Tennessee Williams & New Orleans 2008 – PART 3
Tennessee Williams’ Dueling Divas Hit The Big Easy… Hard
After spending a non-stop few days performing opposite Karen Kondazian in A Witch and a Bitch at the annual Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival last month, where we reprised our roles as Flora Goforth and the Witch of Capri from last fall’s Fountain Theatre production of Tennessee’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore — and after trying to catch every other TennFest cocktail reception and beguiling event we could squeeze in — Karen and I shook off our exhaustion and hangovers to join one of Dr. Kenneth Holditch’s remarkable Tennessee Williams Historic Walking Tour through the Vieux Carre.
Dr. Holditch, author of Tennessee Williams and the South and a dear friend-hyphen-drinking buddy of Tenn’s (who also still holds his Sazeracs splendidly, I hear), has created the quintessential tour, visiting all the various flats and restaurants and bars where the master American wordsmith hung his many hats over the years. It’s as though Williams has almost replaced Marie Laveau as the most intriguing dearly departed denizen of New Orleans and truly, his spirit is everywhere you look in the French Quarter—including our guesthouse, the Biscuit Palace, located just down the street on Dumaine from Tenn’s last home there (and the only one he ever owned rather than rented).
Weighted down by almost two weeks of the world’s richest, most decadent, most celebrated food, the day after Karen reluctantly left for home in LA, I forged the aftermath of a raging tropical Gulf rainstorm to join Rob Florence’s Voodoo / Cemetery Walking Tour, burning a few million calories as I slogged through the mud and puddles and chunks of deteriorating red brick with my trusty camera close at hand on a search for the grave of the Widow Paris, otherwise known as that aforementioned local icon Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ notorious voodoo queen—who lived her scarily long reign by being quietly replaced in her geriatric years by her daughter Marie II, spreading rumors far and wide (or as wide as the 12-block Quarter would afford) that she used her powers to successfully cheat her first bout with death.
Mr. Florence’s tour begins with a walk through the stately Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, the church on Rampart Street adjacent to the former fabled Storyville red-light district where yellow fever victims in the 1820s were quickly eulogized before being hastily planted next door at St. Louis Cemetery #1. It features one of my favorite N’awlins icons, the Ken doll-esque statue of St. Expedite, whom the city’s many Catholics, voodoo practitioners, and assorted others looking for favor in a hurry have come to seek help since the mid-1800s. The history of Expedite, known for his spiritually prompt responses and the patron saint of publicity, financial help, procrastination, nerds, ne’er-do-wells, and computer hackers (honest), is what makes this particular statue so bizarrely special—and typical of the Crescent City’s vibrant past.
The tale goes that as an early Louisiana mission was waiting for supplies, the ship sank during a storm and sometime later a crate labeled “EXPEDITE” washed up on the levee carrying this statue of a Roman soldier missing from a Crucifixion tableaux. Immediately word spread throughout the superstitious New Orleans population that the missing centurion was a depiction of saint named Expedite (alternately pronounced by various believers as “Ex-peed-EYE-tee,” “Ex-pee-DEET,” or even “Ex-peed-EE”) and soon after his sword was replaced by a cross and locals began offering devotions, from candles to coins to pound cake to random parts of sacrificed animals. There’s some evidence that St. Expedite’s cult originates farther back than that, but still it’s a great story, isn’t it?
New Orleans’ dead are buried in aboveground tombs since the city is below sea level so no one pops to the surface during a storm and no local cemetery is quite as unique as the deteriorating, chillingly gothic St. Louis # 1. Mr. Florence’s tour next treats its guests to an eerie walk among the crowded, crumbling crypts which, dating back as far as 1789, must surely house some of the oldest human bones in America. With streets, alleys and wrought iron picket fences adorning the cramped network of ancient tombs, it’s no wonder N’awlins’ cemeteries are called “Cities of the Dead.”
I became fascinated by one crypt on the far side of the cemetery from the grave of the Widow Paris and her descendents which also was scrawled on with many triple-Xs and loaded with candles, dying bouquets, Mardi Gras beads and even an old lipstick tube to wish on, so emailed Mr. Florence (who is also author of the mesmerizing New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead) to ask if he knew who was buried there, as my head has been swimming these days with names such as Sanite Dede and Dr. John, trudging through a shelf-full of books about the history of this city and its roots, including the inscrutability of its voodoo origins.
Here’s Mr. Florence’s reply: “I think the reason that you can't find anything voodoo-related on that tomb is because it's a fake. I've been going through that cemetery for years and every time I see a tour guide at that tomb, they say it belongs to either voodoo priestess Sanite Dede or Malvina Latour. There is no record of either of them being buried in St. Louis #1. Here is what I see happening: these tour guides who feel a need to have their visitors deface tombs as if their tour wouldn't be satisfying without allowing people to mark up the landmarks (much like the swamp tours which feed the alligators marshmallows to make the tour more exciting but in the meantime wreak havoc on the alligators and the ecosystem), they fabricate burial places of legendary voodoo queens so people can scratch them up. What you will notice is that all the fictionalized burial sites are always conveniently located at junctures of the most well-traveled paths; they are never tucked away off the beaten path.” Lord, isn’t New Orleans colorful enough without enhancement?
If I can’t figure out how to earn a living in the Big Easy someday, at least let me be buried there somewhere near ol’ Marie. And if someday you happen upon my moldering tomb, go ahead and knock three times and see what happens. No promises, but I’ll do the best that I can. After all, there’s nowhere where magic happens more often than in New Orleans.
For information on the Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, check out www.tennesseewilliams.net; for the Biscuit Palace, click on www.biscuitpalace.com; for the Historic New Orleans’ Voodoo / Cemetery Tour, contact www.tourneworleans.com; for Kenneth Holditch’s Heritage Literary Tours, call (504) 949-9805.