The iconic character of Stanley Kowalski in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a stereotype of the Eastern European male—a card player and drinker who is macho, working class, and brutish. The antithesis of the southern gentleman, Stanley first appears onstage carrying “his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s”; he brazenly shouts, “Meat!” as he “heaves the package” at his wife, Stella. His character is a stereotypical Polish-American man as well as a composite of many men including Williams’s co-worker, Stanley Kowalski; his ex-lover, Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez; and his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams.
Was the character Stanley Kowalski named after a real person?
Yes! Williams decided to name his male antagonist Stanley Kowalski after one of his “very good friends”—a man he worked with at the International Shoe Company in St. Louis from 1931-1934. Little is known about the real Stanley Kowalski, but Donald Spotto provides a helpful depiction of him in his biography of Williams:
At International Shoe, there was a dark, burly, amiable worker assigned to a job near Tom. He was everything the young poet was not—at ease in crowds and with strangers, sure of his strength and confident of his ability to charm the ladies. He became Tom’s closest companion of 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, and his family survived in St. Louis for many years after. (44)
It was 1931 when Cornelius uprooted his son from college and placed him in a blue-collar factory job. It was Stanley Kowalski who made Williams feel less lonely during this trying period of his life. It also became the name he would remember and use over a decade later for the male protagonist in Streetcar. This was after he considered, notes Sam Staggs, the character names “Stanley Landowski, Ralph Stanley, Ralph Kowalski, just plain Ralph, and just plain Jack.” Needless to say, it is difficult to imagine Ralph throwing bloody meat at Stella.
Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez
The passionate and tumultuous romantic relationship between the refined playwright Tennessee Williams and the crude boxer Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzalez that began in New Orleans in 1945 inspired, at least in part, the dysfunctional Blanche/Stanley dynamic. Pancho, like Stanley, was a passionate man, as well as a jealous, possessive, alcoholic who struggled to control his emotions. One passionate outburst, as John Lahr discusses in Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, inspired a particular description in A Streetcar Named Desire:
Whenever Pancho felt his access to Williams blocked, he lashed out. One night in Nantucket, after an argument with Williams, he returned home drunk. The front door was locked. From the upstairs light, he could tell that Williams was in bed reading. “He didn’t answer my call to open the door,” Rodriguez said. Finally, Pancho found his keys. “I walked in, and I started to break all the light bulbs in the house.” (112)
Williams weaves this light-bulb smashing incident into the conversation between Stella and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire:
STELLA. Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing light bulbs with it.
BLANCHE. He did—what?
STELLA. He smashed all the light bulbs with the heel of my slipper! [She laughs.]
BLANCHE. And you—you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
STELLA. I was—sort of—thrilled by it. (1.4.29-35)
Williams was thrilled (like Stella) and scared (like Blanche) of these passionate and violent episodes, and he arguably remained in the relationship to employ Pancho as the dramatic model for Stanley. Rodriguez felt exploited and claimed that Williams “used me as an inspiration for his work, to put me in positions where he wanted to see how I would react to certain situations, and out of these situations, write his own version of it” (Lahr 123). The relationship officially ended in 1947, shortly after rehearsals had begun for Streetcar and Pancho had broken the glass window to Williams’s apartment in New York.
Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams
Williams’s father C.C. was a commanding, blue-collar worker who, I believe, provided inspiration for the character of Stanley Kowalski. Although C.C. was from a fine pedigree, after the family moved to St. Louis, claims Lyle Leverich, he “shed his Tennessee accent and manners and assumed the blunt ways of the northerner” (48). He was known to engage, like Stanley, in drinking and all-night poker games. During one infamous poker game, according to Tennessee, one of the players
had called Dad a “son of a bitch” and my father, being of legitimate and distinguished lineage in East Tennessee, had knocked the bastard down and the bastard had scrambled back up and had bit off my father’s ear, or at least he had bit off most of the external part of it, and “C.C.” had been hospitalized for plastic surgery. (8)
Similar to Stanley and Stella, C.C. and Edwina would fight about money, poker nights, and drinking. In all likelihood, in addition to utilizing stereotypical characteristics of the Eastern European male, Williams drew on traits and experiences observed in his relationships with his father, co-worker, and lover to create the character of Stanley Kowalski.
Lahr, John. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Leverich, Lyle. TOM: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown Publishers, INC., 1995. Print.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers : the Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Print.
Staggs, Sam. When Blanche Met Brando: The Scandalous Story of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. The Norton Anthology of Drama: Volume Two. Ed. J. Ellen Gainor, Stanton B. Garner Jr., and Martin Puchner. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 686-751. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. Memoirs. Sewanee: The University of the South, 1972. Print.