A Disturbed Genius Seen Through the Eyes of an Intimate Friend: William Inge and Barbara Baxley
Though not as well remembered today as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, William Inge was the most successful and acclaimed playwright in America in the 1950s. During that decade, Inge produced an unbroken string of successful plays: Come Back Little Sheba (1950), the Pulitzer Prize winner Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). He also knocked it out of the park with his Oscar-winning original screenplay for Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961).
While processing the papers of stage and screen actress Barbara Baxley, I discovered a stack of hand-written pages, containing autobiographical writings that shed some light on Inge's tortured private life. Barbara Baxley was an intimate friend and rumored lover of Inge for years. She appeared in some of Inge's plays, as in some by Williams, who was Inge's mentor, friend and sometime rival. Ralph Voss interviewed Baxley for his 1989 biography, A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph, but Baxley's own writings on the subject are more detailed and more personal.
As a closeted homosexual, Inge clearly had no problem with public misconceptions of his relationship with Baxley. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote this in 1959: "Actress Barbara Baxley and playwright William Inge don't deny a thing. They have gone maaad about each other…" And while the two certainly had a strong personal connection, it was much more complicated that a simple friendship, or romance. Baxley describes their relationship a little differently:
"Bill wanted love from a man but it had to be a gentleman. He wanted love from me but it had to be sweet affection not physical love. The times we tried physical love failed, so we were very happy with loving regard for one another. He used to sit… and hold me like a child."
Baxley and Inge both used one another as parental substitutes, as Baxley explains, to make up for emotional coldness during childhood from his mother and her father. This is particularly interesting, since Baxley played Cora Flood in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs—a role Inge based on his own mother.
They had a deep emotional attachment, but Inge's dark side would come out in various ways. Unable to be sexually intimate with Baxley, he alternated between a deep jealousy of her affairs with heterosexual men, and an obsession with asking her lovers for details of their sexual encounters, which disturbed Baxley just as much. Like Doc, the male protagonist of Come Back, Little Sheba (who, like Inge was a recovering alcoholic), he would flip between a gentle, kindly admiration, when he would shower Baxley with gifts and praise, and lashing out with hurtful diatribes, like this one:
"You little whore—you could sleep with the stage manager for Jesus God's sake. It's humiliating to me and you."
Outbursts like this were "sudden, violent and over in short order" and Baxley and Inge continued their platonic affair for many years, sharing music, poetry, art and affection. She even moved in to his apartment at the Dakota for a while. But the underlying problem continued to gnaw at the core of their relationship, and it all came to a head when Baxley told Inge she was going to marry actor and playwright Doug Taylor, in 1961. An estrangement had grown up between Baxley and Inge when she lost out on a lead role in his play A Loss of Roses (1959), which left her more open to a relationship that resulted in marriage.
Inge flew into a rage of jealousy and berated Baxley with "accusations that I'd marry and old or young actor who asked me. It was a pretty bad time. And we both got very angry. But I got married. Things were never the same again." They did manage to patch things up, eventually, and continued to be friends. Also, Baxley's marriage wasn't successful, which may have allowed Inge to forgive her more easily.
Though extremely popular and highly regarded in his heyday, Inge went into a sharp decline following a devastating article written by critic Robert Brustein in Harper's Magazine in November of 1958, on the occasion of the opening of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Brustein accused Inge of "mediocrity" and manipulation: "Inge can maintain his affirmations only by a simplistic view of life and a careful selection of characters." The article was less a review of the play than an attack on Inge's entire oeuvre and his success, or, as Voss describes it, a "critical mugging."
Inge, always insecure and sometimes unstable, was completely eviscerated by the attack. Though Inge did not write a defense or response to the article, leaving it to a friend, the playwright William Gibson, he did call Brustein crying. Inge's friends and colleagues agreed that the article was a turning point from which he never recovered. He struck out with A Loss of Roses (1959), Natural Affection (1963), and with his final play for Broadway, Where's Daddy? (1966). He moved out to Hollywood and turned increasingly to writing films.
After the initial success of Splendor in the Grass, Hollywood wasn't much better for Inge than Broadway, with failures like All Fall Down (1962), which Baxley appeared in; and The Stripper (1963), a film version of A Loss of Roses. Inge's last film, Bus Reilly's Back in Town (1965) was an adaptation of one of his early plays. Universal distorted the screenplay (to showcase their star Ann-Margret) to such an extent that Inge had his name removed from the credits!
Maybe the later works weren't up to his usual standard. Maybe Brustein's opinion of Inge was a harbinger of a change in attitudes and mores that made William Inge's quintessentially 1950s vision of America seem passé. Whatever the reason, critics and audiences simply didn't respond to his later works. And his personal life continued to be a trial. According to Baxley, the alcoholism made social life in Hollywood problematic for him:
"Bill had been more than able to cope with the alcoholism. But the constant loneliness of the life of a homosexual became unbearable. If he could have run around with the usual crowd of "gay" people they would have been company. But drinking seems to be almost a requirement in that world."
Ultimately, over ten years of professional failure took its toll, and Inge simply couldn't battle that and his overwhelming personal demons. Ralph Voss also speculates that another wrench for Inge during this period was that "he had lost his special personal relationship with Barbara Baxley." They were still friends, but they never had gotten back to the closeness they had before their fight and her marriage. Baxley recounts Inge's painful words to her the last time she spoke to him:
"Oh my God Barbara I have to kill myself I can't stand it anymore. I don't want to live anymore. Oh my God Barbara. Try to understand."
Despite attempts from Baxley, and other friends, including Tennessee Williams to persuade Inge's sister, Helene to have him committed, she resisted, because she knew her brother dreaded being institutionalized. After being hospitalized for a 1973 overdose, Inge signed himself out, and, five days later, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Did Inge's late failures and lack of recognition cause his suicide? Or was it more that his early success was the only thing that kept him holding on in the face of a personal life mired in alcoholism, depression, and an unconquerable self-loathing? I'll leave you with one final impression of Inge, as Baxley saw him:
"He valued human beings but seemed detached from them. He suffered such agonies of his own he was always careful to an extreme to protect others from pain. He hated violence and distrusted himself for harboring violence."
This remark may be some kind of explanation of Inge's suicide. He didn't feel that he could trust himself with life.
To read more of Baxley's writings about Inge, or to learn more about Baxley, see the Barbara Baxley Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.