“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at -- Elysian Fields!”
– Blanche duBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
In the 1940s, Tennessee Williams was living at 632 ½ St. Peter Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and there he wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It portrayed a side of life in the Crescent City that was startling to those who would see it for the first time at its Broadway premiere in 1947, and it had the same effect on the audiences who first saw the movie version in 1950 and it would continue to resound deeply, and it still does, with its portrayal of brutality, madness, and want amid a squalid tenement where people no longer dreamed or desired except for those who did and then they were crushed or rescued by the kindness of strangers.
Like other street and place names in New Orleans, “desire” is poetic and conjures so many things. Where is the streetcar going? Is there really a destination called Desire? Isn’t that a condition of longing to which we all belong? In his small railroad flat, Tennessee would listen to the clanging of the trolley nearby—and yes, there really was a destination called Desire—and along with Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella, the unforgettable characters he created, he placed Blanche DuBois on that train, or rather fate did, and then it proceeded on its designated route through that landscape we all inhabit: the human condition, American style.
The time has come speak of New Orleans as not only the birthplace of jazz, a font of fine dining in fancy restaurants and dives, and the land of Mardi Gras and its joyful witness to life everlasting, but as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was born and the place that informed his early years and intermittently, the rest of his brief life. Strangely, given what has become chapter and verse about this confounding figure, it’s as if he came from nowhere, a man apart from latitude and longitude and all manner of other triangulation. This is true in some ways; he certainly was no fun-loving free spirit who would close down bars New Orleans–style or march in a second line just for the heck of it as a hired band played “When the Saints Go Marching In” at one of the funerals that regularly plied the byways of New Orleans.
As it happened, Lee Harvey Oswald’s paternal grandfather John Claverie was a streetcar conductor who may well have worked on the streetcar line called Desire. It was launched in 1920, and ran in proximity to the Claverie household, all the way to the cemeteries at the outskirts of town, and one can imagine the word “Desire” popping up as a destination in the streetcar window as it clanged through the fog and humidity of the burgeoning city. Although there are no records of which men were conductors on which exact line, it is likely that John was engaged as such on that particular one. There were few trolley lines at that time, and there is mention in various accounts of Lee’s mother Marguerite’s early life of a certain streetcar line that was in the vicinity of her family’s flat. That would probably have been the Desire line. Most likely, Marguerite and her siblings—Charles, Lillian, John, and Pearl—would hear the clang of that trolley, perhaps thinking of their father as he went about his day ferrying citizens of New Orleans to and from work.
We do not know if John liked his job, or what if anything he might have said about it to his wife or children. He was one of the first streetcar conductors in the city, earning ninety dollars per month. The family paid fourteen dollars per month for rent, and every day John would give his children a small sum for groceries. They purchased beans, rice, spinach, and bananas for meals, and their other household expenses were minimal. They didn’t have a gas stove, for example, but they did have a furnace. There were no electric lights. If anything was left from the small allotment, the children kept the change and could spend it as they pleased. He was celebrated in an article in the New Orleans Times Picayune when he retired after forty years of service. While he would be dead by the time Lee was born, we can imagine that Lee’s love of subways, which emerged years later when he was a teenager living with his mother in the Bronx, was possibly a way of connecting with his grandfather, having heard stories of the man conducting streetcars through the byways of New Orleans from Marguerite. Or perhaps it was just by way of an old map, or a mention. Lee had a fondness for maps and in New York especially would carry one in his pocket, navigating his way through the underground of the crowded metropolis, from the Grand Concourse to the Staten Island Ferry, possibly attuned to the conductor announcing each station stop en route to who knows where and back again.
Sometimes he’d spend the day riding the rails. He had been used to the streetcar in New Orleans, so it wasn’t exactly a new experience, but it was different and exciting, mostly underground unless you were on the El, and sometimes at the big destinations like Times Square or Grand Central or Staten Island Ferry you could slide easily on or off the cars, carried by crowds rushing to one place or another. Lee Harvey Oswald became part of the stream, the flow of humanity, something he never felt on the streets of the Crescent City except maybe at Mardi Gras, but he hated costumes so that was never an occasion in which he participated. Once, while he was living with his half-brother John, he and his brother Robert traveled together on the subways when Robert was on leave shortly after enlisting in the Marine Corps. Lee kept subway maps in his pocket, and he delighted in showing off his knowledge of the system, and we can imagine Lee tracing the different colored subway lines with a finger and saying hey, let’s take the F train and go to Brooklyn . . . It rattles when you cross the bridge and it makes this sound, you gotta hear it . . . Such are the ways that flickers of a life are passed on, and it was in the Manhattan subway system where Lee seems to have found some solace, riding it to and fro for hours on end, partly because it was an entertainment that once you were on board the ride required no more cost and his family was always strapped for spare change.
Perhaps, more significantly, another reason for Lee’s love of subways was that—as studies have shown—the vibrations of the fast-moving subway have an effect on the nervous system, or the body’s system in general, acting as a kind of tuning fork, like an old-time train, calming and adjusting physiological quirks and functioning as a kind of antidepressant or mood transformer for those who might need such a thing. And it was in New York that Lee began seeing psychiatrists after getting into trouble, and one of them said he was schizophrenic, or used terms that today would serve as indicators of a bipolar personality or someone afflicted with other disorders. In any case, riding the rails was in the family’s blood, following in the tradition of his grandfather.
Yet this aspect of his family legacy would not maintain its tether. “Flores. Flores para los muertes,” calls the blind woman in A Streetcar Named Desire”—a request for a passing funeral and a haunting reminder of what lies beyond the apartment door behind which Blanche seeks a home and where Stanley is regularly brutalizing her sister, his wife Stella, just like Lee Harvey Oswald would later beat his wife Marina and hardly anyone, after witnessing the black eyes, would say a word.
Deanne Stillman is the author of four books, including Mustang, Desert Reckoning, and Blood Brothers. Mustang was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Hunter S. Thompson called Stillman's cult classic, the bestselling Twentynine Palms “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.”
From American Confidential: Uncovering the Bizarre Story of Lee Harvey Oswald and his Mother. Used with permission of the publisher, Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Deanne Stillman. Buy the book on Bookshop or Amazon.
New Orleans Rag ::: Rusty Kershaw w/Neil Young
Streetcar Blues ::: Sleepy John Estes
The Kindness of Strangers ::: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Tennessee Blues ::: Bobby Charles
Lee Harvey Oswald Was A Friend of Mine ::: Bill Noonon & Stacy Thomas
Psycho Killer ::: Talking Heads
President Kennedy ::: Ry Cooder