Tennessee Williams' Early Days in New Orleans

In his over 40 years living in New Orleans, famed playwright Tennessee Williams resided in several French Quarter locations. Arriving in New Orleans in 1938, a 28-year-old Williams rented a room at 431 Royal Street and later at 722 Toulouse Street. The Toulouse Street location represents a transitional phase for the young playwright, who was figuring out his identity as a writer. While at 722 Toulouse, Thomas Lanier Williams experimented with different names, including Valentine Xavier, which upon reflection Williams said “seemed a bit pompous.” The young playwright finally settled on Tennessee Williams, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life.

In correspondence to his family, Williams repeatedly suggested that he had relocated to New Orleans to work for Lyle Saxon at the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). However, in a letter to his mother dated Tuesday, February 21, 1939 (coincidentally Mardi Gras Day), Williams reported that New Orleans had nothing to offer him and that he and a new friend named Jim Parrott were on their way to California. Despite Williams’ claims of seeking employment with the FWP, there is no known evidence of any correspondence between Saxon and Williams.

Reflecting on this period of reinvention for the struggling playwright, Williams recalled that “In New Orleans … I found the kind of freedom I had always needed, and the shock of it – against the Puritanism of my nature – has given me a subject, a theme, which I have never ceased exploiting.” During this time, Williams turned to his wit to make a living. Williams recalled that the woman who owned his building operated a restaurant in the building that served lunches. Williams came up with the slogan for her business: “Meals for a Quarter in the Quarter.” As Williams explained, “I’d pass out handbills about it, and then I’d rush back and get on my white coat and be the waiter. That’s how I paid my rent.” W. Kenneth Holditch, an English professor at the University of New Orleans and friend of Williams, described him in those early years: “New Orleans was like a revelation to him … There’s a line in Vieux Carré where the playwright tells the landlady, ‘I should pay you tuition.’”

Years after first moving in, Williams’ apartment at 722 Toulouse Street served as the setting for his play from the late 1970s, Vieux Carré. Many writers have commented on the importance of the space to the play. For instance, Rodney Simard wrote, “The construction of the play suggests that the house itself, more than any particular character, is the protagonist.” Williams also drew from stories and events during his time at 722 Toulouse Street for inspiration. For instance, one event in Vieux Carré that supposedly mirrors an incident in Williams’ real life is a dramatic moment when his landlord became frustrated about a loud party occurring downstairs. In response to the noise, she allegedly poured boiling water between the floorboards.  The landlady’s actions prompted someone to call the police and everyone, including Williams, went to night court.

In 1945, years after Tennessee Williams moved from 722 Toulouse Street, Lewis Kemper Williams and Leila Williams, of no relation to the playwright, purchased the building. This couple founded the New Orleans-focused archive, The Historic New Orleans Collection, in 1966. Many of their French Quarter properties, including 722 Toulouse Street, are now part of this compound. Currently, The Historic New Orleans Collection houses a variety of Tennessee Williams materials, including a 1973 script of Williams’ Vieux Carré.

 

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722 Toulouse Street