I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know. Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand’.Donald Windham
Donald Windham was a novelist and playwright and a friend to some of the most fabulous people of the 20th century, including: actors Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Tallulah Bankhead, Lynne Fontaine and Alfred Lunt, artists Paul Cadmus and Jarded French, and writers Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Lincoln Kirstein, Christopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden.
A good writer, it is his literary portraits for The New Yorker that are his most notable accomplishments. Having intimately observed the rise to greatness of his subjects, he was not untouched by jealousy. Late in life, he shared that one of the reasons they had enjoyed meteoric success while he had not was that he had failed to cultivate influential enemies to fan the flames of success.
Windham met Tennessee Williams in NYC in 1940 after arriving on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta at 19-years-old. Williams was interested in sex, but they became literary partners instead. They shared an apartment and collaborated on the play You Touched Me! based on a story by D.H. Lawrence, which was eventually staged on Broadway in 1946 with Montgomery Clift, who became Windham’s lover.
But, their careers took different paths when Williams was catapulted to fame with the production of his play The Glass Menagerie (1944) and the two friends feuded. It didn’t help when Williams captioned a photograph of Windham in his imaginatively titled memoir, Memoirs (1975): “An early friend in New York, whose present disaffection I much regret.”
In 1977, Windham published his letters from Williams. He had obtained the playwright’s consent, but Williams later claimed he had only given it when drunk and he resorted to having lawyers sort things out. In the book Windham described Williams as: “the rarest, most intoxicating, the most memorable flower that has blossomed in my garden of good and evil”.
Reviewing the book, The NY Times critic Robert Brustein commented:
If revenge is a dish that tastes best cold, then Donald Windham has certainly fixed himself a satisfying frozen dinner.
Windham followed with Footnote To A Friendship (1983), where he dissected Capote, noting that the tiny writer played fast and loose with the truth. One revelation in the book was that Windham had tried to write a book about sex during wartime between soldiers and civilians, largely based on the personal experiences of Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet. The story involved a Marine who, after a louche night, said what he most fancied was “to have breakfast at Tiffany’s”. With Windham’s permission, Capote took the quip for the title for his celebrated novella in 1958.
Windham’s writing attracted admirers such as André Gide, Thomas Mann and Paul Bowles. E.M. Forster wrote the foreword to his collection of short stories, The Warm Country (1962). Yet, his work never sold well.
In 1950, Windham published his first novel, The Dog Star, about a young Southern man’s despair following the suicide of his best friend from boarding school. Other works included The Hero Continues (1960) about a playwright who is dazzled by his own success, (I wonder who that could be?), and Tanaquil (1977) a roman à clef about 1950s New York City, inspired by the life of the photographer, George Platt Lynes.
His novels and stories were gay-themed, which brought him critical contempt, notably with the publication of Two People (1965), about a love affair between a married Manhattan stockbroker and a 17-year-old Italian boy in Rome.
His memoirs were better received, beginning with Emblems Of Conduct (1964), an account of his early life in Atlanta, where his mother traded in her grand family house on Peachtree Street as her fortunes declined and went to work as a receptionist at Coca-Cola. Upon graduating from high school, he found a job at the Coca-Cola factory, and in a twist of fate, when he arrived in NYC, he ended up selling Coke at a stand at the New York World’s Fair.
He later published Lost Friendships (1987), about his relationships with Williams and Capote. He also published his correspondence with Alice B. Toklas and Forster.
But none of this led to more success than some literary acclaim. With the help of actor Sandy Campbell, his longtime boyfriend, Windham published books with Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, Italy, again with little success. Windham and Campbell were a well-known couple in gay literary circles. It was at a chance encounter at Cadmus’ studio that Windham met Campbell, who was modeling for a Cadmus painting. The couple lived together for 45 years, until Campbell died in 1988. Windham/s bitter assessment of his own career: “Hard work and no success”.
Windham and Campbell gave their names and an endowment to a literary award administered by Yale University to endow up to nine $150,000 annual awards to emerging writers.To compare the richness of the Windham-Campbell Awards, it should be noted that the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the National Book Awards are each worth $10,000. Campbell was a stage actor, and the two men lived so modestly that it surprised many that they could leave a bequest large enough to generate more than a million dollars in prize money every year.