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Tuesday 25 July 2017

Donald Windham

American writer whose portraits of more successful contemporaries were often coloured by jealousy

Donald Windham, who died recently aged 89, was a noted literary figure in New York, producing memorably barbed studies of his contemporaries -- notably Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote -- who achieved the success and celebrity which eluded him.

Windham was variously a novelist and playwright, but it was his literary portraits which stand out. Though he was admirably placed to write such accounts, having watched the rise to greatness of his subjects at close quarters, his perceptive eye was not untouched by jealousy. He mused in later life that one of the reasons they had enjoyed success and he had not was that he had failed to cultivate influential enemies to fan the flames of success.

Windham first met Tennessee Williams in New York in 1940. The statutory pass made by Williams had been rejected, but they became literary partners instead. Their careers diverged when Williams was catapulted to fame by The Glass Menagerie (1944) and there developed a long froideur between the two, not helped when Williams captioned a photo of Windham in his 1975 memoirs: "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 resorted to lawyers.

In the book Windham described his former partner as "the rarest, most intoxicating, the most memorable flower that has blossomed in my garden of good and evil". When reviewing the book in The New York Times, 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 this with one of his finest works, Footnote to a Friendship, first published in Verona, in a limited edition, in 1983. In page after page he dissected Truman Capote, his well-proven theme being that Capote did not dwell in the Temple of 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 bisexual founder of the New York City Ballet.

One story earmarked for the book was to have 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 adopted the title for his celebrated novella.

Donald Windham was born in Atlanta on July 2, 1920, beginning life in a grand house on Peachtree Street. In 1939 he left on a Greyhound bus to New York with his boyfriend, a graphic artist.

Practically penniless, Windham made instant friends with Tennessee Williams, which developed into a literary collaboration, sustained by what Williams's biographer called "a remarkably fecund and frank correspondence". Williams assisted with and then took over Windham's play You Touched Me!, based on a story by DH Lawrence.

Later, funds from the play freed Windham to pursue a literary career, the products of which attracted admirers such as Andre Gide, Thomas Mann and Paul Bowles. He was admired by Cyril Connolly, who published him in Horizon, and was commissioned to write for The Paris Review. EM Forster wrote a foreword to his 1962 collection of short stories, The Warm Country.

With the help of Sandy Campbell, a former undergraduate from Princeton and his longtime lover, Windham published books with Stamperia Valdonega in Verona. The couple lived together until Campbell died in 1988.

"Hard work and no success" was Windham's bitter verdict on his own career.

Sunday Independent

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