William Spratling, William Faulkner and Other Famous Creoles(*)

Article excerpt

WHEN WILLIAM SPRATLING FIRST ARRIVED IN NEW ORLEANS in 1921 or 1922 (the date varies depending on whose account you read), he became a pioneer in the resettlement of the French Quarter, which in the late nineteenth century had deteriorated. Except for a few isolated pockets of preservation, the area was little more than a slum, albeit a romantic one, when the young artist moved there from Alabama, where he had completed his studies in architecture at Auburn and worked for a while as a draughtsman in Birmingham. A native of New York state, he had come South as a child to live with his grandfather in Alabama following the deaths of his parents. When he moved to New Orleans it was to take a position as instructor of architecture at Tulane.

In 1927, reporter Frederick Oeschner (later to appear in Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, the collection of Spratling's caricatures for which William Faulkner provided the text(1)) wrote that Spratling was "one of the oldest inhabitants of the Vieux Carre in point of duration of residence," since his 624 Orleans Alley apartment "was a settled nook before some of the places now considered established had crept from the dust of their long sleep" (HNOC). The seven-by-thirteen block Frenchtown became a home for hundreds of artists, writers, and musicians, drawn there by its Bohemian atmosphere and attitudes, its low-rent apartments in beautiful buildings, its wonderful food, and liquor that flowed fairly freely, despite the constraints of Prohibition that had dried up much of the rest of the country. Within that small Bohemian enclave, they created a world of their own, for, as another reporter asserted at the time, "There is something about the French Quarter that makes the whole world kin" (HNOC). Some of them began to restore old, long-neglected buildings or, at least, to refurbish their own apartments or rooms into work and living spaces. Lyle Saxon, a member of that circle, wrote in his "What's Doing" column in the New Orleans Picayune for October 25, 1925, that "Artists in the Vieux Carre are like homing pigeons. They come sailing back from the far corners of the earth when the leaves begin to fall in Jackson Square."

Spratling's second-floor apartment, located in what is now known as Pirate's Alley, was in a building facing the garden of St. Louis Cathedral. The owner of the building was Natalie Scott, another "Famous Creole," whom Spratling credited with having "integrated" him into life in the Quarter. Both Spratling and Scott, enchanted by the old houses of the French Quarter and of South Louisiana in general, were supporters of preservation. Together they produced a book, Plantation Houses of Louisiana, for which she wrote the text and he supplied the drawings. Another artist and "Famous Creole," Caroline Durieux, introduced Spratling to Sherwood and Elizabeth Anderson. In the 1930s, Elizabeth Anderson, Durieux, and Scott would follow Spratling to Taxco and become part of his community there.

In the Pirate's Alley apartment, Spratling employed a woman named Leonore, soon rechristened "Eleanora" by William Faulkner, to wash clothes and to prepare for him and his many guests such New Orleans specialties, he recalled four decades later, as "shrimp poulette, soft-shell crabs and a very fine gumbo."(2) She cleaned his apartment as well as the rooms downstairs later shared by William Faulkner and Louis Piper, who worked for a local newspaper. Oliver LaFarge, a professor at Tulane, "Famous Creole," and later a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, also shared cooking expenses and dined with them there.

By the time Faulkner settled into the Quarter, Spratling was well established as a mover and shaker of the artistic and social life there, drawing to himself a wide variety of people, not only the Quarter Bohemians but also professors such as Franz Blom, the distinguished anthropologist, who was at the time a professor at Tulane. Although he was three years older than Spratling, William Faulkner seems to have looked up to the artist--no pun intended--praising him in "Out of Nazareth," included in the New Orleans Sketches, as one "whose hand has been shaped to a brash as mine has (alas! …