Playwright Tennessee Williams famously turned his life into art, and among his many literary inspirations, he found a generous muse in his “spiritual home” – New Orleans – a city that fueled many of his works, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire. New Orleans was an adopted home for the playwright who was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi.
Williams described his childhood in Mississippi as pleasant and happy, but life changed for him at the age of seven when his family moved to St. Louis. His troubled family life and what he would later describe as his parents’ “wrong marriage” caused young Williams to turn inward and write. He started getting attention for his writing in high school, and wrote his first known play while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. However, Williams' father derailed his literary pursuits, forcing him to leave college and work in a shoe factory, which he described as a “living death.” The strain of being unfulfilled weighed heavily on him and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Writing was his constant salvation. He eventually returned to college at the University of Iowa and graduated with an English degree in 1938.
A year later at age 28, Williams moved to New Orleans, where he changed his name to Tennessee, a college nickname and the state where his father was from. This shift in location and identity allowed him to reinvent himself and his work. He soaked in the lifestyle of New Orleans, which he described as “the last frontier of Bohemia," and the city became a heartbeat for his work.
Every year around Williams’s birthday, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival kicks off a five-day celebration honoring the author’s creative genius in the city that inspired his work. As fans converge at the festival, event organizers provided this tour of some of the homes and French Quarter haunts that were part of Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans.
722 Toulouse Street
Tennessee Williams lived in an upstairs apartment at this address early in his career, and it is now part of The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC). In this apartment, he wrote his short story "The Angel in the Alcove," and it is where he found inspiration for his play Vieux Carré and other works.
632 ½ St. Peter Street
After many travels, Williams returned to New Orleans in 1945 and stayed through 1946. According to THNOC’s historian Mark Cave: “He and his partner at the time, Amado ‘Pancho’ Rodriguez y Gonzales, lived together in an apartment at 632 ½ St. Peter Street, near the corner of Royal Street . . .The Desire streetcar route, established in 1920, ran regularly down Royal and could be seen from the window of their apartment. The route served the shopping areas along Royal and Canal streets and the nightclubs on Bourbon Street, and it was called ‘Desire’ because its terminus was on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward. While living at this address in 1946, Williams was developing his most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948, the same year that the Desire streetcar route ceased operation, soon after the play made its premiere on Broadway.
Hotel Maison de Ville, 727 Toulouse Street
One of Williams' favorite New Orleans hotels was the Hotel Maison de Ville. The playwright preferred Room #9, which is now named in his honor. He wrote parts of Streetcar and other works in the historic courtyard of the hotel.
Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street
Williams also stayed at the Hotel Monteleone at 214 Royal Street, which has dedicated a suite to him. You can find mentions of the hotel and its Carousel Bar in two Williams plays, The Rose Tattoo and Orpheus Descending.
1014 Dumaine Street
From 1962 until his death in 1983, Williams owned the 19th-century townhouse at 1014 Dumaine Street. An avid swimmer, he did his daily laps in a pool there. He also worked on his autobiography, Memoirs, in which he wrote, "I hope to die in my sleep. . .in this beautiful big brass bed in my New Orleans apartment, the bed that is associated with so much love…"
Galatoire’s, 209 Bourbon Street
Williams was a regular customer at Galatoire’s at 209 Bourbon Street, a restaurant he mentioned in A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams's favorite spot – a table by the front main window.
Another frequent haunt was a bar at Marti’s, a popular restaurant across the street from his townhouse. Former bartenders and a few patrons claim that the playwright “drank quite a lot of bourbon, except when he switched to a little gin.”
Brennan’s Restaurant, 417 Royal Street
At Brennan's Restaurant at 417 Royal Street, Williams's culinary tastes were remembered by famed film critic and columnist Rex Reed who said he was known for “devouring a breakfast of eggs Sardou, grits and grillades, and Bananas Foster flambé – all washed down with a pitcher of martinis.”
Photos provided by The Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center. Visit THNOC on Facebook.