In January 1978 Tennessee Williams gave his only public reading in New Orleans in honor of his friend Oliver Evans—“the Professor,” as Tennessee called him. I met Tennessee and his assistant, Don Lee Keith, for the first time the day before at Marti’s Restaurant. We walked from there to the Theater for the Performing Arts, where he checked out the lighting and sound. On the way to the theater, Tennessee and I talked briefly, and he asked me about property values in New Orleans. When I told him that prices were rising, he smiled and said, “Good! You know, I’m just like a wise old fox; I’ve bought property everywhere I went.” This was something of an exaggeration, but he did have a house in New Orleans and one in Key West.
That night New Orleans experienced one of those torrential rains that sometimes come unexpectedly and the streets flooded. Undaunted, a large crowd gathered to hear America’s greatest playwright, who considered New Orleans his home. It was my honor and pleasure to introduce Tennessee to the audience that night. He read his story “Man Bring This Up Road” and some poems by Oliver Evans, and was then interviewed on stage by Don Lee Keith.
Following the performance, Tennessee kindly autographed the many books his fans had brought. Afterwards, eight of us crossed the street to Restaurant Jonathan for a dinner hosted by the two owners. We had drinks—Tennessee had a martini, I recall, then wine with dinner—and we proceeded to have one of the fabulous seafood meals for which the place was famed. Fortunately, I sat by Tennessee and we discussed mutual friends in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Then the conversation turned to Southern literature and we both agreed that we very much liked the work of Flannery O’Connor. Looking somewhat conspiratorial, he leaned toward me and inquired, “Do you read any of the northern writers.” Baffled a bit—did he mean Hawthorne and Melville?—I decided that he was referring to contemporary authors and said I very much admired Philip Roth and John Updike. “I like Updike, but I haven't read Roth,” he said, “but cannot read Saul Bellow!” When I said I also had trouble with Bellow, Tennessee “reared back,” as we say in the South,” and announced, “Well, there you have it!” Thus ended our only literary conversation. The two days—meeting, rehearsing, the performance, and the meal—live on as a cherished memory.
Hard as it is to believe, Tennessee would have been one hundred this Saturday, March 26. Those of us who knew him cannot imagine him at that age, but we all share wonderful memories of the man and the writer in his glory days. He lives on in the miracles that are his plays.
Also of interest:
- Kenneth Holditch and two other experts discuss whether Williams is “America’s greatest playwright”
- New Orleans celebrates the 100th birthday of Tennessee Williams March 23 through 27
- Read about some of the sites on the “Tennessee Williams Walking Tour” of New Orleans that Kenneth Holditch leads
- Read about Elia Kazan’s 1947 stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire in a previous Reader’s Almanac post