New Orleanian-at-heart Tennessee Williams carved his name in the annals of American Literature decades ago. Undoubtedly, Williams felt a deep connection with New Orleans, drawing inspiration from it for numerous works including the famous A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Rose Tattoo, starring a Sicilian New Orleanian protagonist. New Orleans even hosts a festival, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 25 to 29), in his honor.
All of this information begs a question each of our citizens has already answered for themselves – What is it about this town that keeps us all bewitched? Examining only Williams’s work would be as fruitless as a botanist studying petals but not roots. So what did keep him coming back all the years of his life? Did he see what we see? Love what we love? To answer this, counsel was very necessary – cue Kenneth Holditch, author of Tennessee Williams in the South, an expert on, and friend of, the deceased icon.
Holditch paints Williams as a genteel, romantic man with a penchant for characters and kindness. Holditch speaks of Williams’s local residences, including Williams’ first apartment on Toulouse Street in the late 1930s; Williams found charm in the antiquated shabbiness of his shelter, Holditch says. (Now a tad fancier, the residence has been absorbed by the Historic New Orleans Collection and is part of the museum.)
Williams also drew inspiration while living at 623 St. Peters St.; this was the apartment from which he heard the “rattle trap streetcar” running the Desire line.
Sadly, he didn’t feel as warm and fuzzy about his Garden District pad, a sentiment relayed by Holditch and evidenced by the antagonists in his play Suddenly, Last Summer. Williams had a distaste for what he saw as hollow social climbing amongst New Orleans’ elite.
In Great American Writers, author Robert Shuman relays Williams’s words, that the theme underlying his work was “the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, nonconformist individual.” While perfectly at home in the role of Southern Gentleman, Williams seemed to prefer the company of “real” folks. If he could give the Garden District’s neighboring ’hood, Uptown, another shot, he might find he’s not alone in his reverence for the avant garde.
The Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street is one such place. Bursting with zany characters, The Leaf, as it’s lovingly (or lazily) known, is the headquarters of the über festive Krewe of Oak as well as another secret krewe of free-spirited party animals.
The bar was established in 1974, before Williams’s death. Though not known to be a regular Williams hangout, The Leaf has characteristics that could have put it in the running: architectural history, a peaceful garden patio, a famous pressed-tin ceiling and, most importantly, a rotating cast of nutty locals. Holditch says Williams didn’t care for crowds – meaning no Rebirth Brass Band Tuesdays – but, during less crowded times, when large, occasionally puffy, dogs shuffle through the bar, one can find themselves at home as an addition to the regular characters.
A twisted sister of the Maple Leaf, Le Bon Temps on Magazine Street is also a beacon for festive locals, any of whom would certainly be willing to regale Williams with a tale of his choosing.
However, away from the peacefulness of Uptown, Williams felt most at home. (Holditch, in The Last Frontier of Bohemia, writes that it was our dear French Quarter that turned Williams from a “proper young man” into “a Bohemian, wearing a sport shirt and sandals on his way to California with a clarinet player in a decrepit Chevy.”)
Even when visiting but not in residence, Williams liked to stay in the Quarter at The Maison de Ville (when room No. 9 was available, Holditch says) and the Hotel Monteleone.
The then-64-room hotel was purchased by Sicilian cobbler Antonio Monteleone in 1886. Hotel Monteleone (known as The Commercial Hotel until 1908) has remained a Monteleone family endeavor since it’s establishment.
By the time Tennessee Williams arrived in New Orleans, the hotel had bloomed to over 550 rooms; however, in 1954, the entire building was razed and redone. Now, filling almost a whole city block, the Monteleone has 600 rooms (including suites, guest rooms and parlors) and houses a hip hotel bar.
The Carousel Bar celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2009, a testament to the city’s affection for this ornate watering hole. The blue velvet firmament over the bar twinkles with lights modeled after constellations; visitors watching carefully will even see an occasional shooting star dash across the sky. Chairs rotate alongside the bar – thanks to many ball-bearings – and each seat has a back hand-painted by a local artist. Like many of Williams’s favorite watering holes, The Carousel Bar features live jazz. Monteleone staffer says John Autin, keeper of the regular gig, plays on a piano bought for, and played by, the one and only Liberachi.
Unfortunately, by 1978 Williams had become crestfallen over the ‘sleaze’ that had enveloped the French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street. With one very historic exception: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
Jack Stevens, proprietor and St. Bernard Parish sheriff, has owned Lafitte’s for 16 years, says bartender Tim Worall, but the history goes way, way back. Lafitte’s was placed on the National Park Service’s list of National Historic Landmarks in April 1970. The house, at 941 Bourbon St., is cited as “an excellent example of a French Colonial Louis XV townhouse of briquete-entre-poteaux construction.”
More notably perhaps – at least as legends go – the 288-year-old building was erected by the brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte. A pair of pirates, Jean and Pierre are rumored to have used Lafitte’s as a front for illegal business, including “black ivory” (aka slave) trade. The nefarious but intriguing lore, along with the divine piano playing of Miss Lily Hood (post-1971), drew Williams to Lafitte’s regularly, Holditch says.
Today, Lafitte’s continues to harbor the rollicking spirit it had in Williams’s day. There’s still music on the piano at 9 p.m. nightly, with Mike Hood (who may or not be related to Miss Lily) playing regular gigs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The space is still dim and intimate, bubbling with locals in-the-know and well-informed tourists alike. And, of course, the cocktails are still strong.
The signature drinks at Lafitte’s are the Hurricane and the Voodoo Daiquiri, the latter of which is a frozen, grape-flavored tongue-loosener fueled with robust doses of Bourbon and Everclear. (Any concerns raised to the drinker of the Voodoo Daiquiri can be addressed with the phrase, “I’ve been drinkin’ the purple.”)
Fair enough, Williams probably sipped more Ramos Gin Fizzes than purple whoop-ass daiquiris, but that doesn’t matter so much. What is important is to connect Tennessee Williams’s experiences in New Orleans with how he described the city. His was a resplendent New Orleans where characters cavorted in luminous Technicolor, where residents reveled then, as now, in splendid isolation at home amongst misfits.
Carousel Bar, Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St., 523-3341
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, 941 Bourbon St., 593-9731
Le Bon Temps Roule, 4801 Magazine St., 895-8117
The Maison de Ville, 727 Toulouse St., 561-9213
The Maple Leaf, 8316 Oak St., 866-9359