New Orleans: Letters from Tennessee Williams

Humanities, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

New Orleans: Letters from Tennessee Williams


IN DECEMBER OF 1938, twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Lanier Williams left St. Louis for New Orleans. En route, he stopped in Memphis to visit his grandparents and to send several plays to New York to the Group Theatre's contest for young writers. He subtracted three years from his age and signed his work "Tennessee Williams." His early days in New Orleans provided background for Vieux Carre, and there are echoes of his landlady, the redoubtable Mrs. Anderson, in A Streetcar Named Desire. In February 1939, just after Mardi Gras, the peripatetic Williams left New Orleans on a pilgrimage to the West Coast.

431 ROYAL STREET

PM: NEW ORLEANS, DECEMBER 29, 1938

Dear Mother:

This is the most fascinating place I've ever been. Arrived late last night & spent morning finding room - very scarce on account of Sugar Bowl game. I am situated for a week at 431 Royal Street. Letter soon.

Tom.

431 ROYAL STREET

MONDAY JAN.2 [1939]

Dear Mother:

The city has been wild with the football and sport carnival crowd - the big game was today so they will be gone tomorrow. I rented a room here in a cheap but clean hotel for four dollars a week. He would give me a month for twelve dollars - but I think I will find something better for that price soon as the crowd is gone.

The Lippmann's friends have been lovely to me. They invited me to a New Year's Eve party which lasted till day-break and traveled through about half-a-dozen different homes or studios and I met most of the important artists and writers. They are all very friendly and gracious. Roark Bradford, famous author of negro literature, and LyIe Saxon, who wrote Fabulous New Orleans, both live in the Quarter and I am promised introductions to them. I met Mr. Ashton, director of the WPA theater. Their program will be open after the first of March and so could use some of my plays. I'm going to submit Fugitive Kind soon as I've made a few changes. They have a swell theater, large as the American in St. Louis, and their plays run for a week or more - but apparently they lack good material as the play I saw was quite feeble in plot.

I'm crazy about the city. I walk continually, there is so much to see. The weather is balmy, today like early summer. I have no heat in my room - none is needed. The Quarter is really quainter than anything I've seen abroad - in many homes the original atmosphere is completely preserved. Today being a holiday, I visited Audubon Park which is lovelier than I could describe, blooming like summer with Palm Trees and live-oaks garlanded with Spanish Moss beautifully laid-out. Also visited the batture-dwellers (squatters) along the river, and, for contrast, the fine residential district and the two universities, Loyola and Tulane. The latter appears to be a splendid school - it was closed today so I'm going to make another visit. The Quarter is alive with antique and curio shops where some really artistic stuff is on sale, relics of Creole homes that have gone to the block. I was invited to dinner Sunday by some people who own a large antique store. Their home is a regular treasure chest of precious objects.

Food is amazingly cheap. I get breakfast at the French market for a dime. Lunch and dinner amount to about fifty cents at a good cafeteria near Canal Street. And the cooking is the best I've encountered away from home. Raw oysters, twenty cents a dozen! Shrimp, crab, lobster, and all kinds of fish - I have a passion for sea-food which makes their abundance a great joy.

The court-yards are full of palms, vines and flowering poinsetta, many with fountains and wells, and all with grill-work, balconies, and little winding stairs. It is heaven for painters and you see them working everywhere. Mr. and Mrs. Heldner (Alice Lippmann's friends) say that if I get desperate I can earn bread as a model - but I trust something better will turn up. The Heldners live in two rooms with a baby girl - he is brilliant and very good-hearted. …

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