The man who made the Quarter's literary legacy come alive with his walking tours and Tennessee Williams lore: a visit with Kenneth Holditch.
by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
photos by Ellis Anderson
Characters: A protective caregiver, all youth and hair and indolent glory. Professor Holditch, aged 85 and in a wheelchair.
I have heard the story before. But, as always, its whimsical charm makes me smile.
Kenneth Holditch’s first home was Ecru, a North Mississippi hamlet that got its name from the color the depot was painted when the railroad first crossed Holditch family land.
Ecru, a fancy name for beige.
We all have our beige (and sometimes Baptist) beginnings. I know I did. Kenneth did. He grew up singing duets in the First Baptist Church and wouldn’t trade it for anything, he says. Provided him with ammunition for future arguments.
There is our birth home, yes, and then, if we are lucky, there is our spiritual home, or, as Kenneth has called it “the El Dorado of our dreams.”
Kenneth found his in 1949, at age 16, on his first visit to New Orleans. He was with his parents. His father, a civil engineer, was sent to survey a Chalmette drainage canal, and Kenneth begged to go along.
From that rather utilitarian mission with his tee-totaling family grew a hothouse romance with place that has not yet ended.
The young Kenneth was prepped to love the city. He had read all the books about New Orleans that he could find in Tupelo’s public and high school libraries.
But though he devoured the novels of George Washington Cable and the Louisiana histories of Lyle Saxon, nothing really could prepare the Mississippi Hills teenager for the actuality of the city -- his first meal at Tujague’s on Good Friday, the hulk of a man hauling banana stalks down the street, the vibrancy and sheer color of the place, anything but beige.
Like Tennessee Williams before him, Kenneth felt “a mixture of awe and fear” encountering that first blush of bohemia that seduces all creative sorts. Williams once said New Orleans taught him so much he should have paid tuition. For Kenneth Holditch, too, there was a steep learning curve.
Kenneth writes of that first visit in his book Galatoire’s; Biography of a Bistro: “…once we walked through those front doors and into the mirror-lined bistro, I thought I had found paradise at a very early age. I recall eating Truite Amandine on the recommendation of the aged waiter, who was courteous to us, but a bit put off by the fact that we ordered no wine or liquor….”
It took 15 years and a cut in salary, but in 1964 Kenneth would accept a job in the English department of the then-new University of New Orleans. He would teach there for 32 years. He had been awarded the first-ever doctorate in English from the University of Mississippi and first put it to use at what was then Southwestern College in Memphis. But New Orleans was a magnetic city – and a dream – he could not escape.
Today Kenneth sits in a wheelchair necessary after back surgery and knee replacements, warmed by a space heater and his mental list of a long life’s grievances: An old friend stole his pocket watches and oddly, some jars of granola. His past renters kept dogs in their rooms and never walked them. The French Quarter has been bought by Californians and has lost its charm.
And yet, at age 85, Holditch has the handsome and unlined face of a much younger man and a wit as sharp as a saw palmetto. He keeps writing and thinking and sharing what he knows. He laughs a lot and relishes talking about a life that’s been a front row seat to the never-ending pageant called New Orleans.
“When I first came here I found everything odd and strange and charming,” he says in his soft Mississippi voice. “In the Quarter I got to know the barkers and the bartenders and the bar owners.”
He lived at first on Elysian Fields, drinking 10-cents-a-mug beer and dining on amazingly cheap delicacies such as Oysters en Brochette or Shrimp Clemenceau. Where else could one do that? Kenneth soon moved to the Quarter, his idea of “the Elysian Fields I wanted.”
He got to know authors and restaurant owners and poets and painters and playwrights – including Tennessee Williams. There was that Mississippi connection, which Kenneth believes everyone has, if once or twice removed.
“Even John McCain has a Mississippi connection,” he says. “Did you know that?”
Kenneth would become a recognized Tennessee Williams scholar and start a Tennessee Williams literary journal, help birth several festivals in the playwright’s honor, including two in his home state, and co-author a book about the famous Mississippi writer. He became the man to quote on all things Tennessee Williams.
In 1974 Kenneth started the first literary walking tour in the French Quarter, which today seems overrun by tours of one sort or another, but in 1974 was a novel idea. Not only did he lead you to various author homes, he showed you Tennessee Williams’ favorite tables at Galatoire’s and Marti’s and the Napoleon House. The tour was a hit.
When he moved from the French Quarter to his grand old house in the Marigny, Kenneth became friends with a close neighbor, author John Kennedy Toole’s mother, Thelma. He helped her write letters –“to just about everybody” – correspondence spurred by the posthumous success of her son’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.
She eventually left one-fifth of her estate to Kenneth.
Thelma Toole also left him in charge of another manuscript, The Neon Bible, written by her son at age 16 and, by design, unpublished. After her death, to avoid a lawsuit by relatives, the book was published.
In his delightfully cluttered home - “I come from a family of packrats” - there is evidence of important encounters. Paintings by New Orleans’ great artists George Dureau and Paul Cadmus enliven the study. There are even abstracts by Tennessee Willliams – Who knew he painted? – a collection so rare the Ogden Museum borrowed them. Mississippi folk art celebrating his old high school classmate Elvis is prominent.
The house is a museum curated by a Waring Blender. There are Persian rugs and carnival glass bowls and stacks of letters and periodicals, all seemingly at Kenneth’s fingertips if he needs them.
And there are 10,000 books, willed to Ole Miss, so walking through the rooms is like blazing a trail through The Strand Bookstore in New York’s East Village.
Life continues to add plot twists and new characters. Kenneth’s friends are urging that he work on his memoir but the logistics of such a project bedevil him.
Limited mobility keeps him from getting out a lot. He admits to sometimes being lonely. The convivial lunches at Galatoire’s that used to stretch into the evening are mostly in the past. He has outlived a lot of friends.
“What I miss the most these days is fried okra,” he says, remembering a treat from his childhood. Nobody, he says, nobody can fry okra like his Mississippi relatives.
Outside, the music clubs on Frenchmen are coming to life, and the park denizens shout to and fro. Sounds inside the mansion are muted, and through the sheer curtains of his study street movements are mere shadows.
But the pulse of a life he once dreamed remains strong. He followed his heart and found what Williams called “the folly and fantasy in the southern temperament.”