Bewitched by the Big Easy: Tennessee Williams and New Orleans

Anne Siegel, Contributing writer

To walk around the French Quarter today, it is impossible to believe that New York literary types once sniffed that New Orleans was a “cultural swamp.”

OK, that was almost a century ago. But still, writers and artists have flocked here since before the Civil War. Yet the writers we know best came for inspiration long afterward: Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what makes New Orleans unique. According to local historian Kenneth Holditch: “People came here by desire, ready to seduce, to be seduced.”

Perhaps the most “seduced” of them all was Tennessee Williams. He is as revered in New Orleans as Aaron Rodgers is in Wisconsin. Williams wrote novels, poems and short stories, but his best-known works are plays such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He is widely considered one of the foremost playwrights of the 20th century. 

Williams was a prominent figure in New Orleans for most of his adult life. He rented many apartments throughout the French Quarter. He also owned his only home here, which is located on one of the quieter streets.

A Glimpse into Tennessee Williams’ Past

As with most of the homes located in the wrought-iron-adorned French Quarter, Williams’ home is relatively unimpressive from the outside. Only when one passes through the iron gate and walks into the courtyard, can one fully appreciate its charm. 

There are more wrought-iron balconies inside the courtyard, of course, and the exterior walls are painted in pale, sandblasted colors of yellow and peach. During a visit in March, there was only a hint of the lush foliage that was to come later in the season. An assortment of iron baskets on one exterior concrete wall, containing dried-out twigs, promised to bloom into an overflowing riot of colorful blossoms come summer. 

The glistening, bean-shaped pool looked inviting on this 80-degree day, as gardeners trimmed the palms and other plants. People still live in these apartments, even the one Williams called home. 

The complex was open as part of a walking tour of Tennessee Williams’ haunts, held in conjunction with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, a five-day celebration of Williams and other American writers. 

Williams never got used to owning such a large space, ultimately splitting the house into apartments and renting out most of them. Sadly, he didn’t spend much time in the house before his death, but it is remembered that he loved the swimming pool, and swam in it almost every day. 

Our tour guide, a jovial, handsome man named Phillip, saw Williams often when the famous playwright was in town. That’s because he was among Williams’ favorite waiters at Marti’s, a restaurant located down the street from his house. Phillip took the small group inside the restaurant and pointed out where Tennessee Williams preferred to sit — at a booth in the corner. The booth was part of a raised section in the restaurant, and it held a commanding view of the entire place. The small restaurant had perhaps 25 tables.

Phillip was 20ish during his time at Marti’s, about the same age as Williams was when he first journeyed to New Orleans from St. Louis. Phillip, who has studied Williams’ history, noted that the first place Williams stayed during his initial visit was a back hallway behind Preservation Hall, the famous jazz band hall in the French Quarter that packs in tourists every night. Williams camped out with friends for a few nights before he found better quarters.

Even when he became famous, Williams preferred to keep a quiet presence in New Orleans. Philip noted that he refused any preferential treatment at Marti’s or elsewhere, recalling a story of how Williams once stopped going to a bar in the French Quarter because the owner refused to charge him for drinks. He kept conversation with the staff to a minimum. If his regular booth was taken, he would sit at any open table, with as little fuss as possible.

Dining In Southern Style 

Unable to resist Tennessee Williams’ “favorite” restaurant, (or at least, the closest to his house), I gathered a group of colleagues to get dinner at the bistro. No reviews were formally written, but the critics’ unofficial opinion was a universal thumbs-up.

I selected one of the more modestly priced entrees, trout amandine with green beans ($28), and bread pudding with a tiny white pitcher of rum crème anglaise ($10). Both proved to be excellent options. The pudding came baked in its own mini-bread pan, and was meant for two — but the other half served as delicious leftovers the next day.

Alcoholic drinks throughout the touristy French Quarter tend to be pricey. At a top-tier restaurant, specialty cocktails run $14 to $17; wines (by the glass) are about the same price. If you are looking for a bargain, Bourbon Street (i.e., party central) draws afternoon bar flies with 2-for-1 or even 3-for-1 specials. 

Do give regional spirits a try, even if your favorite pour is beer or wine. Many are as fruity as they are potent. Options range from hurricanes and sazaracs (both invented in New Orleans) to “Red Lights” and the gin-and-Champagne cocktail the “French 75.”

Here’s a fact to make Wisconsin bar owners drool: In the French Quarter, bars are allowed to be open 24/7. If one over-imbibes, there are regular cabs and bicycle-powered rickshaws to take partygoers to their hotel.

Playwright, Poet — and Painter?

For the next month, a trip to New Orleans also offers the opportunity to see a different side of Tennessee Williams as an artist. Williams became an amateur painter later in life. Many of his paintings were created after he moved to Key West, where his oils on canvas were so popular with locals there they would buy them before the paint was dry.

It’s from Key West that New Orleans is temporarily getting a rare collection of Williams’ paintings. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art is featuring an exhibit of paintings given by Williams to his friend David Wokowsky, on loan from the Key West Historical Society, through May 31.

Williams’ paintings are colorful, whimsical and fluid. They are often titled after the names of his poems. Williams also painted naked images of his male “ideal,” as well as a fairly realistic portrait of the actor Michael York. 

There is much of Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans to see year-round. Bronze plaques throughout the French Quarter pay tribute to the places he and other famous writers, playwrights and musicians stayed and hung out. 

For those who can’t get enough of the Williams’ allure, however, check out the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Williams wrote a mountain of work during his adult life, so there’s no chance of running out of new and undiscovered treasures of his talent.

IF YOU GO 

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival runs every spring and celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016. Visit tennesseewilliams.net or call 800-990-3377 for more details.

This year TW/NOLF co-produced an LGBT literary festival, Saints + Sinners, with the NO/AIDS Task Force of New Orleans. Visit sasfest.org for more information.

Marti’s can be found at 1041 Rue Dumaine, New Orleans. Reservations suggested. Call 504-522-5478 or visit martisnola.com.

Literary tours of Tennessee Williams’ haunts, as well as those of other famous authors, can be scheduled by private groups of 20 or more. A two-hour tour is about $25. Many other tours of the French Quarter, Garden District, etc., are offered daily (and some evenings). Contact the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau at 504-566-5011 or neworleanscvb.com.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art is at 925 Camp St., about a 20-minute walk from the French Quarter. Admission is $12.50, $10 for seniors, students and those with a military ID. Visit ogdenmuseum.org for more details.

— Anne Siegel