The Real Stanley Kowalski

Marlon Brando (Library of Congress)



I never knew there was a real Stanley Kowalski. I never needed there to be a real Stanley Kowalski. Marlon Brando’s primal yell in Streetcar Named Desire—“STEL-LA!!!”—epitomized far too many men already.

Home from the latest war, these men are no longer sure they are men. They have been shot up, cut up, or forced to cut out part of their soul. Now they are cut off—from camaraderie, innocence, and the electricity of battle. They get drunk or high to escape their memories, reach for women to prove themselves, use the women to vent their rage. Writing this feels like a tired cliché—yet it just. keeps. happening. A whole new set of Stanley Kowalskis came home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The real one, though, served in World War I. Now he lies before me, under a stone at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. The guy who stole his name rests (if Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams can rest) at Calvary Cemetery. His last wish was to be “sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard 12 hours north of Havana,” but his estranged brother, Dakin Williams, arranged a more dignified memorial as soon as Tennessee could no longer protest.

Stanley Kowalski’s name, like the playwright’s, is cut in stone. It could not be more static. Yet as I stare, the letters vibrate, taking on the kinetic energy of thrown punches, slaps, his drunken rape of Blanche (so much for reliable kindness), and her subsequent nervous breakdown.

The real Stanley, of course, did none of this. All we know is that he was born in Poland, came to this country, served in the 161st Infantry Division, then became a “shoe worker.” At the International Shoe Company, he met Tennessee Williams, whose father oversaw sales and had indentured him to a job dusting sample shoes and typing orders.

Today, the old International Shoe building tries to contain the exuberant City Museum, but in the thirties, Williams found the place a tomb. He called the dusting and typing “hard labor,” “a living death,” and “my season in hell.” After three years of this grinding monotony, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and when he recovered, he fled back to college, this time enrolling at Washington University.

Here the tale tangles. Dakin Williams told one of his brother’s biographers, Donald Spoto, that Tennessee and Stanley were buds. “At International Shoe, there was a dark, burly, amiable worker assigned to a job near Tom,” Spoto writes. “He was everything the young poet was not—at ease in crowds and with strangers, sure of his strengths and confident of his ability to charm the ladies. He became Tom’s closest companion at the warehouse, and with him Tom apparently felt accepted, even protected from some of the harshness that otherwise surrounded his life. Soon, however, the man married, and about ten years later he died. His name was Stanley Kowalski.”

Spoto adds that “according to Dakin it was clear that Tom had a powerful erotic and romantic attachment to Kowalski; Kowalski’s name was often mentioned by Tom, and to see them together was to see a love-struck hero-worshipper and the idol of his dreams.” Which would have been nice for Stanley to brag about later—except that the Polish coworker Tennessee grew fond of was Eddie Zawadzki.

“I made some very good friends,” Tennessee recalled later, “especially a Polish fellow named Eddie, who sort of took me under his wings.” The playwright sounded guilt-stricken about “escaping” to college: “I left the others behind me—Eddie, Doretta, Nora, Jimmie, Dell—and I never went back to see if they were still there. I believe they are.” He dedicated Stairs to the Roof, written after the nervous breakdown, to Eddie et al (Kowalski’s name did not even make the list), and “to all of the other little wage-earners of the world not only with affection, but with profound respect.”

Did Dakin confuse Kowalski with Zawadzki, at least in terms of Tennessee’s affections? An easy mistake for a brother who spent most of his time exasperated by his sibling, especially given Tennessee’s later use of Kowalski’s name. Or maybe the young writer had a crush on both of them? But his time and Kowalski’s only overlapped for a year or so, because according to one researcher, Kowalski fell ill and spent a solid year, from October 1931 through October 1932, at the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Danville, Illinois. He died just one year later, not the decade Spoto reports.

Trying to match facts with fiction is a fool’s errand. All we can deduce about the real Stanley is that he shared his namesake’s taste for booze. He was born in Sępólno Krajeńskie, Poland, Russia, either in 1893 (as his draft card said) or 1895 (as his death certificate said). He stood about five-foot-five, with light brown eyes and black hair. In 1913, as a teenager, he came to this country. In 1917, two months after President Woodrow Wilson declared war, he registered for the military draft. The following year, he married Mary Lamkie, a Polish-American widow with three children. He was twenty-five; she was thirty-six. Seven days later, he was inducted into the Army and sent off, first for basic training, then overseas to France.

Kowalski came home in 1919 and found himself a cobbling job. Though it held steady, he moved around a lot, renting places on North 18th Street, North 16th, Cass, Mullanphy, South Broadway…. Mary’s name does not join his on the census records until 1930, and by 1932, they had divorced. In 1933, Stanley, only thirty-eight years old, died of cirrhosis of the liver. Mary could not supply his mother’s maiden name for the death certificate.

A thin, sad life. From Poland to St. Louis with dreams, back to Europe to fight, back to St. Louis to drink, and make shoes, and die. He had no idea his name would live on—let alone make generations of playgoers wince and recoil. The blame for that can be divvied up between Tennessee’s father and one of his lovers.

Cornelius Coffin Williams was a loud, rowdy traveling salesman—I picture a back-slapper, the kind who leaves your skin stinging—until he was offered a post at International Shoe in 1918. He moved his family to St. Louis, which Tennessee would dub the City of Pollution. Cornelius proceeded to escape his own inadequacies, his wife’s and daughter’s mental illnesses, and his elder son’s melodrama and intolerable “effeminacy” with the drunken gambling and violent outbursts Tennessee later wrote into Kowalski.

If an overlarge father was not enough inspiration, Tennessee also had his tumultuous relationship with Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez, a boxer and World War II veteran who called himself “a casualty of war” and drank himself into jealous fits of temper. In Streetcar, when Stella tells Blanche how Stanley once came home and smashed all the light bulbs, she is quoting what Gonzalez did to Tennessee one night after a fight.

The playwright used Kowalski to exorcise his father, but also to show audiences how war can leave a man hypersensitive to ego slights, overreactive, and unstable. Streetcar is a brave, complex, prescient depiction of PTSD, coming right after Dwight D. Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, urged people to treat returning soldiers as “perfectly normal”—and “for God’s sake don’t psychoanalyze them.”

Tennessee knew better. He set out to create a realistic portrait of damage. “Stanley Kowalski” was not even a shoo-in for the character name: in an early draft he was an Italian-American named Lucio, then an Irish-American named Ralph. But Stanley’s syllables were right.

Writers steal a little here, a little there. One man’s good name, another’s sins. The rest of us play detective because it is more fun than absorbing the real story: violent cruelty, tragedy, and waste.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.