Thomas Lanier Williams was born on 26 March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, (the nickname "Tennessee" came later). The Williams family consisted of his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, a brooding, aggressive shoe salesman who traveled frequently; his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, the daughter of a genteel Southern family not quite as well-to-do as she liked to describe them; and his older sister, Rose. When he was five years old, Williams contracted diphtheria. He nearly died and his legs were paralyzed for nearly two years. Her son's brush with death convinced Edwina—an easily-upset woman by nature—not to let the boy out of her sight. In 1918, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and a year later their third and final child, a son named Dakin, was born.
Williams displayed an early knack for story-telling, regaling his family with made-up ghost stories on vacations, and typing away on the typewriter his mother gave him while other, healthier boys spent their days outside playing. This enraged his father, who teased his son mercilessly for his effeminate qualities and called him "Miss Nancy"—a nickname that meant "sissy." Williams first published his work in 1927, when he won third place in an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine. The essay, "Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?" was written from the point of view of a woman, which further infuriated his ultra-macho dad.
In 1929, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri. He was a poor student but an enthusiastic member of the school's social scene. He joined a fraternity, whose members nicknamed him "Tennessee" for his thick Southern drawl. In 1931, before he had earned a degree, Williams's father demanded that he withdraw from school. Exactly why Cornelius Williams forced his son to drop out is unclear—some accounts say it was because he was flunking, others because he disapproved of Williams's girlfriend at the time. Whatever the case, he found his son a job with his employer, the International Shoe Company. Later in life Williams liked to joke about how he had risen from "shoe biz to show biz."4