New Orleans Explored: Discovering All That Jazz
The beat goes on and on in New Orleans, the city that never sleeps it off
As any local will tell you, New Orleans is a place where what's worth doing is worth overdoing. Its holiday season lasts from Halloween until Jazz Fest in April. Its unofficial motto is Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll). Even its district attorney, when not fighting crime, sings in a cabaret. But beneath the party girl image lies an exotic past. Some neighborhoods are still referred to by the French term faubourg, Spanish colonial architecture dominates the main square, and original slave quarters can be found behind many houses. Jazz was allegedly born in the parlors of its "gentlemen's sporting clubs," in America's first legalized red-light district. It's no wonder people call this sexy, steamy city the Big Easy.
Where to Stay
New Orleans's high-end hotels—Maison de Ville, Soniat House, Windsor Court—virtually guarantee a perfect stay. But sometimes checking into a bed-and-breakfast gives a better taste of local culture. Celebrities such as Brad Pitt have gone the B&B route. Why not you?
House on Bayou Road 2275 Bayou Rd.; 800/882-2968 or 504/945-0992, fax 504/945-0993; doubles $125-$250. This mid-city spread embodies the two worlds—Europe and the Caribbean—that collided to form New Orleans. Antiques and Audubon prints fill the seven rooms in the late-18th-century West Indies-style main house and the two private cottages. Extras such as a pool and free in-room sherry make you want to stay forever.
McKendrick-Breaux House 1474 Magazine St.; 888/570-1700 or 504/586-1700, fax 504/522-7138; doubles $90-$130. Live-in owners Eddie and Lisa Breaux and their young son, Aidan, make you feel like a long-lost cousin. The "house" is actually two 1860's Greek Revival residences joined by a courtyard and adorned with replicas of antique gasoliers, eyebrow windows in the attic rooms, and lots of fine molding. On the walls hang works by contemporary local artists, and framed pictures of repeat visitors line mantels and bureaus in many of McKendrick-Breaux's seven guest rooms.
Lafitte Guest House 1003 Bourbon St.; 800/331-7971 or 504/581-2678, fax 504/581-2677; doubles $99-$179. Located at Bourbon Street's residential end, the 14-room Lafitte puts you in the French Quarter but spares you the din of the pulsating crowds and neon daiquiri signs. Each room is different, detailed with half tester beds, claw-foot tubs, and coal-burning fireplaces. Guests mix at a complimentary cocktail hour held nightly in the garish red-and-gold Victorian parlor.
Claiborne Mansion 2111 Dauphine St.; 800/449-7327 or 504/949-7327, fax 504/949-0388; doubles $150-$300. Think California spa meets European boutique hotel and you've got this seven-room Faubourg Marigny favorite pegged. Loll by the pool under ancient live oaks, snack on fresh vegetables from owner Cleo Pelleteri's garden, or head back to your luxe suite and try to guess how many 26-ounce Hurricane glasses you'd need to stack to reach the 14-foot ceilings.
B&W Courtyards 2425 Chartres St.; 800/585-5731 or 504/945-9418, fax 504/949-3483; doubles $99-$200. Farther into the Marigny, where the air is scented by the roasting beans of the nearby Standard Coffee Co., is the five-room B&W Courtyards. "In the Creole tradition, everything important is within," says owner Rob Boyd of B&W's nondescript entrance. "Everything important" includes two courtyards, lush with chocolate-scented orchids and gurgling fountains, and two owners (Boyd and his partner, Kevin Wu) who sit down to breakfast with you every morning to dish about your wild night out.
Crescent City on Celluloid
Catch a glimpse of New Orleans on-screen (too bad the most famous flick set in the city, A Streetcar Named Desire, was filmed mostly on a Hollywood soundstage):
- In Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda took a famous "trip" in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
- Julia Roberts cheated death in The Pelican Brief as she boarded a riverboat in Woldenberg Riverfront Park; the terrorist stalking her was not as lucky.
- Unluckier still was the musician with whom Mickey Rourke chatted at the Maple Leaf Bar in the thriller Angel Heart. The musician learned the hard way not to talk with his mouth full.
- Brooke Shields wasn't even of age when she hung out at the bar of the Columns hotel, playing a prostitute in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby.
- Anne Rice devotees still haunt City Park, where some scenes of Interview with the Vampire were filmed.
- Ellen Barkin proved that a jog along Bayou St. John can be tough on more than just the hamstrings when she was whisked away to Cajun country in The Big Easy.
What's Your Potion?
In the city where the cocktail was invented, you can walk anywhere with a toddy in tow (just keep it in a plastic cup). Beverages of choice:
Hurricane Served in a huge glass, this rum-and-passionfruit-juice drink was made famous at Pat O'Brien's Bar, the French Quarter's boozing mecca.
Sazerac A concoction of bourbon, sugar, bitters, and Herbsaint that will "put hair on your chest," according to a grimacing local at the Sazerac Restaurant.
Abita Beer Brewed across Lake Pontchartrain, Abita comes in several varieties—Amber, Turbodog, and raspberry-flavored Purple Haze.
Dixie Beer Highfalutin quaffers call it "swamp water." But try a Dixie with some fried oysters or boiled crawfish, and you'll be whistling another tune.
A Heritage Tour
In New Orleans, guided tours are about as common as crawfish étouffée. Pass on the schlocky ghost hunts and bogus buggy rides and sign up for one of the best: the ROOTS OF NEW ORLEANS HERITAGE CITY TOUR (504/596-6889; $28 per person; no credit cards).
"This city was built through the sweat and blood of Africans and African-Americans, yet no guides would ever talk about it," says Gwen Carter, a native New Orleanian who started her bus tour six years ago. "I thought it was much too important to leave out."
Carter takes you to places few visitors would ever get to see: the Amistad Research Center (the world's largest African-American archive) and St. Augustine's Church, in the neighborhood of Tremé, where the pews were configured to separate slaves from free people (and women from men). She also throws in some fun along the way. A stop at Loretta's Authentic Praline stall in the French Market means fresh nuts to munch on during the tour and a lecture from Loretta herself on how to pronounce praline (praw-leen). Later, Carter teaches you to knock three times, close your eyes, and make a wish on voodoo queen Marie Laveau's tomb for good luck.
Along St. Charles Avenue, Carter re-creates a Mardi Gras parade—playing rowdy brass-band music and throwing beads at you as she talks about the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the first black Mardi Gras organizations.
"Ignoring the black experience in New Orleans is like telling about your family and omitting one of your kids," Carter says. "You just can't do it."
Where the Players Play
Even before Jelly Roll Morton tickled his first ivories in a downtown brothel, New Orleans nightlife was swinging to live music. Here, the lowdown from some experts.
Charles Neville, the sax-playing, tie-dye-wearing member of the famous brother act, digs the clubs of the free-spirited Faubourg Marigny. Although he admits to being a mediocre salsa dancer, he loves Café Brasil (2100 Chartres St.; 504/949-0851) "when Los Babies del Merengue are playing their great Afro-Cuban rhythms. Everyone's dancing, and the crowd always ends up overflowing into the street."
Across the way is Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro (626 Frenchmen St.; 504/949-0696), where Neville jams with his daughter, Charmaine, and catches Ellis Marsalis—Wynton and Branford's dad. "Ellis is one of the greatest bebop players you'll ever see," says Neville.
"His stylings encompass every aspect of jazz, from classical to bluesy to funky." Irvin Mayfield, a 20-year-old trumpet genius in the Louis Armstrong-Wynton Marsalis tradition, prefers the atmosphere at the clubs on Rampart Street. "I love the Funky Butt" (714 N. Rampart St.; 504/558-0872). "It's named after the place where Satchmo first heard the trumpet," he says. "It's got that old-time vibe. And their fruit punch is rolling!"
Mayfield also frequents Donna's Bar & Grill (800 N. Rampart St.; 504/596-6914), a dark joint with a horseshoe-shaped bar and exuberant music. In between sets by the Algiers Brass Band, the Little Rascals, and the Rebirth Brass Band, Mayfield chows down on home-cooked ribs and burgers.
A Neighborhood to Watch
For half a century, the Lower Garden District (or L.G.D.) was the forlorn stepsister of the more polished Garden District. Saddled with a crumbling public housing project, abandoned shops, and a severe case of urban flight, the area had become the Neighborhood that Care Forgot. But an influx of entrepreneurs and buckets of federal and local cash is changing all that.
One strip in particular is recapturing its past. "In the nineteenth century people who owned ground-floor shops on lower Magazine Street generally lived upstairs," says Camille Strachan, a local preservationist. "That's what we're trying to re-create. We want activity twenty-four hours a day."
So far, it's working. Young architects and artists live in affordable flats, and barbecue on their street-front balconies after work. Shops are packed; theaters and restaurants assure late-night crowds.
The Zeitgeist Theater (2010 Magazine St.; 504/524-0064) woos hipsters with events such as the International Super-8 Film Festival and performances by the Gas Tank Orchestra, a five-piece ensemble whose string, percussion, and woodwind instruments are made from the rusted gas tanks of abandoned cars.
The denim-and-leather contingent flocks to the Half Moon Bar (1125 Saint Mary St.; 504/522-0599), with its shabby pool tables and honky-tonk vibe. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Café Roma (1901 Sophie Wright Place; 504/524-2419; dinner for two $20) entices families with football-size calzone and hand-tossed pizza.
You'll need at least a day to explore lower Magazine Street's shops. Sharon Stone, Sheryl Crow, and Susan Sarandon have all come away happy from Jim Smiley Vintage Clothing (2001 Magazine St.; 504/528-9449), where you can shop for 1940's Chanel and Dior, Victorian wedding gowns, and scads of little black dresses.
Several antiques shops specialize in home furnishings. Redecorate your office at Dodge-Fjeld (2033 Magazine St.; 504/581-6930), which has a large selection of clocks and desks. At Antebellum Antiques (2011 Magazine St.; 504/558-0208) pick up an 1800's rosewood Mallard bed with matching armoire for $100,000. If you'd prefer a modest nest, Bush Antiques and Beds au Beau Rêve (2109-11 Magazine St.; 504/581-3518) has more than 75 beds displayed in period tableaux.
Haven't had enough?The world-famous Jim Russell Records (1837 Magazine St.; 504/522-2602) stocks a half-million LP's, including such memorabilia as a recording of the 1976 Jazz Fest. Bep's Antiques (2051 Magazine St.; 504/525-7726) carries several rare, delicate bottles from the 1700's.
Take a shopping break at St. Vincent's Guest House & Tea Room (1507 Magazine St.; 504/523-3411; lunch for two $25), a 136-year-old former orphanage known for its crawfish étouffée and afternoon tea. For a quick buzz, grab biscotti and an espresso at the dark and arty Rue de la Course (1500 Magazine St.; 504/529-1455).
Later this year, black-velvet-wearing vampire novelist and real estate dilettante Anne Rice will open Café Lestat at 2015 Magazine Street, where the old Happy Hour Theater once stood. In a city filled with voodoo legends and aboveground tombs, the macabre is often good for business.
The Déjà Vu Artist
From goofy placards that read chien méchant (the French version of beware of dog) to huge street scenes, painter Simon Hardeveld's work draws you in like the biggest, brightest lollipop in the candy store. A bunch of it is on display at his Lower Garden District shed (at Bush Antiques; 2109-11 Magazine St.; 504/581-3518).
This kooky French ex-cook also accepts commissions. "You bring me a picture of your dog," he says, "I paint it." Hardeveld warns it may take time. "I have so much business. Everybody wants my stuff." It may also take an open mind: One gentleman requested a portrait of a woman named Lola with whom he had become smitten at a French Quarter bistro; Hardeveld obliged him with a whimsical picture of her striding topless down Bourbon Street.
Whatever you do, don't call him a folk artist. "I am a déjà vu artist," he says. "I paint things you've seen before." Tell that to Lola.
Who Do Voodoo?
Voodoo in New Orleans is like the rum in a daiquiri: you know it's there, but you can't really see it. Sure you've got your hokey amulet-hawking French Quarter boutiques and a bevy of tarot-flipping psychics in Jackson Square. But the real deal is harder to discern.
In the 17th century, west African slaves brought their religious beliefs across the Atlantic to Haiti. There, the various tribes' traditions mixed with Catholicism, and voodoo began to take shape. Haitian blacks—both slaves and free people—brought it to New Orleans in the 1700's.
Start your quest with the exhibition "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," which is on display through April 11 at the New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins Diboll Circle; 504/488-2631). There are more than 500 pieces of artwork, including bead-covered bottles, drapo vodou (sequined flags), and a re-created temple with three altars.
Across town at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St.; 504/523-1216), check out "Mystery and Mastery: Art of Haiti," also on view until April 11. Showcasing photography and works influenced by Haiti's political situation, the show gives a social and secular context to the religious art.
The best place to find out about New Orleans-style voodoo is at the Historic Voodoo Museum (724 Dumaine St.; 504/523-7685), where you can arrange a cemetery tour, buy magic trinkets, and hear tales of Marie Laveau, who bore 15 children and allegedly performed ecstatic dances with her snake, Zombi.
Zealots can shop for paraphernalia at F&F Botanical (801 N. Broad St.; 504/482-9142). It's not in the most picturesque neighborhood, but it does offer the genuine article: gris-gris bags to keep the law away, prosperity aerosol spray, and all manner of lotions, bath salts, and oils for attracting love. Just be sure to say the hexes correctly, or you might end up attracting the law and avoiding the love.
Richest Po' Boys
Buying a po'boy sandwich in New Orleans is harder than it might seem. First you need to know how to order one. Never say "poor boy"—it's a dead giveaway that you're clueless. Generally speaking, they come three ways: "dressed," with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayonnaise (pronounced "my-nez"); "dressed dry," with no mayo; and "plain," with nothing but the meat and fish.
Now, you need to know where to go. We asked local food critics about their favorite haunts:
John DeMers, New Orleans magazine: Fried shrimp-and-oyster po'boy at Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville St.; 504/522-5973; dinner for two $28). "It's a compromise made in heaven. I like to order mine dressed, and accompanied by a Dixie Beer."
Craig LaBan, the Times-Picayune: Soft-shell-crab po'boy at Uglesich's Restaurant & Bar (1238 Baronne St.; 504/523-8571; lunch for two $22; no credit cards). "You walk out of there smelling like garlic and fried stuff. But it's worth it." LaBan also likes the blackened shrimp po'boy at the Rendon Inn (4501 Eve St.; 504/822-9858; dinner for two $20) because it's not fried but still packs the flavor.
Lisa LeBlanc-Berry, Gambit News Weekly: The Ferdi at Mother's (401 Poydras St.; 504/523-9656; dinner for two $40; no credit cards), which substitutes cabbage for lettuce to complement a mountain of ham and roast beef. She also recommends Parasol's (2533 Constance St.; 504/899-2054; lunch for two $20; no credit cards) for its run-down atmosphere and its meatball po'boy, which she claims is the best in the city: "It's sloppy and doused in a definitive marinara."
(Bonus points for remembering, when ordering, to call the marinara "red gravy," another New Orleans-ism.)
Where to Eat: Three Hot Spots
To say that the Red Room (2040 St. Charles Ave.; 504/528-9759; dinner for two $120) is the spot of the moment is to understate the case. At a recent television executives' convention, celebrities and media types flooded the place, displacing miffed locals. Part 1940's supper club, part bordello, the Red Room distinguishes itself with dishes such as the lobster and rack of wild boar and an interior that is almost all crimson.
Dominique Macquet has been cooking noteworthy food since his days at the Bistro at the Maison de Ville. Now in his own restaurant at the Maison Dupuy Hotel, Dominique's (1001 Rue Toulouse; 504/522-8800; dinner for two $110), he is letting his improbable background shine. Originally from Mauritius, Macquet mixes Indian, African, Chinese, and French ingredients to produce what he calls "island cuisine." Standouts include such dishes as sugarcane sweetbreads on truffle mashed potato with jus of wild mushroom.
It's odd that a restaurant called Sapphire (228 Camp St.; 504/524-0081; dinner for two $100) should be painted saffron yellow. But chef Kevin Graham's cooking distracts you from the paradox. Start with the prosciutto, portobello, and potato fricassee; then try to decide between the striped bass with shrimp-and-crawfish mousse or the roasted duck lacquered with coffee-and-orange sauce.
At 5 p.m. Ponchatoula shuts down. Where's everyone going?Middendorf's Seafood (Interstate 55, exit 15, at Manchac; 504/386-6666; dinner for two $20), for fried catfish sliced as thin as a whisper and scallion-laced hush puppies. The restaurant, housed in two modest shacks on the shores of Lake Maurepas, doesn't look like much. Faux-wood Formica tables, big-haired waitresses, and plaid-clad guests complete the scene. But the throngs lined up outside must know something.
Get Out of Town
Just outside the city lie plantations, swamps, and alluring small towns. Be sure to take at least one weekend day trip from New Orleans.
A CREOLE PLANTATION
You won't find any mint julep stands or guides dressed as Southern belles at Laura Plantation (2247 Hwy. 18; 504/265-7690; tours $7) in Vacherie, about an hour's drive west of New Orleans.
Unlike at its grand, white-columned counterparts, Laura's people (black slaves and white owners) spoke French and lived in brightly colored West Indies-style houses. Since 193-year-old Laura is one of the few Creole plantations left in the country, touring its grounds offers a totally different experience than the one you'd get at a classic antebellum mansion.
For one thing, Laura was run by four generations of women who handled everything—from the children to the slaves to the money. For another, the topic of slavery is not avoided here but retold in rich, tragic detail. In fact, Laura's biggest claim to fame was made possible by its slaves, whose tales of west African folk hero Compère Lapin were popularized as the Brer Rabbit stories.
The tour at Laura is deeply personal. Guides name names, describe personalities, and relate stories that make the people and events in its history seem real—not like some feckless characters in a Margaret Mitchell novel.
You tend not to expect an abundance of good taste from a town that keeps a live 15-foot alligator named Hard Hide locked in a tank in the main square. And Ponchatoula, a 45-minute drive north of New Orleans, is all the more surprising when you discover its very refined secret: more than 30 shops brimming with antiques priced so low, you think someone must be playing a joke.
The biggest deal in town is the Ponchatoula Auction (140 N. Baronne St.; 504/386-4970), which is held most Saturdays at 6 p.m., with a preview beginning at 3. Tables, chairs, beds, and armoires are stacked higher than your head in a 14,000-square-foot converted barn.
Men with huge muscles carry each piece to the front, hoisting it in the air so the crowd can goggle. The auctioneer lets rip with a cursory description—"oak armoire"—and the bidding starts. Hands fly up in blurs. Auctioneer Richard Lima acknowledges the bids with a bellowed "Yahh!" One sharp woman walks away with an American Empire mahogany side table ($75), a mid-19th-century Italian recamier ($250), and a five-piece American Empire parlor set ($500) in less than 30 minutes. In this world, even twentysomethings straight out of college can own great furniture.
But the auction isn't the only place to score. Shops line Ponchatoula's five-block-long main drag. Housed in a former bank with its own steel vault, Layrisson-Walker Antiques (123 E. Pine St.; 504/386-8759) stocks a wealth of vintage linens and lace, including hard-to-find queen-size linen sheets, antique buttons, and 1940's luggage. Hunt down a Mercury dime to drop in the 1932 jukebox filled with single-sided records at Elizabeth Rose Antiques (101 W. Pine St.; 504/386-5242). If you missed Mardi Gras, head to C.J.'s Antiques & Collectibles (160 S.E. Railroad Ave.; 504/386-0026) for oodles of glass beads from parades of the past.
LAFITTE: CRUISING THE BAYOU
Taking a boat trip with Captain Dave Turgeon of Turgeon Tours (800/737-9267 or 504/689-2911; $35-$60) is like going out with your eccentric uncle. There's no predicting what will happen, but you know it'll be fun.
"I'll just tell you straight out that we're not like the other bayou tours," Dave said as I stepped on board. "We don't throw rubber snakes at you, we don't feed marshmallows to the gators, and I won't be pulling up my pant leg to show you the scar from when I got bit." Before I could express my relief, he gunned the accelerator of his 23-foot Bayliner and hollered: "Wee-hoo and away we go!"
During his four-hour tour, Captain Dave promises wildlife, and he delivers in abundance. As I loafed in the sun, the wind whipping across the boat's bow, Dave pointed out great blue herons rising from treetops, purple martins diving and feinting, gangly brown pelicans perched on pilings. Black storm clouds brewed in the distance over the thin green line of the horizon. A turkey vulture soared overhead, and Dave tossed out bits of swamp lore like, "Did you know the frigate bird is nicknamed the Jimmy Durante bird?"
As we rounded a bend next to the stone ruins of Fort Livingston, we came to what seemed a magical anomaly. There, just outside the bayou, the waters were filled with dolphins. They surfed the wake of our boat, banged our hull with their noses, and shot out of the water in perfect arcs.
Dave shut off the engine and we drifted, watching the dolphins frolic. As a baby dolphin leapt from the water, wiggled its fin, and plopped back in, Dave proclaimed, with the fervor of a Baptist preacher: "I love my job!"
Sea World has nothing on this.
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.
The giddiest part of the festival was saved for last. The Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, a bit of competitive street theater conducted beneath the balconies of the Pontalba Apartments on Jackson Square, gave aspiring Kowalskis of either sex the opportunity to use every last shred of their vocal cords. Marlon Brando may have set the standard 50 years ago, when he first bellowed "Stella-a-a-a-a-a-a." But here in New Orleans, no fewer than 25 people gave interpretations of that famous primal scream.
The first contestant poured a cup of water on his head, fell to his knees, and screamed his soul out. One after another, they followed boldly. It was as if these people had been waiting all their lives for just this moment.
"We call this the getting-the-hay-down-where-the-cows-can-reach-it part of the festival," said Robert Bray, a Williams scholar.
But it was great fun. Alec Baldwin and Dakin Williams were judges. The prize "for being the biggest male chauvinist pig in the French Quarter,"as Baldwin put it, went to Christopher Fritz, whose rendition involved drinking a bottle of beer in one gulp, pacing like a caged panther, and crying "Stella" three times with sexy desperation.
And so it ended. But the spirit lingered. As we all walked back to the headquarters, a British-accented man performed his own version of the "Stella" scream: "Darling, do come down," he whispered politely. "I don't want to cause a scene and wake the neighbors."
The 1998 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival will be held March 11-15. For information and reservations, call 800/479-8222.
A Festival for Every Occasion
MARCH Uncle Earl's Hog Dog Trials (Winnfield). Dogs from all over the world gather, competing to corner a snarling wild boar without touching it (318/628-4461).
APRIL Cajun Joke-Telling Contest (Opelousas). Chomp on boudin sausage, then sit back as the Seinfelds of bayou country regale you (318/942-3562). Or hit the International Goat Festival & Cook-off (Plaisance). The meat in question is curried, stewed, roasted, even étoufféed. Who comes?"All kinds of dignitaries from the goat industry," says a spokeswoman (318/942-2392). Spreading into May is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Endless jazz, gospel, funk—and a craft area the size of Rhode Island (504/522-4786).
MAY Bonnie & Clyde Festival (Gibsland). Come visit the place where the dastardly duo pulled their last job before checking into the Big House in the Sky (318/843-6141).
JUNE Le Festival de la Viande Boucanée (Ville Platte). Also called the "Smoked Meat Festival" (318/363-6700). Or try the Possum Festival (Arcadia). It started as a joke; now it's a cottage industry. Parades, mud volleyball, golf tournaments—but no possums (318/263-9897).
SEPTEMBER Shrimp & Petroleum Festival (Morgan City). This odd combination springs from a town whose two main industries are seafood and oil (504/385-0703).
DECEMBER Festival of the Bonfires (Lutcher and Gramercy). Multistory bonfires light the way for Papa Noël, the Cajun Santa. Bring marshmallows (504/869-9752).