. He started to look at the wreath, which we had ordered. He then looked at the wastepaper basket."
Realizing the laurel wreath was in danger of being discarded, Uecker intervened. He shared a meaningful encounter that occurred soon after.
An artist''s reverence
(After the funeral) "Jane Smith took me downtown to Odeon Restaurant to begin to come back from the shock of where we had been," Uecker continued. "The artist Julian Schnabel was in attendance. ... He had Jane ask me if I could let him have just a few leaves.
"He understood the importance of the wreath by the way he touched it and removed them. He would turn these into several paintings," Uecker wrote.
"I knew I would be keeping this wreath for a long time, until the tide had turned on Tennessee''s life and work. And that eventually this wreath would find its own resting place, so far away from the wastepaper basket for which it had been inadvertently intended."
Mississippi University for Women theater major Jessi Tidwell portrayed the character of "Laura" in Williams'' "The Glass Menagerie" this year. She was deeply moved by the laurel wreath when it was unboxed at the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center in November.
"I have a special place in my heart for America''s best playwright," she wrote to Uecker. "I appreciated his work before I came to college, but my professor, Brook Hanemann, really lit a flame in me for his works and for his life. (The wreath) gives us another chance to explain his impact on the world to those who don''t understand."
Dewitt Hicks, president of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors, has appointed Caradine to chair a committee responsible for the wreath''s preservation and permanent display. Also serving are Dr. Jim DelPrince, of Mississippi State University; Michelle Jones, of Mississippi Archives and History; and Nancy Carpenter, director of the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation.
"We''re very pleased at this wonderful acquisition," stated Hicks. "We think that it''s made full cycle to come to Tennessee Williams'' birthplace."
To the delight of the Tennessee Williams Tribute Committee, Uecker has accepted an invitation to attend the 2010 Tribute in Columbus next fall. He''ll be honored with a reception at the Welcome Center, where he''ll see the wreath that hung in his New York apartment displayed in Mississippi.
"Taking pictures of him as he packed the box ... I had seen this somber man who was so worried about what was to become of the wreath," said Caradine, with audible emotion. "But as he started to pack it, I was thrilled at the joy I saw in his face and that we could be a part of helping him get the wreath in such an appropriate place. I do believe it has come home."
Uecker himself seems at peace with the transfer. In a recent e-mail to Caradine, his new friend, he wrote:
"To have finally gotten that somewhere where it truly belongs ... wow ... thought I''d never see the day."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
Dr Larry Myers commented at 12/6/2009 12:54:00 PM:
John Uecker played an enormous part in Tennessee Williams' life for quite a number of years. Because he has grace, intensity, & reverence for the Williams works he has not trumpeted his role.
Tennessee heeded much of Uecker's most knowledgeable advice. Uecker was very much attuned to the cutting edge but had had the sturdy traditional of the likes of Sanford Meisner. Additionally, Uecker was informed by Kim Stanley's genius having worked closely with her. Unfortunately others who have had the privelege to work with Uecker have claimed these ideas & accomplishments as their own. When Uecker came to Theater of the New City with me & consequently help shape many of my works my life changed. John was quite fond of my mother (who Tennessee met when he was shaping the Hart Crane play). Her persona helped him formulate the mother in "Steps Must Be Gentle." It is the professional theater's loss that only few inspired individuals like Uecker no longer inhabit it. Crass commercialism & compromise have replaced the authenticity & craft he represents. Brenda & David Kaplan are among those whose who truly understand Tennessee's mission & have helped facilitate it.
Scott Kenan commented at 12/6/2009 7:45:00 PM:
It is my privilege to have known John Uecker while I worked 6 months as Tennessee Williams' assistant. John and Tennessee had a literary intimacy that Tennessee and I did not. Nor did anyone else that I was aware of, not even Gavin Lambert, who came in briefly to help Tennessee with one of his late plays. Now, all these years later, John and I have become friends again. I saw the wreath, the poet's symbol, on John's wall near his framed photos of Tennessee and James Purdy, before Brenda packed it up to go to its appropriate home. Believe it or not, I'm actually 6' 11". But to me, John Uecker is 7' 1". He has kept the faith. He has weathered some unbelievable storms. He carries the Williams poetic vision. Congratulations John and all you folks in Columbus, Mississippi!