The Original Maggie the Cat, Maria St. Just, Remembers Her Loving Friend Tennessee Williams

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1954, when Tennessee Williams told his friend Maria Britneva that he had written a play about her, the young Russian-born actress was delighted. "I could see a Russian princess, covered in sables-something lovely and divine," she says.

And then she read the script. Titled Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it featured a sharp-tongued Southern beauty fighting to reignite her sexually confused husband's desire for her. Though not an unsympathetic part, Maggie the Cat was hardly the stuff of Britneva's dreams. "I gave Tennessee quite a ticking off," she says. "Here was this wildcat, saying things I wouldn't say, and she wasn't even Russian! And he said, 'Oh, honey. I'm writing about your spirit, your vitality, your tenacity to life—you are life.' "

Thirty-six years later Maria Britneva St. Just, 61, feels nothing but pride that he thought so. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, first staged on Broadway in 1955 with Barbara Bel Geddes in the title role, became an instant classic. The smoldering Maggie has been played by Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Ashley and Elizabeth Taylor (in the 1958 film version) and is a coveted role for any actress. In mid-March St. Just, widow of Britain's Lord St. Just, arrived in New York City to preside over Cat's latest incarnation, starring Kathleen Turner. Like many critics, she believes Turner makes a "marvelous" Maggie, but it is clear she feels proprietary about the role. On the phone to the play's producers, she introduces herself as "Maria," then adds, with a low laugh, "the Cat."

St. Just came to the U.S. for another reason as well. A fiercely devoted friend to Williams in life and now a co-trustee of his estate, she is here to promote her soon-to-be-published book, Five O'clock Angel: The Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just. She is, in a sense, returning a favor. If Williams captured her spirit in Cat, she hopes she has captured his in Five O'clock Angel. "Dreadful books have come out that talk about his sex life and his drinking, that do him such injustice," she says. "They don't get the essence of the man. I want people to see the real Tennessee, his warmth and compassion. He was the best friend I ever had."

They met in 1948 at "a very grand party at John Gielgud's house," remembers St. Just. At 37, Williams was the celebrated author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; she was a struggling actress in Gielgud's London theater company. "After dinner I noticed this small, shy man sitting alone on the sofa looking miserable," St. Just says. "I thought, 'There's a poor little understudy like me,' so I chatted him up a bit." Ever responsive to the kindness of strangers, Williams "asked who brought me up," she says. "I suppose because my manners were so good. I said my grandmother had, and he said, 'My grandmother brought me up too!' We laughed and talked the rest of the evening."

The next day St. Just, whose aristocratic Russian family had emigrated to London in the '20s, took "Tom" home to meet her mother. Only later, she says, did she learn that he was "the famous Tennessee Williams, and by that time we were already close friends."

Their correspondence began soon afterward. Writing from Paris, Williams told her, "It is the afternoons with you, the walks, the tea, the companionship—the ability to talk to somebody—that I remember most happily about the English adventure." His letters would continue for 35 years, telling Maria of his travels, offering financial help, even dispensing romantic advice (though Williams protested that "I am not at all clever about people, unless they are people of my own invention.") The two also got together often, making jaunts to Rome or Barcelona in the company of Williams's longtime lover, Frank Merlo. "Anywhere I was with Tennessee was an enchanted place," says St. Just. "He thought I was frightfully funny, and I thought he was, so we were always laughing."

He also promoted her career, helping her to get roles in several productions of his works. Though St. Just never played Maggie ("She's too American," she says), she was in the audience with Tennessee the night Cat debuted on Broadway. "He was talking aloud, and everybody was saying 'Sssh!' " she remembers. "He said, 'You see, people are talking through my play. They don't like it and they're ruining it.' I said, 'It's you who's ruining it,' and I grabbed him and took him out to a strip joint, where we sat very gloomily. We went back at the end and there was silence—and then a standing ovation."

In 1956 Maria married Peter Grenfell, Lord St. Just, heir to the J.P. Morgan banking fortune and a friend since childhood. The two babies who arrived in quick succession (Pulcheria, now 33, and Natasha, 31) left her little time for acting. But she always made time for Tennessee, who became a frequent guest at Wilbury Park, the 1,000-acre Wiltshire estate that St. Just still calls home. "He and Peter were very fond of each other, and the girls just adored him," St. Just says. "He came here to write and relax."

Unhappily for Williams, relaxation became ever more difficult. His later plays were skewered by critics, Merlo died in 1963, and, in his loneliness, Williams was prey to mercenary young men. He was alone in a New York City hotel room in 1983 when, groggy from drink, he choked to death at age 71. To this day, St. Just refuses to discuss his death. "It's too painful," she says. It took her years to collect his letters—and to decide that publishing them would not invade his privacy. "I had a great debate with my conscience," she says. "I wrote to my priest, and he said, 'Why not share them?' "

In time St. Just plans also to publish Williams's diaries and hopes eventually to see his unpublished plays produced. She is also raising money to preserve his Key West home as a historic site. Her efforts on Williams's behalf have been a welcome diversion since her husband's death in 1986. But the work is no substitute for the friendship she will miss "forever." Says St. Just: "Tennessee was my passion."

—Kim Hubbard, Laura Sanderson Healy in London

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