All booked up in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS — Many memories linger in this steamy and sultry city that lies at the southernmost part of the Mississippi River. But among the most eloquent are those of the many literary figures who have roamed its hidden alleyways, cafes, and avenues.
New Orleans, perhaps more than any other American city, vividly displays a mysterious and alluring charm that has proven to be a natural magnet for a diverse collection of writers.
Among the attractions for the literary legends: jazz traditions, Cajun and Creole cuisine, colorful customs, and, of course, Mardi Gras, the annual festival that turns the city upside down with endless parties and celebrations.
Shadows of many popular writers permeate the romantic port city: Anne Rice and her "Vampire Chronicles," John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," and Lillian Hellman's play "The Little Foxes," which recounts the life of a well-to-do New Orleans family.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, George Washington Cable, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Sherwood Anderson also came under the city's spell.
But no writer is more closely associated with the "The City That Care Forgot" than Tennessee Williams, who penned the majority of his most important works while living here. "Summer and Smoke," "The Rose Tattoo," "Vieux Carre," and "A Streetcar Named Desire," his most poignant work, all display both his obsession with and affection for the city.
Exploring the city's literary heritage and haunts is best done by beginning in the French Quarter. Williams sites are found everywhere in this colorful environment, where he lived at a variety of addresses.
"If I can be said to have a home," Williams wrote, "it is in the French Quarter, which has provided me with more material than any other part of the country."
Born in Mississippi and raised in St. Louis, Williams traveled here for creative inspiration, but it was also his desire to escape a past burdened with a series of unhappy memories. He once said that he came to the city "as a migratory bird going in search of a more congenial climate." The city's artistic ambience also provided him with an alluring background for his plays.
Williams worked at a succession of odd jobs during the day to support his writing by night. The rainbow-colored architecture and history of voodoo and pirates soon breathed life into his play "Vieux Carre."
Some key Williams haunts not far from the bustling Cafe Du Monde are marked with plaques: 722 Toulouse, his first address; 632 St. Peter Street, where he is reputed to have been inspired to write "A Streetcar Named Desire" after hearing "that rattletrap of a streetcar that bangs up one old street and down another"; and 1014 Dumaine, where Williams lived following his literary success.
Other Williams haunts include Galatoire's, his favorite restaurant, as well as Antoine's.
The Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, mentioned in "Camino Real," is another important Williams landmark. He arrived at the Monteleone with his grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, in 1951 and stayed for two weeks. When he left, he found that Mr. Monteleone had taken care of the bill - no doubt as a way of paying honor to the gifted playwright who had immortalized the city in many of his most important works.
In fact, the Hotel Monteleone, designated a Literary Landmark in 1999 by Friends of Libraries U.S.A. and the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, has catered to a coterie of famous authors - including William Faulkner, who stayed in the hotel to receive the French Legion of Honor award; Truman Capote; Eudora Welty; Sherwood Anderson; Richard Ford;and Winston Groom.
Not far from the Hotel Monteleone is St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square's architectural centerpiece, where a memorial service was held for Williams following his death.
Learn more about William Faulkner, another Mississippi writer who made his home in New Orleans, in a small apartment at 624 Pirate's Alley. Within walking distance of the St. Louis Cathedral, this is where Faulkner lived briefly in 1925. During his stay he was befriended by Sherwood Anderson, who lived nearby.
Faulkner completed "Soldiers Pay" and "Mosquitos" while residing in the handsome historic building within easy reach of the waterfront area.
Today the property is Faulkner House Books, where first editions, rare books, and a rich collection of Southern writers' works can be found. Vintage photographs of writers line the shop's interior.
This is also where a visitor can find out about a host of literary walking tours. Many are led by Kenneth Holditch, a Williams scholar.
Most of the houses with literary associations aren't open to the public, but one that is belonged to Frances Parkinson Keyes and is located at 1113 Chartres Street. The home was a winter retreat for Keyes beginning in 1944. This is where she completed "Dinner at Antoine's" and "Blue Camellia."
On a more contemporary note, a life-size bronze sculpture of Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" stands at 800 Iberville Street.
While the French Quarter is known for its wrought-iron balconies, lovely courtyards, and lazy tempo, the Garden District is resplendent with antebellum mansions, planters' cottages, and the Audubon Park and Zoo.
The St. Charles Streetcar, the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the country, connects the French Quarter to the urban oasis of the Garden District.
Highlights on this jaunt include a stop at the Audubon Park and Zoo, 340 acres of lagoons and walking trails that honor naturalist John James Audubon, another famous resident of the French Quarter who created many of his bird paintings while living here.
A not-to-be-missed stop is the ever-popular Camellia Grill, a landmark and local favorite of the students from Tulane and Loyola universities.The small diner serves up some of the best burgers and homemade pecan pie in the city. For those seeking great food at a reasonable price, this is the place.
The Garden District includes its own legacy of writers. Lillian Hellman grew up at 1718 Prytania, one block off St. Charles Avenue.F. Scott Fitzgerald resided in the Garden District briefly.Walker Percy lived at the Pontchartrain Hotel before settling on Calhoun Street.And George Washington Cable's former home is located at 1313 Eighth Street.
Anne Rice, another of New Orleans's literary sensations, was born in the city and credits her hometown as the inspiration for her saga of the Mayfair family. Rice sites in the Garden District include: Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at 2521 Prytania and the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1at the 1400 block of Washington Avenue. The beautifully restored St. Elizabeth's Orphanage, built in 1865, houses Rice's doll collection.
For literary enthusiasts, March is the time to visit. That's the month for the very popular Tennessee Williams Literary Festival,now entering its 18th year. With the Monteleone as the host hotel, the event promises five days of readings of Williams's plays, noted lecturers, and literary walking tours of Williams sites.