Tennessee Williams – In Memory of an Aristocrat,1940

John McCrady,1911-1968

By this time she had painting for several years and had accumulated enough canvases to cover the walls of a room. She packed all her paintings and shipped them down to New Orleans where she heard an artist could subsist on practically nothing. She had hitch-hiked down there (last winter it was) and set up the studio and lived the life of an artist with that particular modification, if it really is a modification, which her desparate need of money had imposed.
As for her paintings, I thought they were really surprisingly good. They were very raw and terrific. Pictures of pregnant women in soiled cotton dresses and bums sleeping in doorways. Screaming strikeworkers, hideous scabs and bosses. There was one that was quite indecent but powerful as hell: a policeman nude except for his cap and his badge, beating a woman striker with a club while his sex organ stood in complete erection. This sounds like very bad painting but surprisingly it wasn’t. Each of the pictures packed a tremendous wallop, they hit you right smack between the eyes with the force and precision that only comes from the fury of a first-rate talent. Irene was a furious girl, she was possessed of a demon, but more than anything else I think, Irene was an artist.

. . .

I wanted, she said –(and this is something that I will always remember)-I wanted, she said, to stretch out the long, sweet arms of my art and embrace the whole world!

She said this at the end of everything else and it was, I think, what she had been trying to say all the time and hadn’t till then found the perfect utterance for.

Now she was silent. I turned over and saw that now at last Irene had fallen asleep. And her face as she slept was white and lovely and tender, the face of a sleeping child.

This was Irene.

Two or three weeks after Mardi Gras there was held what was known as the Annual Spring Display of Paintings by New Orleans artists. It was sponsored, of course, by a select private group of the more successful painters, the ones who if they had lived in the Quarter lived there only because it had atmosphere and whose studios were sparsely furnished with very beautiful things, great oval gilt-framed mirrors and inch-thick Oriental carpets and the kind of vases that the tragic protagonist knocks over when sneaking home late at night in two-reel comedies.

That is how I imagine them to be without, I must admit, having entered more than a couple.

Irene had submitted ten of her best canvases and for some time before the display she went around white and excited in a new black crepe dress with a silver and rhinestone buckle. She shaved her heavy legs, now, and wore some neat black slippers and even affected an ivory cigarette holder. She had a quick nervous smile for everyone in the Quarter. I would wake up some mornings and hear her voice on the street and think she was calling me but when I stepped out on the balcony I could see she was merely holding a casual conversation with the woman who sold perfume at Hové King’s or a tangerine vendor or one of the prostitutes at the corner bar. The Union organizers who had disappointed and betrayed her, the gallant workers in the garment shops, the mean-souled bosses and the sadistic policemen, all of these had receded from the surface of her mind. Art stood out above everything else, it bathed the landscape in a radiant, heavenly glow. Her eyes were lit with it, it trembled on her lips when she spoke, magnified her voice to a trumpet and filled the bigness of her body with a new kind of universal passion. She wanted to stretch out the long, sweet arms of her art – (I keep remembering that speech!)-and embrace the whole world . . .

Well-

I didn’t see her for several days and then she suddenly burst into the restaurant one Sunday while I was clearing the tables after the midday meal.

Something has happened she panted.

What?

I can’t tell you! How long will you be?

About ten minutes.

Okay, I’ll wait till you’re through.

But Irene couldn’t sit still. She paced tigerishly up and down the Bohemian dining room with its charcoal nudes on the walls.

I want a job, she said.

Doing what?

Painting this kind of stuff! She said. I want to decorate somebody’s bathroom with scatological sketches, I want to draw obscene images on the ceilings of bedrooms!

Why?

Because I’m finished, she said, I’m all washed-up and I’m tired of being a whore!

It was sunny that day, terrifically bright on the streets, and Irene’s face was like a wound that should have been wrapped up. The bandages were torn away, the gentle humour, the tolerance and the good will so that nothing was visible but the raw, bleeding hurt, the fury and the terrific frustrated bitterness.

Rejected! She said. Every one of them completely rejected!

As we approached the artists’ salon I could see that something special was going on that afternoon. The curbs were lined with the kind of motors that the negro woman had told Irene she should ride down Canal Street in with a man in a full-dress suit.

We’d better not go in there now, I advised.

I got to, said Irene, before they burn my pictures!

Burn them?

Yes, she said, they’re planning to destroy my work!

It was the society crowd making a gracious bow to respectable art. Elegant people were standing around with little demitasse cups and frosted cakes and the air was pregnant with polite exclamations.

Irene was shaking terribly now and her face was chalk white. I could see that she was determined to make some kind of a scene and I began to make mental notes of ways to get out quickly.

What she did was to go in the back room where they had piled the rejected canvases like spare pieces of lumber after a house has been built. Their backs were outward, their faces were turned to the wall as though they stood there in shame. Irene, breathing heavily, stooping awkwardly, snatched among them until she had found her own. Then she lifted the largest and stalked with it into the bustling brightness of the the little spring salon. As I looked at the persons and objects that she was moving amongst I had a warning sense of something desparately irreconcilable in the air. These delicate vases, these little china cups, these blossoms, these nicely chiseled bits of terra cotta, and also these people with their fastidious clothes and their reserved little voices, they were all too fragile and Irene was something too fierce. There could be no peace between them. I saw her moving straight forward, black and terrible as a thundercloud in all the pale spring brightness, I saw the people before her dividing politely, murmering and giving way. I heard their nice exclamations, their Ohs and Ahs. And I thought to myself, If one were conducting a tour of battlefields in action, one might say, Here on the left is a gorgeous specimen of a twentieth-century man with the top of his skull blown off, and that one, the stout dowager with the violets at her bosom, would point delicately with her littlest gloved finger and say, How very nicely it’s done!

This was bitterness, not truth, but expressed my feelings.

Irene had moved over to the middle-aged man in frock coat and pince-nez standing beneath the leathery green fronds of a large potted palm. At first she seemed to be speaking without very much agitation. He was gently, politely warding off her objections. I could see him making fatherly little faces and touching her shoulder with the tip of one finger, just enough to establish contact without the risk of any contamination, while the saliva dribbled ever so slightly from the corner of his mouth.

Then Irene started raising her voice. There was a stir all around her. Coffee cups were set down with tiny click-clicks, a very faint spsss-spsss-spsss began to be heard under or above the ordinary chatter, eyebrows climbed higher, spruce little men craned their necks, roosterwise, debutantes shimmered and giggled with little breathless spasms, large women waggled their bottoms the way that they do when a disturbance is pending.

Is this the floor show? Someone asked.

The girl with the orchids giggled.

At this point Irene’s voice rose abruptly to shouting proportions. Something like pandemonium was then beginning to be let loose at the Annual Spring display, though it was still on a fairly small scale compared to later developments. You know how it is when a crowd of our best people discover all at once that something on the order of the Bubonic Plague has suddenly reared its hideous face amongst them. The social pattern, which is everything, is suddenly disrupted. There is no longer any logical motion so that they swarm without reason. The head is cut off the chicken, as it were, and she is flying about the yard spouting blood in complete abandon while her frenzied companions cackle in useless sympathy and dismay. Why doesn’t she put her head on? What can be done to stop it? The answer is nothing, nothing! On a stage you could bring down the curtain, in a bar you could summon the bouncers, but here amongst our nicest people there is no preparation for anything outrageous to happen. Suppose the police were called? The papers would be full of it tomorrow, a disorderly scene at the Annual Spring Display, it would completely crowd out the references to who served coffee and who was the chairman of what. It would constitute a regular scandal. But could this person be allowed to continue? No, she could not!

Who is she, anyhow? Does anyone know?

What? I can’t hear you!

Oh!

Who?

Some Quarter Rat who paints disgusting pictures that couldn’t be shown.

Of the actual altercation I could see very little. When I heard the loud impact, the sound of rippping canvas, I said to myself, christ, she’s busted that picture over somebody’s head!

Hysteria broke loose at this point. Women who had been exclaiming in little pussycat voices abruptly learned how to scream in the way that swimming is learned by suddenly falling in water. Something loud crashed, a window I think it was. I was alarmed, unable to see but full of the wildest conjectures.

Irene! I shouted. Could she have been thrown out?

There was a brief contortion among the tight group of people who now surrounded Irene. The white-haired official was frenziedly spewed from amongst them. He shot straight forward across the floor to the phone on the opposite wall and shouted into its mouth such words as disturbance, Riot, Police!

But it was too late, this action too tardily taken. Irene was beyond restraint. As the wall of backs divided I had caught a glimpse of her face. My God, what a sight! Her face was no longer colourless, it was livid. Her dress had been torn loose in the struggle and one of her large white breasts was exposed. She was pinioned for that short moment by two stout gentlemen but they could not possibly hold her. She stamped on the toes of one and jabbed her knee into the other’s groin so they both fell away with desparate looks of anguish.

Then she was out. Nothing on earth could stop her, not even the Maginot line. Like a human tornado she swept around the four walls, plucking the nice pictures down and tossing them on the floor, hurling them at her pursuers or at the tea table. The glittering percolator went over, the cut-glass bowl full of pale green sherbert followed right after it. Millions of voices seemed to be shouting together, but over them all, all of the other voices, was always Irene’s. Such words as she screamed the nicer ladies had never heard whispered before. Dykes she called them, bitches and son of bitches and-

Well-

Tennessee Williams,1911-1983   In Memory of an Aristocrat, c.1940

Image: John McCrady,1911-1968.  The Parade, 1950. The artist paints a portrait of a nude woman in his studio in the French Quarter while a Mardi Gras parade passes in the street.

A short-story written in the Winter of 1939-40. The story describes Irene, who had studied painting in New York in a night class at the WPA, and moved to New Orleans, living and supporting herself as an artist by working as a prostitute in the artistic Quarter of New Orleans. Irene was based on a character in New Orleans whom Williams described as “an Aristocrat of the Spirit”, a bohemian artist and prostitute, who exhibited a freedom and joie de vivre in her art and her sexuality, “who painted the marvellous pictures and disappeared”.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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