Happy Birthday, Tennessee

“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!” –Blanche DuBois, T.W.

I cannot remember a time that I existed unaware of Tennessee Williams. And yet, the truth is that I discovered him like a déjà vu only twelve years ago. It was 1999, and George Rodrigue and I contemplated leaving Lafayette, Louisiana, George’s hometown of more than thirty years, and living instead in New Orleans.

Although we have long and separate personal histories* with the city, we hoped to understand it better, to make a committed move based not only on the obvious practical reasons, but also on the less obvious passionate ones.

Our colorful research included related fiction: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau, and Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. George, who prefers his fiction shortened and dramatized, listened to my nightly summaries as though we sat around a campfire, telling stories like cowboys.

(pictured above, Thinking About Blanche by George Rodrigue, the official poster for the 2006 Tennessee Williams Festival, New Orleans)

It was Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire that enchanted us on screen. We watched the movie together late one night and sat so stunned and yet talkative at the end that we watched it through again, finishing near daybreak, as I searched for critical analyses on-line.

“We will see [Blanche] progress from the sexual ‘desire’ that caused her to lose her job as a schoolteacher, to a mere desire for ‘rest!,’ to the burial of her hope for redemption, to her going mad, which might be seen as a crossing over to a ‘paradise’ beyond personal responsibility (thus the allusion to the classical Greek concept of the Elysian Fields).” (“A Streetcar Running Fifty Years,” by Felicia Hardison Londré, The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1997)

I read Williams’ Memoirs out loud in 2000 during our annual cross-country drive. Along the way I learned the name of my new godchild, Quinn Tallulah, and saw this as a sign not of forthcoming debauchery (she’s a delightful young lady!), but of inherent mystery and intriguing coincidences. Here was a name, new to me, and suddenly the subject of books, a famous actress, and a new life.

(pictured, Quinn Tallulah Lewis, photographed by Tabitha Soren, 2006)

We stopped in Archer City, Texas, home of The Last Picture Show, and explored the deserted downtown buildings, piled high with used books. I found a clerk, a person at last, standing on a ladder rearranging dusty titles. He grumbled at my request, yet spent three hours piling up coffee-stained, soft-covered scripts by Tennessee Williams and elephant-sized Hollywood picture books featuring Tallulah Bankhead. It was not until we paid the bill, using every scrap of our cash down to the meter-change in the ashtray, that our helper introduced himself as Larry McMurtry, author of, according to George, “the only book of fiction worth reading,” Lonesome Dove.

We returned home to an 1835 Creole townhouse in the Faubourg Marigny, two blocks from the Mississippi River (and the streetcar line) and two blocks from Elysian Fields. Tennessee Williams, according to the passing tour guides, spent time here.

To celebrate our move, my friend Beverly in New York City sent me an autographed first edition of Dotson Rader’s Cry of the Heart (1985, Doubleday). Inside she included a note:

“I’m sending you this Dotson Rader memoir of Tennessee Williams that I found today at the Strand. I also have the book, which I purchased when it came out. I remember it as being quite dishy. Having told me that you’ve now an interest in Williams after having seen ‘Streetcar,’ I thought you might enjoy the book also.”

(pictured, Portrait of Beverly Friedman by George Rodrigue, 1989)

And indeed I did, even more than Williams’ Memoirs (1975, Doubleday & Company, Inc.), a book I found distractingly ‘dishy,’ yet interspersed with intriguing references, such as the playwright’s brief encounter with artist Jackson Pollock, who could

“paint ecstasy as it could not be written…”

…and his close friendship with actress Tallulah Bankhead, a woman who…

“…always impressed me by her honesty and her gallantry and her lack of shame. It is a quality I have discovered in Southern ladies of a certain kind. …I suppose you could say Tallulah was a tramp, in the elegant sense.”

(pictured above, Tallulah Bankhead played Blanche DuBois on stage in 1955. According to Rader’s biography, “Because of … Bankhead’s excessive use of liquor and drugs, the play was a failure. Most of the audience, including Tennessee, couldn’t understand half of what she said.”)

This Saturday, March 26th, marks the 100th birthday of author and playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). Although beloved worldwide for his soulful, yet enigmatic analysis of the human experience, it is in New Orleans that we spy his characters in reality, as though the coincidences in his life intersect with the coincidences in our own.

His goal in writing, he said, was “just somehow to capture the constantly evanescent quality of existence.” Although he experienced a love-hate relationship with both his audience and critics during his lifetime, there are few today who would debate his success. Yet perhaps Tennessee too would have felt at home on a ladder, rooting through old stories, seeing old friends and reassurances within each title.

“I don’t have any sense of being a fulfilled artist.” -Tennessee Williams, from his memoirs-


*for a bit of New Orleans nostalgia visit “Looking Back” and “For New Orleans

The Tennessee Williams Festival celebrates the playwright’s 100th birthday and the festival’s 25th year, March 23-27, 2011. For information visit www.tennesseewilliams.net

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