Mixing Drama & Drinks: Tennessee Williams
On the 108th birthday of the award-winning playwright, we look at his contentious relationship with drinking.
In 1940, famed playwright Tennessee Williams found himself marooned at the Hotel Costa Verde in Acapulco, Mexico. He was awaiting the arrival of an advance royalty check from the Theatre Guild for his play Battle of Angels. The money was “mysteriously delayed and delayed in the mails,” Williams later wrote in his memoir, aptly titled Memoirs.
So, with time on his hands, Williams worked on his play Stairs to the Roof. His experience at the hotel, which was full of Nazis and refugees, later inspired him to write a short story that would be the basis for his acclaimed 1959 play, Night of the Iguana. (“And some Mexican boys did catch an iguana and tie it up under the verandah, to be fattened for eating—but nobody cut it loose,” he admitted in his autobiography.) He also apparently spent quite a bit of time at the bar enjoying a drink called the Rum-Coco.
Williams noted that he found it to be “a long dreamy drink, the most delectable summer night’s drink I’ve ever enjoyed,” and it allowed him a brief escape from his financial predicament. He and a writer friend spent their evenings in hammocks sipping Rum-Cocos “until the stars of the Southern Cross…began to flit crazily about like fireflies caught in a bottle.”
In Night of the Iguana, a similar scene takes place. The protagonist of the play learns from the hotel manager that his credit has run out, so that evening he and his friend “had more than our usual quota of rum-cocos, a drink that is prepared in a coconut shell by chopping off one end of it with a machete and mixing the juice of the nut with variable amounts of rum, a bit of lemon juice, a bit of sugar, and some cracked ice.”
This kind of boozy scene should be familiar to fans of Williams’ numerous plays, including his award-winning A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Many of his most famous works involve a good deal of drinking and their effects on human interactions. It’s no secret that his writing was based on his personal experiences and that he liked to drink, often to excess.
It should come as no surprise that he was fascinated by New Orleans and its spirited culture. Williams, who was born 108 years ago today, lived on and off in the city. During the fall of 1947, while working on his masterpiece Streetcar, for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize, “I obtained one of the loveliest apartments I’ve ever occupied…near the corner of St. Peter and Royal” in the French Quarter. He recalled in his Memoirs that “I would work from early morning until early afternoon, and then, spent from the rigors of creation, I would go around the corner to a bar called Victor’s and revive myself with a marvelous drink called a Brandy Alexander, which was a specialty of the bar. I would always play the Ink Spots’ rendition of “If I Didn’t Care” on the jukebox while I drank the Alexander.”
For those wanting a visit today, Victor’s is now the Chartres Room (601 Chartres Street). The Brandy Alexander, which is a creamy dessert drink, made of Cognac (or brandy), crème de cacao, and heavy cream, was most likely created in New York around 1910 and hung around for decades.
Another of Williams’ New Orleans cocktail favorites was the immortal Sazerac, which he was known to enjoy at the Carousel Lounge inside the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone. (The seats at the bar actually slowly orbit the bartenders who work in the center of the room.) The drink is made with rye whiskey, a little sugar, Peychaud’s Bitters and is served in an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass.
How’s this for a small world coincidence? About 100 years before Williams occupied a residence at 727 Toulouse Street (now part of the historic Hotel Maison de Ville), do you know who lived at that same address? My ancestor, Creole pharmacist Antoine Amedée Peychaud, the creator of the eponymous bitters brand, which are essential to making a Sazerac. True dat.
Like many other authors, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, Williams was also known to enjoy a Daiquiri. He featured the drink in his 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer, which was made into a 1959 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift. The character of Aunt Violet (played by Hepburn in the film) deals with life’s day-to-day trials, by having a frozen Daiquiri every day at five o’clock, in fact, “you could set a watch by it!”
As fate would have it, during their only face-to-face meeting (at Havana’s legendary bar Floridita), Williams and Hemingway shared a few double-sized Papa Doble frozen Daiquiris. They were joined for lunch by British theater critic Kenneth Tynan and writer and bon vivant George Plimpton.
As an aside, Williams wasn’t initially sure of the reception he’d receive from Hemingway; in Memoirs, he notes that Hemingway “couldn’t have been more charming. He was exactly the opposite of what I’d expected...a very manly, super-macho sort of guy, very bullying and coarse spoken. On the contrary, Hemingway struck me as a gentleman who seemed to have a very touchingly shy quality about him.”
But of all of Williams’ go-to drinks, his true muse has to be the Dry Martini (double dry, to be exact). His long-time collaborator, director Elia Kazan, recalled in his own memoir that “work is what held Tennessee Williams together; he did it every morning, and nothing was allowed to interfere. He would get up, silent and remote from whoever happened to be with him, dress in a bathrobe, mix himself a double dry martini, put a cigarette into his long white holder, sit before his typewriter, grind in a blank sheet of paper, and so become Tennessee Williams.”
Many a time the Martini would help Williams cope with the rigors of air travel. During one particularly hair-raising flight in 1954, he wrote in Memoirs that he’d fortified himself with two-and-a-half Martinis, both before and after the flight! That second dose, taken at the airport bar after landing, provided him with “a happy long ride to the hotel, thanking God every inch of the way.”
Tonight, I’ll be fixing a Rum-Coco, watching one of his plays and toasting Williams on his birthday!
- 2 oz Light rum (like Papa’s Pilar Blonde)
- .75 oz Coconut water
- .75 oz Fresh lemon juice
- .5 oz Demerara simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)
- Glass: Coconut shell or rocks glass
- Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice.
- Shake well and pour the concoction into half of a coconut shell or a rocks glass.