In the Footsteps of the Literati of Vieux Carré, New Orleans
By Christopher Ludgate
Vieux Carré, or the French Quarter of New Orleans as it is more typically known to modern day travelers, is among those unique U.S.destinations paved with layers of culture in every step you take.
Stretching from Canal to Frenchman Streets along the crescent of the Mississippi, the Quarter’s inherent soulful vibe grooves through streets, in and out of speakeasies and burning like Bourbon Street’s neon lights. That’s what so many people know and love.
But in the daylight, there is a lot to learn of the landscape’s culture which was woven together by so much diversity and has influenced so many.
The melding cuisines and architecture that derive from here have always been big attractions too, but I was intrigued about the equally significant history of its literature.
What an influential imprint left by many literary artists who were amorously drawn to the area in a magical time of literary inspiration. Imagine taking a walk in the footsteps of the literati of Vieux Carré.
What a thrill romanticizing at their old haunts, looking through the windows of their old dwellings, looking past the neon and maybe experiencing similar inspirations – perhaps some of their favorite libations – like I did on my all-out literary themed tour.
Before the U.S.
This old port city which actually predates the U.S. proper is synonymous with old-world charm. Touristy at times, sure, but it still possesses a bit of the character that resonated with the bohemian life-style that attracted many literary artists from the late 1800s to the mid 20th century.
Some of this select clique includes authors like Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Francis Keyes, Sherwood Anderson, native George W. Cable and many more.
The Works Progress Association, headed by author Lyle Saxon, encouraged new authors to come to New Orleans during the Depression, and in return, those who made their playground here retain historical significance and have a charm worth rediscovering.
They got the support and the affordable housing they needed to be able to create and have published some of the works of art we revere. Whether preserved or revamped, the remains of their time in the Crescent City remains an important part of the history here.
Potent Notables and Notable Potables
Delving into the layers of a destination’s history helps reveal a bigger picture, and here there are lots of crevasses to satisfy explorers.
Taking in dinners and drinks each night at the top places with locals after trailing an educated guide by day, I soon learned things like those galleries on Bourbon where I once swayed to the rhythm sipping on Sidecars once kept a secret backroom for those in-the-know during Prohibition.
It makes even more sense to me now that in those bohemian-days, the ease of getting hooked-up with some spirits in clandestine places was also a big draw for French Qtr. artist transplants, naturally.
Dinner at Antoine’s
I would not have guessed that the very chair I was sitting down in for dinner at Antoine’s, the world-famous 1840’s fine-dining landmark that inspired local author Frances Parkinson Keyes’ classic murder-mystery novel, Dinner at Antoine’s, may be the same seat as General Patton’s, the Pope’s, the King’s, or the Queen’s for that matter.
These are also those things only a good tour guide can make you privy to in the VIP dining room. During a revealing and intriguing tour of the restaurant that night, I discovered that there exist many backrooms for low-key societies — still set up for service in an almost ghostly manner – which likely served as inspiration for the mysterious tone of Keyes’ novel.
There is also a place called the ‘Mystery Room’ here which would have been accessed through a secret passageway leading elite patrons to an intoxicating time under the radar of Prohibition police.
(Hint: It’s inconspicuously located through a ladies powder room.)
Down east on Bourbon is one of Tennessee William’s old haunts, sans fancy china or tiaras, but not minus character. Williams came to New Orleans as a struggling writer in 1939 and felt a deep attraction to the progressive lifestyle of Vieux Carré, embracing all of it.
I wanted to do the same. Williams deemed the area his “spiritual home” according to Dr. Kenneth Holditch, author of The Last Frontier of Bohemia: Tennessee Williams in New Orleans.
Holditch himself organized a daytime tour for me and my assistant with expert guide, Ms. Inez Douglas, a local literary scholar and colleague of Holditch’s. In the midst of our in-depth walking tour which began mid-morning at 88 degrees, the three of us ducked out of the heat and pulled up a stool at Lafitte’s Blacksmith for some refreshments.
We each ordered what the Streetcar Named Desire playwright is said to have had a penchant for – Sazeracs. Ms Inez, a well-traveled woman with a polite southern manner and a charming twang described the playwright as “a quiet man who disliked crowds…He would write ‘til about noon everyday…everyday and then set out on a stroll – people watchin’ like he did – locals were more interestin’ back then – Probably meander a bit and head to Bourbon House or here at Lafitte’s and start on a cocktail.”
Lafitte’s Blacksmith is on Bourbon and St. Philip. It is reputed to be the oldest bar in the States dating back to 1722, and with its rustic charm and mystique it is not difficult to imagine Williams cavorting with a friend here or peering out above a cocktail watching the locals.
Up on the uptown end of Bourbon is Galatoire’s Restaurant at 209 Bourbon Street. Capote, Louisiana’s own existentialist, Walker Percy, as well as John Steinbeck favored this world-renowned French Creole restaurant.
Like the works of many of the area’s authors, this place is time tested. Williams was a famously loyal patron here and usually dined in solitude.
In a corner immediately to the far right near the front window at the entrance is the location of what became known as his table stood, always reserved and sentimentally revered. As I was being seated in his corner, I could see why Williams preferred this table. Private enough to go unnoticed by the local characters of the street, but still optimal for people watching, it suited him.
Incidentally, in Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella takes Blanche to Galatoire’s. One of the allures of this landmark is the feel that it is an old-fashioned establishment. The menu is as clean or as rich as you make it.
Its style is a classic bistro; elegant and not too elaborate, but it is jacket-required for dinner. Like the old days. In traditional fashion, regulars have a personally selected regular staff each time they visit. Galatoire’s Private Reserve Cocktail gave the iconic dining experience a fine finish.
Around the corner is Broussard’s at 819 Conti Street, famous for favoring local artists and eccentrics back in the day. Faulkner with Williams as close confidants would often have lunch here.
Faulkner was a major proponent of Williams and was instrumental in getting his work published it is said. I imagined the two of them diving deep into each other’s latest work as I enjoyed the fresh garden courtyard, just as they likely did.
It was an interesting visual to imagine hearing that past Cajun owner, Joseph Broussard, with a penchant for Napoleon Bonaparte and a reputed similar temperament, would throw any less than stellar dish right out onto Conti Street plate and all. These days, the 1920’s high-end fine dining establishment is a gem of Vieux Carré.
At its very popular Empire Bar, Paul Gustings, one of the country’s top bartenders according to experts, can mix a serious Sazerac as it was originally intended when created in the city more than 100 years ago. Yum.
New Orleans native, Truman Capote, Author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s among others, was oft overheard at Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar bragging about being born in the hotel. It’s not true – not literally – but it’s not too much of a stretch considering his mother did go into labor with him while living in the hotel.
Capote did stay here often. Declared a landmark by the Friends of the Library Association, the Monteleone offers four tribute suites each named for the classic authors who often stayed there. The Capote (obviously), Williams, Hemingway, and Welty have a distinctive charm and luxury.
A literary history related to the hotel which also includes Faulkner and Sherwin Anderson is displayed in lobby galleries. The Carousel Bar inside was the perfect place to let my imagination spin about those days gone by. It’s one of those jewels of the city you have to experience to appreciate fully and many do at happy hour and late night, so I was quite strategic in lassoing a horse of my own and order me up a Vieux Carré cocktail from master mixer, Marvin Allen.
Walking New Orleans
During our foot-walking tour, in between visiting the nooks of some of the local greats, Ms. Inez swept us into the Napoleon House, a corner building on Chartres
Street once meant to be a residence for Napoleon Bonaparte after exile. He never quite made it over (obviously). But many bohemian artists from Faulkner to Warhol – and now us – frequented here.
The restaurant, bar and courtyard is peppered generously with an intriguing collection of art work probably built up from its inception, is also known for its Muffaletta sandwiches and refreshing Pimms Cup.
Two of the most ever-present characters in Southern literature, making appearances in works like Huckleberry Finn, The Awakening, Wild Palms, The Bear, Showboat, and Dr. Sevier – to name a few – are The Mississippi River and those old steamboats.
The Natchez Steamboat is the oldest running steamboat on the river to date. They offer a lovely brunch tour with bubbly and festive live jazz, and ample opportunity to then roam about the exterior taking in the sights, rolling along and back again while getting acquainted with the majestic Old Man River.
I evoked the words of authors like Eudora Welty who wrote in her book On the Landing: “The river went by immeasurable under the sky, moving and dimming and snagging freeing itself without effort…”
I experienced what may have moved Faulkner to write words like “the steamboats carrying the baled cotton to New Orleans seemed to crawl along the sky…” Calling ahead is recommended, but the boarding pier and ticket booth can also be found at the Quarter’s east end of the river’s esplanade along its shore.
During our stay, we got rooms at the French Quarter’s historic and upscale world-renowned haunted Bourbon Orleans Hotel which I had heard much about. Part of this structure was the very same that housed the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the first black Catholic convent.
This luxury hotel is central to everything French Quarter, making everything accessible on foot. It has a street-level speakeasy with top-notch bartenders, entertainment and fine-dining.
This place also houses the only surviving Quadroon Ballroom, where the hotel’s annual ‘Ghost Camp’ holds séances and which is featured in a lot of literature such as Anne Rice’s Feast of all Saints and G. W. Cable’s Creole Days.
Viewable from the Orleans Street side of this grand hotel is St. Louis Cathedral. It was the prominent site from my room here. At night, the statue of Christ in the rear garden is illuminated and casts a wonderfully grand shadow upon its 18th Century façade.
I was also surprised to find that my room sat right across from 714 Orleans, an apartment that Tennessee Williams rented in his early years here. I imagined him taking a break, same time as I would to people watch from his balcony and letting the inspiration of the view work its magic.
“He loved seeing the statue of Christ with arms uplifted ‘as if to comfort the suffering world’… He said it gave him a kind of peace,” Tennessee Williams scholar, Dr. William Holditch, said of the emotive writer.
It was indeed a place that inspired and opened him up creatively and personally. This is where he wrote Streetcar, a poignant analogy of life taken from the two cars which intersected there; Cemeteries and Desiree (not actually pronounced “Desire”).
Le Petit Theater
Virtually next door to Williams residence on St. Peter’s Street is Le Petit Theater which staged Streetcar’s first production. Our guide explained that while the acclaimed production was true to what Williams intended, the movie version was said to have disappointed him because the character of Blanche, though very flawed, was not characterized as the story’s hero, like she was originally written.
Around the corner beside the Cathedral is Pirate’s Alley where the Faulkner House rests at number 624. Nobel Prize Winner, William Faulkner had particular support from fellow writer Sherwood Anderson, who he first stayed with at the Pontalba Apartments on either side of Jackson Square in front of the Cathedral.
The Faulkner House is where he wrote the 1927 classic Mosquitos among many others. A tour of this quirky restored apartment can be arranged, a place where you may feel the inspiration
of the past almost haunt you. I felt time stand still for a second. Books and catalogues that boast both history and authors from the area fill every inch of every corner of the street level bookstore in this amazing landmark.
We strolled with Ms. Inez, escaping the rising mercury through Royal Pharmacy on Rue Royale, a place Williams’ frequented to fill his tonic prescriptions and what-not.
It has a preserved back-in-time décor with shelves of old fashioned tonic bottles and soda fountains. It made me want to hop on a stool and order an egg cream, but I was still buzzing from the Sazerac.
Williams at the Top
It is very fair to say that Williams is the foremost celebrated literary artist associated with the Crescent City. In fact, he is so celebrated that he has his own festival named for him in New Orleans.
The inaugural Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was in 1987 and attracts literary historians, fans, authors, locals and many dignitaries worldwide. Thanks to Holditch and his dedicated crew, the festival is a major draw that offers a number of events to participate in ranging from popular author readings and discussions, networking, music & food, productions, contests, specialized tours, and the Stella! Screaming contest which can be seen on YouTube!
This 29th year presents a variety of new and exciting activities as well as accommodation specials for its annual celebrations – and it is indeed a celebration – that is unique to NOLA.
Although Williams held New Orleans dear to his heart, he was the type of guy who also had wanderlust.
It is said by scholars that he would get his mind set on going somewhere, like Italy, and then leave the next morning. But he always came back to Vieux Carré. His final home in the neighborhood was at 1014 Dumaine St., where he “hoped to die in my sleep, in this beautiful big brass bed in my New Orleans apartment …”
Traces of Himself
Like other notable authors, he left traces of himself everywhere: 722 Toulouse St. and 429 Royal St. were old haunts of his. The Tennessee Williams Suite, as it is now called at Hotel Maison De Ville is one of those special places.
With a brick exposed nook by the courtyard fountain that Williams once called home, it is said to be one of the oldest existing buildings of New Orleans after being rebuilt in 1800 no thanks to the destructive 1788 blaze that wiped out much of New Orleans.
As a writer, I could feel how this place would be a very charming private oasis to work in. It is similar to the Audubon Cottages nearby on Dauphine St. too, where many writers actually do go to work.
Interesting Odds & (Book) Ends
To switch it up for a more dressy and elegant evening of late-night jazz and cocktails, and perhaps dancing, the Ritz Carlton’s Davenport Lounge is a special place. The Ritz is among the top-notch in service, ambience, and location.
It is upscale and the extensive bar menu offers a very old-fashioned classy night away from Bourbon Street. The same can be said for the International House Hotel and its Loa Lounge – upscale – but modern with art gallery lobby installations shuffled in through the year.
It was refreshing to breeze through, have a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres and browse the gallery before heading to dinner. Set between the Arts District and the French Quarter, this boutique hotel is a unique blend of elegance meets rock star, which we loved.
We enjoyed playing it that way a night or two and then balancing it out with some old-school local places like the very fun Spotted Cat andBalcony Music Club – down by Frenchman Street – perhaps today’s version of what Preservation Hall might have been in the days of classic Vieux Carré.
The Ignatius Reilly Statue
The very animated Statue of Ignatius Reilly, the main character in contemporary author John Kennedy Toole’s highly praised The Confederacy of Dunces, stands On Canal Street right by the Ritz. The book won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize largely because of its very accurate portrayals of modern New Orleans life and characters.
It definitely demands attention. The title is taken from a Jonathan Swift essay: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
Before heading back to New York after our literary exploration back in time, we stumbled upon quite a perfect punctuation for our trip: A very comfortable kitchen called Back Space. Located on Chartres near Hotel Monteleone, the aptly themed place has a homey and unpretentious touch with old-fashioned typewriters and kitschy things of that type. Book shelves full of classics loom above big comfy chairs to curl up with one.
They have a literary themed varietal menu of Introductions, Prologues, and Epilogues. The libations are inspired as well with articulations from the authors who loved them.
As Faulkner once said, “Isn’t anything ah got that whiskey won’t cure.”