Knoxville, Kentucky: Tennessee Williams, Clarence Brown, and Pimiento Cheese

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The great playwright Tennessee Williams, with better luck, might have celebrated his 106th birthday this week. He was not a Knoxvillian, although when he first became famous, the Knoxville papers were happy to claim him as one. His family, whose story would make a very long Tennessee Williams play, was prominent here, and in the minds of Old Knoxvillians, it was only temporary confusion that caused a few of the Williamses—like the writer’s father, the lost sheep Cornelius—to wander away for a bit, to the Deep South and Midwest. Surely they would come back soon and assume their distinguished place at local black-tie events.

There’s a pretty fascinating recent book, probably not recommended for the judgmental, called The Follies of God. Its subtitle is “Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog.” Author James Grissom was an aspiring young unknown who met Williams in New Orleans, looking for a boost toward a writing career, and instead, was sent on an errand by the legendary playwright—an errand that took Grissom about 30 years to complete. Williams wanted Grissom to track down and interview each of his favorite actresses (and actors, like Marlon Brando, but mostly actresses), and find out what they thought about the playwright who was part of their resumes: Lillian Gish, Jessica Tandy, Katharine Hepburn, Maureen Stapleton. And Grissom carried out that daunting mission, never mind that his famous client died very early in the process, back in 1983.

I’ve never heard of a book like it, and hate to bring out one error that was a missed stitch in the writer’s connection-making mission, and maybe a symptom of how Knoxville presents itself to the world.

Grissom tells the story of how, working in Hollywood in 1944, Tennessee Williams was taking a lunch break at the MGM commissary and found himself seated next to Clarence Brown, one of the studio’s most successful directors at the time—it was the era of National Velvet—but not one known for personal extravagance. Brown had brought a pimiento-cheese sandwich. Although that was an exotic treat in Hollywood then.

I was middle-aged before I realized one bleak reality, that there are desolate places in the world, even in America, where pimiento cheese is scarce. Where, strange as it may seem, people don’t even know what it is.

I don’t believe Williams and Brown ever worked together, but in the commissary the two struck up a conversation about the South, and Brown, who didn’t like everybody, gave Williams half of his pimiento-cheese sandwich, spiked with a dash of vinegar. (I’ve never tried that embellishment. I mean to this weekend.)

The next day, the two ran into each other again, and Brown had brought pimiento-cheese sandwiches again, and brought a spare for Williams. “For later, when you’re writing,” Brown said.

The story gets complicated later, but the fact that two very different fellows could bond over pimiento-cheese sandwiches, something they missed from home, was surprising and revealing.

Here’s the line, describing Brown and Williams in the commissary, that stuck in my craw.

“The two of them, one from Kentucky, the other deeply marinated in the ways of Mississippi and Louisiana, laughed over shared tastes.”

Their heritages weren’t just a few states apart. I’d argue they were more like a few blocks.

If Mr. Grissom, who seems a painstaking researcher in other respects, had allowed himself a dozen seconds to Google Clarence Brown, then he’d know that Brown was not from Kentucky, but from a distinctive place called Knoxville, which is in Tennessee, and home of some of the best pimiento cheese in the world. And that that city was also the home of Tennessee Williams’ father, and beloved aunts, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, and the source of some of the stories and themes of his plays.

Brown was an alumnus of the University of Tennessee, and to help its growing drama program, became one of its biggest donors in history. In 1980, Tennessee Williams gave a talk at the Clarence Brown Theatre.

With a little more research, Mr. Grissom might have been interested to learn that Clarence Brown’s old house is an easy 10-minute walk from the Williams family plot at Old Gray, where the playwright’s family, including his grandmother, Belle; and grandfather and namesake, Thomas Lanier Williams, were buried. (Tennessee Williams’ formal name was Thomas Lanier Williams III.) Now his father and aunts are buried there, too.

It’s not the first time an author has seen “Knoxville” and written down “Kentucky.” Is it impossible to imagine more than one place in the mid-South that starts with a K?

Last year I gave a bus tour to some retired combat veterans from all over the country. A couple of the older men, from the Upper Midwest, claimed they’d never heard of Knoxville before, and when they saw it on their itinerary, figured it was in Kentucky. That’s where Fort Knox is.

So an audacious and expensive world’s fair and all these decades touting of Knoxville as Gateway to the Smokies, and the Home of the Vols—and all the Vols’ winning seasons—still haven’t given the word “Knoxville” a secure purchase on American minds.

At least until recently, and by that I mean the downtown’s preservationist revival, the Big Ears and Rossini and Biscuit Festival era, Knoxville has not proven itself to be been very handy at introducing itself. As fond as we are of the Big Orange, we can’t always count on talented young athletes, most of whom come from other places, and are headed for other places after that, to tell much of the story of Knoxville a national audience.

So when writers see the word and don’t register it, it’s not always their fault.

Big Orange is also the color of pimiento cheese. And if Mr. Grissom does visit someday, he’ll find the short stroll from Clarence Brown’s house to the Williams family plot will take you by Holly’s Corner, a cafe known for its creative take on that regional specialty.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

Share this Post