Following in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams at the intersection of literature and the blues in Clarksdale.
In our first installment, I traveled to Oxford with BBC television producer Cerith Mathias and visited Rowan Oak, the university campus, John Currence’s restaurants and Faulkner’s grave. For part two, we drove on to the Mississippi Delta and Clarksdale. Better known for being the world capital of blues, Clarksdale was also the childhood stomping grounds of playwright Tennessee Williams. As we headed west from Oxford, rolling hills gave way to flat farmland and plenty of blue skies, a favorite color of Williams that he associated with memory.
We were booked for the night at The Lofts At The Five & Dime, located downtown in the old Woolworth building. The lofts are named for their location, as the F.W. Woolworth Co. was one of the first five and dime stores selling discounted merchandise, and are accessible next door to Yazoo Pass bakery. We had a coffee and a snack in the spacious shop while waiting for Bubba O’Keefe, the proprietor of the lofts who is filled with tales of Clarksdale, the blues and Tennessee Williams.
As Bubba checked us into our rooms — more like mini apartments you’d expect to find in a much larger city — he regaled us with tales of the real-life Brick from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (a bully in town who was shot and killed) and the old bank turned events space (where scenes from “Baby Doll” and “The Help” were filmed). Keefe is a man about town and has his hand in almost every development in Clarksdale, from Cat Head to the Juke Joint Festival.
Since our time was limited and we were on a literary hunt, we asked his opinion about a drive out to Moon Lake. He told us how to get there, to eat at Kathryn’s once we did and also suggested we see the Cutrer Mansion with direct links to the real-life Blanche DuBois in town before we left. It just so happened that we had a date with Panny Mayfield, organizer of the local festival honoring the playwright.
Held in October each year, the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival honors Williams’ legacy through his grandfather Rev. Walter Dakin, who served as rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church for 16 years. We took a short drive over to the church, where Mayfield had arranged for a custodian to let us in and show us around. Now 100 years old, the Gothic-style building is a landmark in itself. A pair of stained glass windows in the back pew are in memory of the family and it’s known that Williams spent a lot of time in church and on parish calls with his grandfather.
Next door is a two-story white house that serves as the rectory where Williams lived as a child from age 3 through 8. St. George’s current pastor is a fan of the playwright and has turned his childhood room at the top of the stairs into a mini museum with a twin bed, photos of Williams on the walls and a few other furnishings from the time period when he lived there. Across the hall are more family photos, a quote from Williams about his grandfather, old festival posters and a framed copy of a poem written by Williams on Japan Airlines paper, dating it to the height of his fame.
Outside, the rectory bears a Literary Landmark plaque and another “Walk of Fame” plaque on the sidewalk in front printed with the likeness of Williams and a short description. The rectory isn’t currently open for tours, but you can attend Mass in church on Sundays at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. and Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.
Crossroads of Literature & Blues
After touring the church and rectory, Mayfield led us up Sharkey Ave. and on to Tennessee Williams Park on John Street and her own home filled with memorabilia — both literary and blues-related. Williams’ friend Polly — who has a street nearby named for her — lived in Mayfield’s house so she feels like she’s living his legacy while also carrying it on. She can almost see the angel statue in the park from her front porch, a symbol from “Summer and Smoke.”
Here’s a general tip about Clarksdale: There aren’t many degrees of separation between town residents and Tennessee Williams. The same goes for the blues. Mayfield also helps put on the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in August. She has stories of Robert Plant from when the musician headlined the 25th annual festival in 2012. Plant had visited Clarksdale many times before recording “Walking Into Clarksdale” with Jimmy Page and attended the unveiling of the W.C. Handy Blues Trail Marker in Tutwiler in 2009.
Growing up in Clarksdale, Williams had to have soaked up the local sounds. Blues singer Bessie Smith is mentioned in his 1957 play “Orpheus Descending” as having her name written in the stars. She died in Clarksdale at what is now called The Riverside Hotel after she was injured in a car wreck, and Williams makes reference to the fact that the white hospital would not treat her.
Meet the Clarks and the Cutrers
The people and places of Clarksdale inspired Williams most, especially the Clarks and the Cutrers, two prominent families in town. Blanche Clark, daughter of town founder John Clark, married J.W. Cutrer, and the couple’s elaborate parties and masked balls intrigued Williams. In the fall of 1916, Cutrer had the Clark mansion loaded onto logs and rolled eastward so that construction could begin on his new home.
An Italian Renaissance-style villa, no expense was spared on the Cutrer mansion, which boasted a swimming pool, arbor and sunken gardens. It was here that the parties were held and that the inspiration for Belle Reve in “A Streetcar Named Desire” struck. The family called the mansion Belvoir, and Williams mentions the Cutrer name in at least four of his plays. The first time is in “Spring Storm” when a character orders flowers from Cutrer’s Flowers. In “Orpheus Descending,” Carole Cutrere is “wild but tender-hearted.” She spends her inheritance helping create a free health clinic for black citizens of Two-River County and is blacklisted in town and cut off from her family.
Blanche Clark Cutrer died in 1935, and the mansion fell into disrepair until the Catholic Diocese bought the property in 1946 for a convent. In 1999, the property was on the top 10 “most endangered list” in the state and when the Catholic Church announced plans to tear it down, state and community groups rallied to save the house. A $1.6 million restoration of the exterior and the first floor was completed in 2004; the following year the property was named a Mississippi Landmark. Today, it serves as part of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center, a partnership between Coahoma Community College and Delta State University.
Plans for the return of a masked ball and lecture series are in the works, but for now visitors to the Cutrer Mansion can see a small exhibit on the Cutrer and Clark families and Tennessee Williams and attend yoga classes in the sunroom. The mansion is only a short walk up Clark Street from Tennessee Williams Park to Delta Avenue. You can’t miss its spacious grounds and creamy white exterior with a red tile roof — or the historical marker for “J.W. Cutrer House” out front.
An Evening on on Moon Lake
Other sites in town mentioned in Williams’ works include the Peacock House (named for Eddie Peacock, whose little sister was Baby Doll), the Alcazar Hotel, Carnegie Library and aforementioned rectory, but it was Moon Lake we wanted to see next. In “The Glass Menagerie,” Amanda tells a tale about the Cutrere brothers and a quarrel that shot out the floor of Moon Lake Casino. Williams, along with other writers like Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, hung out at Moon Lake, or Uncle Henry’s Place as it’s known locally, in the 1930s to eat steaks and lobster, drink, gamble and dance.
“Yes, the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, very drunk and laughing all the way,” says Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” There’s no doubt Williams lived this line, and it was he who referred to the property at Moon Lake Casino in his works. According to the Uncle Henry’s Place website, the property was owned by a cousin of his during that time and was finally shut down after patrons learned the gambling operations had ties to the Chicago mob.
Originally built for the Clarksdale Elks Club, the popular spot was later a bed and breakfast and lodge for hunters but has been closed for several years. After following the lake for several miles, we spotted Kathryn’s Place on the right and knew we were close. Just after that is the old sign for Uncle Henry’s Place along with a historical marker. We pulled into the driveway, parked the car and got out with plans to explore. A man came around the side of the property, and we introduced ourselves and explained that we didn’t mean to trespass but just wanted to look around and take a few photos. He said that was fine and offered to let us look inside when we were done.
Just across the road is the shimmering lake, which spans 3 square miles, and behind Uncle Henry’s are steps leading down to a tributary that feeds into the Mississippi River, so the spot is idyllic to say the least. After weighing the danger of entering a dilapidated structure for the sake of literary research, we decided to take caretaker Cary Raiford up on his offer. It’s obvious from the exterior that Uncle Henry’s has fallen into disrepair, and the same is true inside. The place seems to be stuck back in time with remnants of the old casino and dance floor littered with debris, the dining room still holding linens and china and a table in the upstairs gallery set for a game of checkers.
Bedrooms upstairs sport casino-themed door plaques with names like “Roullette” and “Duces Wild,” while shelves behind the bar display memorabilia in the form of a photo depicting a visit from Willie Nelson, old liquor bottles, family photos, a postcard of a Tennessee Williams stamp and business cards that feature the former inn and restaurant’s magnolia logo and hours of operation.
Raiford told us that the family of late owner George W. Wright isn’t sure what they’re going to do with the property next. It would be unfortunate for Uncle Henry’s never to reopen, especially with all of the literary history tied to the place, but a major renovation would be needed to restore the property to its former glory. We can see it as a writers retreat with a picturesque lakeside setting and plenty of lingering spirits providing inspiration.
For those looking for a semblance of what an excursion out to Moon Lake would have been like in the 1930s, dinner at Kathryn’s next door doesn’t disappoint. There was a limo parked in the gravel lot when we arrived and once inside we discovered a group from town had decided to hire a car for dinner and drinks out on the lake. The low-slung ceiling, wood walls and string of lights hung above the bar give Kathryn’s a casual atmosphere, but the food is classic Mississippi. That evening, blues musician and owner John Mohead and his wife Jenn rode across the lake in their boat to check on things at the restaurant and dinner began to feel like a cozy meal at someone’s home.
We started with Cajun Fried Dill Pickles and the world-famous Kathryn’s Salad. Cerith still hadn’t had her fill of fried catfish in the state, so she opted for an entree of the Mississippi farm-raised fish breaded in house, while I went for the Skillet Shrimp, similar to New Orleans style barbecued shrimp and served in a cast iron skillet with bread. You can also find a New York Strip Steak on the menu, along with catfish topped with pecans or blackened.
As the sun set over the lake, we munched on fried pickles and discussed highlights from our week in Mississippi. We didn’t have nearly the time to do everything we wanted in Clarksdale — dancing at the local juke joint, a drive out to Benoit to see the house from “Baby Doll” and a visit to the Delta Blues Museum would have to wait until next time. We were exhausted after an afternoon of tracking Tennessee Williams and still had to find our way back to town in the dark.
Back at the lofts, a DVD set of films based on Williams’ plays awaited. I chose “Sweet Bird of Youth” and drifted off to sleep with the story of drifter Chance Wayne who returns to his hometown after trying to make it in the movies. Arriving home with him is a faded film star who he hopes will increase his chances of getting back together with his former girlfriend Heavenly Finley. A famous line from the film is Chance’s statement that “The big difference between people is not between the rich and the poor, the good and the evil. The biggest of all differences between people is between those who have had pleasure in love and those who haven’t.”
Tennessee Williams is certainly beloved in his childhood home of Clarksdale and his memory lives on in the town’s buildings, people and culture — if you know where to look.
Planning Tips for Clarksdale
- Visit Clarksdale’s website is a good place to start when planning a trip to the area, literary or otherwise. Coahoma County Tourism does offer personalized tours and itineraries upon request.
- To stay at The Lofts At The Five & Dime ($150 a night), click here to determine availability and make a reservation.
- The Clark House right down from the Cutrer Mansion is also available for lodging; rooms named after Big Daddy, Stella!, Baby Doll and Desire start at $100 a night.
- For more information on the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival or the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, contact Panny Mayfield by [email protected]
- To schedule a tour of the Cutrer Mansion, call 662-621-9344.
- If you want to see Uncle Henry’s Place, you’ll have to make the drive and hope for as good of luck as we had.
- Kathryn’s on Moon Lake reopens for the season in April. Check their Facebook page for hours and dates.
Photo Credits: All photos by Deep South except for The Lofts At The Five & Dime by Chuck Lamb Photography.
Special thanks to Lisa Rhoden at Coahoma County Tourism Commission, Panny Mayfield, Bubba O’Keefe and Cary Raiford for making our stay so special and informative.