The last time most people around here ever saw him, he was blinking at the portable television lights like a kindly owl, bemused and slightly smitten by the fresh-minted good looks of the reportorial pup.
There were a couple of those local TV interviews of Tennessee Williams, as I remember them. One was at Le Petit, the other was an upstairs room at Marti's, which is now doing business as Peristyle. The hard-charging reporter was WWL's Eric Paulsen, who just happened to have gone to the same St. Louis high school as Tennessee.
The Q-and-A seesawed back and forth. Paulsen asked if Williams had read the entry behind his name in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. No, he had not. Paulsen read it aloud.
"Oh, how pat," Tennessee commented drolly.
Talk shifted to the impact of America's Most Interesting City on America's Most Interesting Playwright. New Orleans had often been cited by Williams as his favorite city in the world, and it had hosted him as resident or visitor many times. In return, the author had featured the city in his most famous play and numerous less-famous works.
In both the play Vieux Carré and the story "Angel in the Alcove," Williams wrote of the seduction of a young writer by an aging and tubercular painter who is grasping at the remaining offerings of life. The old man tells the younger one, "Love can happen like that. For one night only."
All this was pretty familiar ground, but then Tennessee stirred some new ground when he told Paulsen about how he had first discovered what he would describe as "a certain flexibility in my nature." In New Orleans, on New Year's Eve. For one night only ...
There was a certain circular smoothness that, in what would be his last television interview, Tennessee Williams would be confessing his first sexual encounter ever, in his first-ever stay in New Orleans, a place of so many starts and so many endings.
The young man who had been baptized Thomas Lanier Williams left St. Louis for New Orleans the day after Christmas 1938. In his diary he wrote, "Maybe a new scene will revive me." It was a quest he never abandoned.
He traveled by bus, with a portable typewriter, a wind-up phonograph, a suitcase that housed a copy of the poems of Hart Crane and the bound ledger which would become his journal. Into that journal, he wrote the following: "Here surely is the place I was made for as if any place on this funny old world." This, after three full hours in town.
It was, one biographer notes, love at first sight between the shyly ambitious son of a preacher and the "strangely sovereign life" of the French Quarter. "In New Orleans, and most particular in the Vieux Carré, the young Tennessee Williams first became aware of a dark side of life that seemed to drift timelessly ..."
After a day at a seedy hotel near Lee Circle and a few more at 431 Royal, the young traveler settled on the top floor of 722 Toulouse, at a rate of $10 a month.
For the watchful, food could be as cheap. In a letter to his mother, young Tom Williams detailed how cheap: "I get breakfast at the French for a dime. Lunch and dinner amount to about fifty cents at a good cafeteria near Canal Street ... Raw oysters, twenty cents a dozen!"
It was a good thing indeed that things were so inexpensive, because the budding dramatist couldn't find work. Local folklorist Lyle Saxon tried to line him up with job interviews, but nothing took.
Tennessee would try to work off his rent by waiting tables at a lunchroom on the first floor. He passed out handbills with a slogan of his own devising ("Meals in the Quarter For a Quarter"), but the business folded in a week. In fact, his biggest source of income were the small bills that his mother and Grandma Dakin would send by mail whenever they could afford it. Grandma Dakin would stitch a $10 bill to the envelope.
His landlady, a Mrs. Anderson, he described as "a perfect termagant." He was forced by threat of perjury to testify against her in the matter of her pouring hot water through the floor on guests having a party on the first floor.
Out of this whirl of eccentricity, Tennessee would later say, "I found the kind of freedom I had always needed. And the shock of it against the Puritanism of my nature has given me a theme which I have never ceased exploiting."
Or, as he wrote in a stanza from his poem "Mornings on Bourbon Street": "He thought of the rotten-sweet odor the Old Quarter had, so much like a warning of what he would have to learn."
What he began to learn was a lesson that Faulkner reputedly had learned a decade before. That this town could cause gradual erosion and finally, the abandonment of writing. "I sit down to write and nothing happens," complained one journal entry.
The approach of Mardi Gras frightened him with its hedonism and created a lifelong antipathy for the event. In a 1976 interview, Williams said transvestites gave homosexuals a bad name. "We are not trying to imitate women. We are simply trying to be comfortably assimilated by our society."
He hooked up with a fellow Toulouse Street roomer named Jim Parrott. He was a brash clarinetist who claimed they could find work at his uncle's pigeon ranch till Hollywood discovered them. On Lundi Gras, the duo piled into Parrott's Ford V-8 and headed for California. Tennessee Williams' first contact with New Orleans was over.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Tennessee Williams left this funny old world behind. The quarter-centuries roll on.