Tennessee Williams Festival: the celebrity memoir panel

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John Waters, Amy Dickinson, Zoe Caldwell and Bryan Batt at the Tennessee Williams Festivals celebrity memoir panel.
  • John Waters, Amy Dickinson, Zoe Caldwell and Bryan Batt at the Tennessee Williams Festival's celebrity memoir panel.
The ballroom at the Royal Sonesta Hotel was packed Saturday afternoon for “The Story Behind the Stars: Celebrity Memoirists Tell All,” which was one of the more star-packed panels at this year’s Tennesee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

On the panel were New Orleans’ own Bryan Batt, who published a “mom-oir” last year titled She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother (about the late Gayle Batt); four-time Tony Award-winning actress Zoe Caldwell, author of I Will Be Cleopatra; advice columnist “Ask Amy” Dickinson, author of a family memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville; and writer/director John Waters, whose memoir Role Models came out last year (read the Gambit interview with Waters here). Thomas Keith moderated. (In a sign of the AARP-ing of the counterculture, the former outlaw director Waters got the biggest ovation of the four panelists, and the mostly middle-aged audience broke into applause again at the mention of his gross-out masterpiece Pink Flamingos.)

Under the jump: Bryan Batt at age 7, why Waters wouldn't let his mother read his book and an advice columnist throwing up a po-boy.

Batt kicked off things by saying “I was blessed with a magnificent mother,” and said his book was written out of “fear of identity theft” after telling stories of his mom and the Spring Fiesta at a New York dinner party. He called his book “a love letter to New Orleans and a love letter to my mother.” Caldwell got laughs when she related how a publisher had called and asked her to write a memoir. When she said she didn’t know how, she was told, “Write down everything that has formed you as a woman and actress, and when you feel formed, stop.”

Dickinson’s mug shot in her Times-Picayune column is strictly Junior League, but she turned out to be quite a bit more fun than that. She was thoroughly enjoying her trip to New Orleans, saying she had already broken her Lenten promises, listened to “the best jazz,” went to a burlesque show (“I am now officially bi-curious”), drank “more than a few drinks,” and: “I may or may not have vomited up a po-boy and I think I promised to be someone’s bridesmaid. How do you do it?” she asked the audience.

“I went to a burlesque show last night too,” Waters told Dickinson, “but I bet it was a different one.” He said when he told his mother he was writing a new book, she said, hopefully, “Oh. Maybe we’ll die first.”

All four then read selections from their memoirs for about 10 minutes apiece. Caldwell, who sounds like a four-time Tony Award actress should sound, had the audience in the palm of her hand with a tale of performing in a Williams play: “And I won my first Tony — not because I was a genius, but because Tennessee was.” Batt said his book was originally called I’d Rather Bathe My Mother, based on one of his favorite phrases (“Do you want to go see Cats?” “I’d rather bathe my mother”) , but Gayle Batt unilaterally vetoed the title. He then read a story about himself at 7, memorizing show tunes and asking Santa for an Easy-Bake Oven before being sent off to a child psychiatrist.

Waters said he didn't let his mother read his book: "Does an 87-year-old woman need to know about Bobby the Marine pornographer?". Batt finished off the panel with the story of his brother, politician Jay Batt, asking him if he was gay. When he said he was, Jay Batt told him, "Oh, thank God. I thought you weren't gettin' any."

The readings didn't leave much time for Q&A with the audience (not necessarily a bad thing at the TW Fest, frankly, where the audience members can be, er, a bit windy), which was fine; the four people on the panel didn't need any help. Meanwhile, if anyone has photographic evidence of "Ask Amy" throwing up a po-boy in public... just send it along to response@gambitweekly.com.

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