Kenneth Holditch is a Professor Emeritus at the University of New Orleans and has written extensively on Tennessee Williams. He is the co-editor of the two-volume Library of America collection of Williams’ works, and edited the Tennessee Williams Journal. He has co-authored the books The World of Tennessee Williams and Tennessee Williams and the South. In 1974 he began giving literary walking tours of New Orleans’ French Quarter, covering the homes and haunts of over sixty authors who have left their mark on the city. He created the Tennessee Williams French Quarter walking tour, now a staple of the Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans literary festival.
Here he speaks to Cerith Mathias at the 27th festival – a four day feast of all things Williams held annually in the playwright’s beloved Bohemia.
I was one of the founders of the Tennessee Williams festival. When the festival started, they suggested that we do a Tennessee Williams walking tour. By that time, Tennessee had passed. I wouldn’t have wanted to do the tour while he was still alive, I didn’t want to bring people by his house and say ‘this is where Tennessee Williams lives’ and have him standing there on the balcony.
I first met Tennessee in January 1978. We met at Marti’s restaurant in the Quarter, which is no longer open. He asked me about prices for property in the Quarter, he was looking to buy. He said to me that he liked to buy up property ‘like a wise old fox’. After this we corresponded and saw each other when the opportunity arose.
Tennessee Williams first came to New Orleans in December of 1938, and he lived on Toulouse Street; the play Vieux Carre is set in that period. He lived in a variety of places in the Quarter. People always want me to tell them exactly what he wrote where, but you never can tell because he was writing all the time. He carried bundles of manuscripts with him… suitcases of manuscripts, working on a number of plays at the same time; and continuing to work on plays. A few years before he died he was revising A Streetcar Named Desire.
He was a restless soul. He’d never stay in any place for very long. Sometimes a week, sometimes a few months – and then he was off. He describes in Orpheus Descending (1957) those little birds that have no legs, so they can’t land – they keep flying; so his friends, (well, Gore Vidal and a couple of others), referred to him as the ‘fabulous bird’. And so he kept moving, he kept flying from one place to another. He would decide sometimes in the middle of the night to get up the next morning and go to Italy or wherever. Though he said, ‘My passport is permanently stamped Bohemia. I may slip over to the other side briefly, but I always come scuttling back.’
He came to love New Orleans and wrote about it with great affection. He put New Orleans on the literary map of the world with A Streetcar Named Desire. The streetcars and the Cathedral bells – people all over the world who have never been to New Orleans know about them because Tennessee wrote about them. Blanche says in Streetcar: ‘They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.’ (All genuine New Orleans place names). Tennessee saw this as the perfect metaphor for the human condition.
Tennessee was a religious, spiritual person reared in the Episcopal Church. His brother, Dakin, converted to Catholicism and, when Tennessee was in the Barnes Hospital for a problem with prescription drugs, Dakin had him baptised as a Roman Catholic. Tennessee said it ‘didn’t take’ when he was asked about it. But he’s buried in a Catholic cemetery in St Louis. He had always said he wanted to be buried at sea.
He said he hoped he died in New Orleans when his time came; this unfortunately was not the case. (He died in the Hotel Elysée in New York). He loved the restaurants, he loved the bars, he loved the characters. Some real characters hung around the French Quarter then. There was the woman who pulled the wagon with the statue of the infant Jesus in it and everybody thought she was just a down and out. I forget now how many thousands of dollars she left behind. Then there was Ruthie the duck girl who walked through the Quarter for years followed by a duck, and for a long time she wore an old wedding gown too. Tennessee said if Ruthie was in Los Angeles, they’d have somebody analyse her, if she was in New York, they’d lock her up, but in New Orleans they cherish her. He loved this city and he did it proud, and I like to think that when you wander around the streets of New Orleans you’ll bump into him turning a corner, or see his shadow passing by.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis