Drama and decadence in the deep south
hop on the St Charles streetcar, one of the three surviving lines at Canal Street. It will take you to the Garden District, reminiscent of the somnolent deep south of a century ago. The streetcar chugs its way down atmospheric St Charles Avenue, a boulevard studded with dazzling mansions.
Mark Twain once said that Garden District homes were ‘‘painted snowy white . . . and have wide or double verandas . . . no houses could well be in better harmony with their surroundings, or more pleasing to the eye’’. The description still holds true.
In fact, the Garden District is awash with literary landmarks. Williams modelled the stage setting for Suddenly Last Summer after the garden room at Bultman House, a stately mansion at 1525 Louisiana Ave. F. Scott Fitzgerald began This Side of Paradise at 2900 Pytrania St, which overlooks Lafayette Cemetery. The novelist Walter Percy said that even Lafayette’s tombs were ‘‘modest duplexes’’.
On my last afternoon, I track down an old poker-playing buddy of Williams, Joan Good, at her antiques and jewellery store on classy Royal Street. ‘‘It’s not me that you want to speak to but Victor,’’ she tells me. And, on cue, Victor emerges from the dark bowels of the store. At 62, he is still a stri- kingly good-looking chap; back in the day, he must have broken many a young gentleman’s heart.
‘‘I was Tennessee’s last lover,’’ he tells me with pride before recounting how Williams had picked him up in a Florida motel when he was 21 and Williams was 59, and brought him to New Orleans in 1972. He shows me a letter from Williams starting ‘‘Vic Babe’’ and some photos of the two of them in London, and plays me some recordings of Williams reading his own poems. Later I find out that Williams used to refer to Vic as ‘‘my Mary Poppins’’.
As I stroll across Jackson Square to the Market Cafe, as Williams would do each morning for his coffee and beignets, it starts to rain and I remember Blanche’s line from Streetcar: ‘‘Don’t you just love those long, rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands and who knows what to do with it?’’ Yes, I think I do, Blanche.