By Mimi Read
Sitting quietly at the nether boundary of a boisterous cocktail party, one writer beheld the throng of Southerners in evening plumage, holding glittering champagne flutes and conversations to match. He shook his head slowly.
"Excuse me while I marvel at the social energy these people have," said the writer, who wore an elegant jacket with a telltale pen in its pocket.
"Is it always like this in New Orleans?" he asked.
It is, I allowed.
But things get especially lively during the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, a renowned yet intimate affair held annually during the soft days of early March.
Now approaching its 12th year, the five-day rite celebrates one of America's most illustrious playwrights, and all the literary arts. Writers, scholars, actors, and fans descend on the city that Williams called his "spiritual home."
The program varies from year to year, but the mood—unpretentious, buoyant, intermittently profound—is reliable. If some literary gatherings are about scoring professional connections and others are about buffing manuscripts, the so-called "Weekend Named Desire" is hedonistic. People come to revel in spontaneous literary talk—that vaporous, volatile essence most apt to be released when writers collide.
Last year, while plunging into panels and soirées headquartered at the French Quarter's Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, I rubbed elbows with Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Andrei Codrescu, the poet and National Public Radio commentator who will say anything, as long as it's contrary, sidelong, and surreal; and Alec Baldwin, the thinking woman's heartthrob (so what if she's not thinking that hard).
Several, shall we say, quirky souls also showed up, none quirkier than Dakin Williams, Tennessee's crazy-eyed 79-year-old brother, whose fashion statements included ruby and emerald crucifixes and a royal purple sports coat. As I sipped wine with him at the opening night bash, he broke into Blanche DuBois monologues, delivered in a raving falsetto. In a more official capacity, he sat on panels and gave a dramatic reading of his brother's poetry. Between events, I noticed him carousing at Antoine's and Galatoire's with mesmerized entourages.
"I've accumulated a lot of friends through the festival," said Dakin, who gallantly footed prodigal restaurant bills with money that he claimed came from auctioning the letters of his sister, Rose, the inspiration for Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. "Found them in a box in the basement," he whooped. "Columbia University bought 'em. I find letters with regularity and some people—heh, heh—suspect me of forging them."
For nearly two hours one morning, I joined a French Quarter walking tour led by Williams expert W. Kenneth Holditch, a professor emeritus of literature at the University of New Orleans and, incidentally, a Tennessee look-alike. (This phenomenon builds like tropical fever; by the last day, everyone resembles Tennessee.) Williams once described himself as a restless bird: he never stayed anywhere long. But he did attach himself to New Orleans for significant periods. An engaging narrator equipped with a vast fund of biographical trivia, Holditch pointed out apartments where Williams existed on scant means and borrowed cigarettes, truly depending on the kindness of strangers.
Interesting insights emerged. Walking past the Quarter's now-touristy and cleanly renovated façades, Holditch theorized that Williams's tender portrait of a New Orleans steeped in elemental romance and lyrical decay continues to form popular conceptions of the city. Before A Streetcar Named Desire was written, he said, people took their images from the turn-of-the-century writer George Washington Cable. After Streetcar, Williams's version became the reigning myth.
The city also helped invent him. "Tennessee came here in 1938 wearing a suit and tie and proper shoes, as befitted the grandson of an Episcopalian minister," Holditch said. "When he left a few weeks later, he was wearing open-toed sandals and a shirt unbuttoned to the waist."
Speaking of dramatic transformations, the festival offered 10 theatrical performances. The glaring hole in the festival was the lack of a fresh production—indeed any production at all—of a major Williams play.
But there was the Alec Baldwin stage performance—preceded, of course, by a cloud of schoolgirlish excitement. This was the first time any big-deal Hollywood celebrity had been brought in for the festival. I had misgivings: What was the point of having a glamour boy around?
But Baldwin in person is powerfully winning and witty. (Anyway, didn't Williams always make time for glamour boys?) And there is a legitimate spiritual connection: in 1992, the actor played Stanley Kowalski on Broadway. "It was the greatest experience of my professional life," he said.
One morning Baldwin, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, stood behind a podium and gave a beautiful, unadorned two-hour reading. Most of his selections derived from a book of essays by Williams entitled Where I Live. My favorite: a piece called "On a Streetcar Named Success." To hear Williams's eloquent ruminations on the vacuity of success in America spoken by one of Hollywood's chosen few—this had both irony and sincerity. It was whining's finest hour.
My favorite aspect of the festival is the panel discussions, which occur more or less continuously. They can be about almost anything: the essay form; politics; writing about poor, white Southerners ("grit lit"); or the effect of pop culture on literature.
The last day of the festival, I slipped into one called "I Remember Tennessee in New Orleans." I hadn't heard of any of the panelists beforehand, but the fact is, I have an extremely high tolerance for Tennessee stories.
Robert Hines, who'd been the playwright's friend and real estate agent in New Orleans, told how Tennessee wouldn't buy a house here unless he liked the people who were selling it.
"I can't possibly buy that house," Tennessee said of a property on Madison Street. "Why, that man is dreadful!"
"Tenn, you buy the place and you get rid of the owner," Hines had tried to explain. It was no use. The shopper lived in the spirit world.