Everywhere Else is Cleveland: Tennessee Williams's New Orleans
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?
Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
New Orleans is a writers’ city. Many of America’s greatest authors have found it to be a temporary home, including Tennessee Williams. Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams, was a prolific writer known best for his plays, most famously The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the New Orleans-based Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams was born in Mississippi. True to his Southern roots, he later adopted the penname Tennessee, rumored to either be an homage to his father’s birthplace or a fraternity nickname prompted by Williams’s Southern drawl. In 1938, after achieving mild success as a playwright and receiving a Rockefeller grant in recognition of his play Battle of Angels, Williams moved to New Orleans to write for the Works Progress Administration, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies.
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After a brief stay on Royal, he lived at 722 Toulouse St., the setting of his play Vieux Carré, an autobiographical account of his life in New Orleans. The building is now part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire are also set in New Orleans, in the Garden District and Fabourg Marigny, respectively.
The influence New Orleans had on Williams is evident in his plays and his personal life. He lived there on and off throughout his life, buying a house at 1014 Dumaine St. in 1962. In his memoirs, he refers to the house, saying, “I hope to die in my sleep… in this beautiful big brass bed in my New Orleans apartment, the bed that is associated with so much love…” While he did not get his wish, instead dying in New York City from choking on a bottle cap in 1983, New Orleans lives on in his writing.
Though the actual streetcar named Desire was discontinued in 1948, the same year the play received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, many of the places Williams frequented are still relevant today. Williams was a regular at Galatoire’s. His favorite table was the one in the corner by the window. Like Hemingway and Faulkner, who Williams cited as influences, Williams stayed occasionally at the Hotel Monteleone and imbibed at the Carousel Bar.
Williams was a New Orleanian at heart. He lived all over the world, but he said himself, “If I can be said to have a home, it is New Orleans.” The city lives and breathes in his work. His writings and the city are filled with the same notes of vibrancy, sensuality, and tragic beauty.
This weekend, you can see Williams brought to life at the Tennessee Williams Festival. The festival celebrates Williams as well as literary New Orleans at large with play readings, panels, and lectures. Scream “Stella!” at Jackson Square and listen to the streetcar run down the tracks.
Anna Shults is associate editor of NolaVie.