Drama and decadence in the deep south

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

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.

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