Legends of Dakin Williams
When the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival was first being planned someone advised the fledgling festival’s board not to invite the playwright’s brother to the event. “He’s as crazy as a loon,” the person proclaimed.
Fortunately, loons are able to fly and Williams’ brother began coming to the festival on his own. The more accurate ornithological analogy would be that he was a flamboyant as a peacock.
This weekend was the 33rd annual festival. Dakin died in 2008 but his daughter Francesca was there, as she has been for the last several years serving as a judge in the festival’s now world famous “Stella” shouting contest.
Her father was a colorful character who managed to radiate even though he lived his life in his brother’s shadow. Each spring he and his entourage would come to New Orleans, eventually as invited and honored guests of the festival. While here he would spend lavishly, quite often on dinners he hosted at various French Quarter restaurants at which the guest list might include just about anyone he happened to meet that day.
At the festival he would be on panels and sometimes perform recitals of passages from his brothers’ work delivered with the passion of a man who had grown up with his sibling’s words echoing in his brain.
As the sole survivor of the immediate Williams family, Dakin was a man on a mission, the most important being to convince the world that his brother had not died from suffocation when a medicine bottle cap became lodged in his throat (as the New York coroner had concluded) but rather was murdered. The crime, as he saw it, was linked to the control of his brother’s works and wealth.
Because of the conspiracy, Dakin saw himself as a threatened man and thus would travel with an entourage that usually numbered about five people, including a former cop who was also his driver.
(One member of the group had grown up in Memphis. His dad was an insurance agent who specialized in the needs of musicians. Among his clients was Elvis, who would make special arrangements to visit his dad’s office on Sundays so as to avoid crazed fans. “I was a little kid back then,” the group member once recalled over dinner. “While my dad would work on the insurance papers Elvis would love to wrestle with me. He was really a big kid at heart. As I was growing up I would be invited to Graceland but I could see the drug scene developing there and I got angry at Elvis, so I started staying away.”)
It typified the characters in Dakin’s delegation that it would include a former Elvis wrestler.
One year an opera version of “Streetcar Named Desire” premiered at the same time as the festival. The event was preceded by an elegant patron’s party at which very proper New Orleanians gathered. When the speech-making began Dakin was called to address the crowd. It might have been hoped that he would merely deliver his best wishes but no, not Dakin. While promoters winced, he climbed on top of a table from which he launched again into the tale of his brother’s murder.
Some thought his comments to be inappropriate. But then what is opera about if not intrigue and violence? No fat lady ever sang with as much enthusiasm as did Dakin when he began giving names of the alleged conspirators.
Dakin missed the 2007 and 2008 festivals. His stage by then was a nursing home near St. Louis. He died May 20, 2008. People will remember his Versace purple jacket or chuckle about his occasion playful cross-dressing when he recited from Blanche DuBois. I will remember him most for a moment that occurred during an early festival. It happened on the small stage at Le Petite Theatre and it was a pivotal moment in Tennessee Williams scholarship.
Many of the playwright’s personal friends had been angry at Dakin’s decision to bury his brother in St. Louis (a town that he despised) rather than the places he frequented including New Orleans or Key West.
As a panelist on the “I Remember Tennessee” panel, Dakin the peacock was flanked by wolves. After some forced polite banter the question was asked. Why St. Louis? “Because that is where his family is,” Dakin answered. “He’s buried next to his mother and his sister. He is with his family.” There was a moment of silence than one panelist, a close friend of Tennessee's, spoke out, “You know, he’s right.’ In that instant a delicate issue was, if not satisfied, at least resolved. From then on Dakin seemed accepted into the Pantheon of those deemed worthy to speak about his brother.
By his continued presence Dakin legitimized the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s link to the playwright and helped launch the events international ascendancy to one of the top festivals of its kind.
Just as they did about his older brother, people will have stories to tell about Dakin. The only regret is that there is no third brother to carry on the legacy. For the Williams family of St. Louis, Missouri, the final scene has ended.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.