New Orleans: Decadence and drama in the Delta
Tennessee Williams, who was born 100 years ago today, drew inspiration from the characters who lived in America's Deep South. Chris Coplans follows in the playwright's footsteps
Saturday 26 March 2011
On a glorious balmy afternoon, with the mercury hovering around the 25C mark, I sat, iced tea in hand, under the shade of one of the sweeping oak trees that grace the lawns of many of Clarksdale's historic homes. I was waiting for the first of the "porch plays", the highlight of Clarksdale's annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
Williams, who was born exactly a century ago, on 26 March 1911, is the playwright credited with saving American theatre in the 1950s. He spent his formative years in Clarksdale, at the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He lived in the rectory of St George's Episcopal Church at Sharkey Avenue, with his grandfather, who served as rector. It was in Clarksdale that the young Williams mingled with an array of bizarre Southern eccentrics who later morphed into some of his best-known characters: Blanche Du Bois, Big Daddy and Baby Doll.
I had arrived in Clarksdale after a couple of nights at nearby Uncle Henry's Place, overlooking Moon Lake. Concealed in a maze of country back roads, it's a rustic Delta B&B, run by the obligatory Mississippi eccentric. As a child Williams visited Henry's Place with his grandfather, and later referred to it as Moon Lake Casino in many of his plays. More recently, it's attracted the likes of Robert Plant and other rockers in search of the blues.
Clarksdale honours Williams with a festival every October. Actors from all over the South perform scenes from Williams' plays on the front porches of some of the town's most impressive antebellum homes.
The first of these was delayed slightly on my visit when it turned out that the acting partner of the actor Johnny McPhail, from Oxford, Mississippi, had no-showed. With true Southern style, Johnny took a solo turn on the columned porch and entertained us with some spicy Williams monologues.
Then, on a Victorian clapboard porch at a nearby home, some girls from a local high-school drama group each performed a monologue. They were followed by two boys who performed the pivotal scene between Big Daddy and Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. With their lilting, sonorous southern tones, the young actors perfectly captured the spirit of Williams' melodramatic characters.
Finally, as the shadows lengthened on the lawns, Sherrye Williams – who, I was told, is the real Southern deal – gave us some spirited scenes from The Glass Menagerie. Answering questions afterwards, she told us in an intoxicating drawl, laced with unspoken southern innuendo, that "My aunt was Baby Doll, who Tennessee took such liberties with."
The next day I headed south to the city most associated with Williams: New Orleans. I took Highway 61, that most iconic of American roads, which cuts through the heart of the pancake-flat Mississippi Delta, described by Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as "the richest land this side of the Valley Nile".
Crossing the Mississippi river into Louisiana, I followed a small back road to the South's largest surviving plantation home, Nottoway. The producers of Gone with the Wind tried and failed three times to use it as Tara. Recently, it was used in the filming of a long-forgotten Tennessee Williams screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Set in 7,000 acres, this grande dame of plantation homes oozes southern grace and is perfect for a night of Tennessee grandeur. It's separated from the Mississippi only by the levee.
New Orleans is where God-fearing Americans come to forget both God and fearing in equal measures. Instead, they gravitate to Bourbon Street, the French Quarter's best-known focus, which can sometimes seem like a bad night in Benidorm, but with larger, louder revellers.
I was seduced by New Orleans' exotic charms from the moment I set foot on its jazz-infused streets many years ago. This little bit of the Caribbean, laced with an African beat and fused on to mainland America, captivates all who walk its jasmine-scented cobbled lanes and wide, leafy boulevards. It's not difficult to see how Williams was instantly smitten. When he first arrived in 1939, he promptly lost his virginity, commenting later that, "I entered the decadent world of New Orleans and discovered the flexibility of my sexual nature."
Initially, Williams rented a number of sleazy rooms and flop-houses, but I was more fortunate. I stayed in the Tennessee Williams Suite at the stately Hotel Monteleone, the French Quarter's oldest and finest hotel. Williams stayed here with his grandfather – but only after the success of A Streetcar Named Desire. The Monteleone's lobby houses a remarkable little shrine to the literary giants who have graced its rooms, including Faulkner, Hemingway, Eudora Welty and Richard Ford. Most of them drank copious amounts of liquor in the hotel's revolving Carousel Bar, which may have led to Truman Capote's claim to have been born in the hotel. (A slight exaggeration; although his mother was living in the hotel, she actually gave birth in a nearby hospital.)
My literary itinerary continued with Dr Kenneth Holditch's Tennessee Williams tour of New Orleans. Dr Holditch – a professor of literature at the University of New Orleans and a leading Williams scholar – could himself have walked straight out of a Williams play. Apparently he not only knew Williams, but was also at school with Elvis in Memphis. "We call New Orleans 'The City that Care Forgot'," Dr Holditch said, "because we don't care what you do here as long as we can talk about it."
I started Dr Holditch's tour in Jackson Square, where Tennessee Williams' memorial service was held in St Louis Cathedral. The wrought iron balcony of the Ponabella Apartments that flank Jackson Square is the venue for the "Stella" competition. It's one of the most popular events in the oldest Tennessee Williams Festival, held annually during the last weekend in March. Young men imitate Marlon Brando's famous Stella shout from Streetcar, Williams' best-known play. In the interests of gender equality, there is now a "Stanley" competition for women.
Williams lived at 632 St Peter Street while writing Streetcar, and it was the sound of the trams rattling past his home– destination the suburb of Desire – that gave him the idea for the opening scene and the name of the play. He also rented the third floor at 714 Orleans Avenue, now Arcadian Books and Prints, which gave him his favourite view of the cathedral, and later lived at 722 Toulouse Street, which he described as "...a poetic evocation of all the cheap rooming houses in the world". The restored two-storey cottage is now part of the Historic New Orleans Collection Museum.
He ended up buying a home at 1014 Dumaine Street in the quieter top end of the Quarter, drank in the local bars and ate at New Orleans' finest restaurants. One of his favourites was Galatoire's on Bourbon Street, where he would gravitate towards the corner window table. He also enjoyed Arnaud's, with its own private Mardi Gras museum; Antoine's – which bills itself as America's oldest restaurant; and Brennan's, which serves the most artery-clotting breakfast you are ever likely to eat. The waiter Mario had been at Brennan's for over 30 years; he remembered Williams as a "nice guy who dressed in a white suit with bright shirts".
New Orleans is said to possess the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. The Desire streetcar line that used to trundle its way through the Quarter on its way to Elysian Fields is long gone, although there is a surviving streetcar at The Old Mint on Esplanade Avenue.
For the authentic experience, hop on the St Charles streetcar – one of the three surviving lines – at Canal Street. It will take you to the Garden District, reminiscent of a somnolent Deep South of a century ago. The streetcar chugs its way down atmospheric St Charles Avenue, a wide, leafy boulevard studded with dazzling mansions.
Mark Twain once said that Garden District homes were "painted snowy white ... and have wide or double verandahs ... no houses could well be in better harmony with their surroundings, or more pleasing to the eye". The description holds true today.
In fact, the Garden District is awash with literary landmarks. Williams modelled the stage setting for Suddenly Last Summer after the garden room at Bultman House, a stately mansion at 1525 Louisiana. F Scott Fitzgerald began This Side of Paradise at 2900 Pytrania Street, which overlooks Lafayette Cemetery. The novelist Walter Percy said that even Lafayette's tombs were "modest duplexes".
On my last afternoon, I tracked down an old poker-playing buddy of Williams, Joan Good, at her antique and jewellery store on classy Royal Street. "It's not me that you want to speak to but Victor," she told me. And, on cue, Victor emerged from the dark bowels of the store. At 62, he was still a strikingly good-looking chap; back in the day, must have broken many a young gentleman's heart.
"I was Tennessee's last lover," he told me with pride before recounting how Williams had picked him up in a Florida motel when he was 21 and Williams was 59 and brought him to New Orleans in 1972. He showed me a letter from Williams starting "Vic Babe" and some photos of the two of them in London, and played me some recordings of Williams reading his own poems. Later I found out that Williams used to refer to Vic as "My Mary Poppins".
As I strolled across Jackson Square to the Market Café, as Williams would do each morning for his coffee and beignets, it started to rain and I remembered Blanche's wistful line from Streetcar. "Don't you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?" Yes, I think I do Blanche.
Travel essentials: Deep South
* America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) offers 10-night fly-drives from £1,165 per person with flights from London to Memphis returning from New Orleans, car hire, two nights in Memphis, two nights in Clarksdale, one night at the Monmouth Plantation and four nights in New Orleans.
* No airline flies direct from the UK to either Memphis or New Orleans; connections are available on Continental (0845 607 6760; continental.com), BA/AA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com)
* Kenneth Holditch tours (001 504 949 9805; firstname.lastname@example.org).
* New Orleans Tourist Office: 020-8460 8473; neworleanscvb.com
* Deep South USA: 01462 440787; deep-south-usa.com
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