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Silver Threads: Me and Tennessee

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

The only time I ever saw Tennessee Williams was about 40 years ago in the old Marti’s on Rampart Street.

He was hard to spot; I think that the person with whom I was eating in the restaurant pointed him out. I approached, and scared him half to death by asking for an autograph. But he wrote on a menu cover anyway, “To Bettye, Luck! Tennessee Williams."

I later bought a Christopher Harris photograph of the playwright frolicking with the pigeons in Jackson Square, the cathedral and Andrew Jackson’s statue behind him. When Williams died in ’83, I retrieved the slightly crumpled menu from a dresser drawer, had it framed and hung both on a prominent wall in our house.

Tennessee’s autograph was one of only two that I’ve asked for over the years. The first was acquired in 1957 at a press conference on the Tupelo, Miss., fairgrounds before a performance by Elvis Presley. I was covering it for the Jackson Daily News, and after the interview I requested the autograph “for my little sister.” She has it to this day, so Elvis was off base when he memorably said — rather patronizingly, I thought — “I’ll bet.”

My Truman Capote's “autograph” came in response to a note I sent him during a flight from New York to New Orleans. He and Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwell, paraded past my bulkhead tourist seat to first class and I sent up a States-Item card and a request for a short interview when we landed. It came back with a “sorry, this is a private visit” and his signature. But columnist Betty Guillaud tracked them down the next day anyhow.

'The Glass Menagerie' catapulted Tennessee Williams to fame; catch it (with Curtis Billings and Annalee Jefferies) during the annual festival at Le Petit Theatre (Photo: Brian Jarreau)

But I digress. The 30th annual Tennessee Williams Festival opens here today, running through Sunday, and you can find out all you need to know about being there by googling “Tennessee Williams Festival/New Orleans.” The schedule is waaaay too full for me to go into here, but I need to tell you that you can catch a performance of Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at 7:30 Thursday night at Le Petit Theatre, or take in a 3:00 PM Sunday matinee there. That one is my favorite Williams work.

Quoting from Wikipedia, The Glass Menagerie is a four-character memory play by Tennessee Williams that premiered in 1944 and catapulted him from obscurity to fame. The play has strong autobiographical elements, featuring characters based on Williams himself, his histrionic mother, and his mentally fragile sister, Laura.

“The play premiered in Chicago in 1944. After a shaky start it was championed by Chicago critics whose enthusiasm helped build audiences so the producers could move the play to Broadway where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945.” I’ve got good taste in plays, haven’t I?

My second favorite of Tennessee’s plays is, of course, A Streetcar Named Desire. I think I’ve only ever seen the movie, which starred as you probably remember Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter. Everyone remembers the scene in which Brando wails and shouts for his wife to come down the stairs outside their French Quarter apartment; it will be recreated at the  "Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest" at 4:15 PM on Sunday at Jackson Square.

If you’re able to get off work and can take in more than the nighttime and weekend events, these are a few of the celebrities you’ll meet at festival workshops and discussions:

  • Rick Bragg, author of Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, All Over But the Shoutin' and My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South
  • Billy Cannon, Heisman Trophy winner and former LSU football player
  • Dick Cavett, Emmy-winning broadcaster who interviewed Tennessee Williams
  • Beth Henley, Pulizer-winning playwright for Crimes of the Heart
  • John Lahr, senior drama critic at The New Yorker and author of the biography Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
  • Estelle Parsons, Oscar winner who played Mother Bev in Roseanne and performed in Williams' The Seven Descents of Myrtle

Maybe you’ll want to get some autographs for yourself.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]