A BBC journalist’s love affair with literary New Orleans and the Deep South.
by Cerith Mathias
“Let me guess,” said my fiance in a tone dancing between joke and sarcasm. “Tennessee Williams used to buy his souvenirs here in this very store.”
Handing me the red and gold carnival mask he’d been waving for dramatic effect, he stepped back into the sunshine of Royal Street, rustling the rainbow of Mardi Gras beads and feather boas hanging in the gift shop doorway. It’s true what they say – New Orleans is full of drama.
I couldn’t blame my other half for feeling a little, how shall we say … exasperated. This was our first visit to the Crescent City, and the experience so far wasn’t quite as either of us had expected. We’d been here a little over three hours and I’d walked us to the corner of Royal and St. Peter for the third time in that short space to gawp at the broken, shuttered windows of a badly dilapidated (surely) derelict townhouse.
A bronze plaque still pinned, but no longer proud, to its flaking wall: the words “Avart-Peretti House. During 1946 and 1947 Tennessee Williams lived here and wrote A Streetcar Named Desire.” The writing was barely legible under a thick coating of sticky pink goo.
“Probably a strawberry daiquiri from Bourbon Street,” my fiance muttered, unhelpfully. Frustrated by my apparent lack of interest in the cornucopia of delights on offer all around us, as far as he was concerned, I’d flipped in the Southern heat.
Both on a sabbatical from careers in our native Wales, UK – him in PR and me a television producer – we were halfway through a three-month adventure travelling the States by Amtrak (which is itself another story), when New Orleans was added to the itinerary. It was a place I’d longed to visit since my teens, our thoughts filled with jazz bars and cocktail hours that lasted all night. But something happened during the taxi ride from the station that altered the focus of our visit, something from which I doubt I’ll ever recover.
As the cab lurched left off Canal Street into the banana tree-lined squares and iron lace balconies of the French Quarter, a switch flipped inside me. I’d been here before. Yes, this was my first actual visit to New Orleans, but as the driver navigated the Vieux Carre, I realized I’d roamed its rues, chugged the wide waters of the Mississippi and danced to the city’s intoxicating beat many times already through books, films and music. Stepping from that cab onto the Quarter’s cobbles felt like coming home. My love affair with the Deep South had begun.
Several years have passed since that first visit. The fiance has been upgraded to husband, and fortunately, his initial frustration with my sudden attachment to 632 St. Peter St. has long since been replaced by enthusiasm for return visits, of which there have been many. Together we have travelled the states of the South on a literary pilgrimage that has taken us from Hemingway’s Key West to Faulkner’s Oxford and everywhere in between. Each journey filled with newfound friends and amazing experiences: standing in the living room of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s former home in Montgomery, Alabama, now the world’s only museum dedicated to the couple; wandering the summer-scorched sidewalks in Columbus, Georgia, like Carson McCullers’ Mick Kelly in “The Heart is a lonely Hunter,” and following Atticus Finch’s famous advice by walking in the shoes of Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, our guide around the town’s Old Courthouse Museum none other than the cousin of its other famous export – Truman Capote. (The author is pictured below in front of one of Monroeville’s Mockingbird Murals.)
I always find the time, however, for the place that made these journeys possible, the place where the words of Tennessee Williams and so many more truly came alive to me for the first time.
New Orleans, Faulkner once wrote, is a place “where imagination takes precedence over fact,” and I’m inclined to agree. It is impossible not be swept up in its magic, to conjure up the ghosts of those who’ve left their literary mark on the city. Enjoy a lunchtime libation with Tennessee Williams at Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop, something the author reputedly did every day after a morning’s writing. Lunch with Williams at his favourite table in the window at Galatoire’s, while watching the world go by on Bourbon Street. Take a stroll to Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley, and visit with the young William Faulkner who lived there while writing his first novel, “Soldiers Pay.” Join him as he makes his way to 540 St. Peter St. to attend one of Sherwood Anderson’s legendary literary salons or hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and head for the porches and pillars of the Garden District residences of George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin.
When a sazerac beckons, and one will – head to The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Montelone, where you’ll find the spirit of Truman Capote perched on one of the ornately decorated barstools entertaining Ernest Hemingway with the claim that he was born in the hotel. (He was actually born in nearby Touro Infirmary.)
And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Over the years since I’ve known the city, several more plaques noting places of historic and literary importance have appeared. The ramshackle townhouse where Stanley first cried “Stella!” has had a makeover too; its flaking paint and pink goo are no more. For me, there’s still plenty to discover both here and throughout the Deep South. No matter where the literary trail takes me, I know I’ll always be back to check in on Tennessee Williams’ affectionately named ‘little bohemia.’ Thanks to that first visit to The Big Easy all those years ago, long after each vacation is over, a piece of my heart always remains in the South.
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Cerith Mathias is a political television producer with the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South and took all of the photos in this piece.