The following article was reprinted with thanks to The New Orleans Advocate – March 2016
One could get lost for days in Dr. Kenneth Holditch’s home on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny.
It would take a week or more just to read the titles of the books, much less any of the texts. The art — so many pieces that there’s no wall space left to hold them — would intrigue anyone with a good eye and even a smattering of knowledge of the artists who created them.
An aficionado of Oriental and Middle Eastern rugs would have a field day, and never mind the bounty that awaits a carnival glass collector. Well-worn antique furniture and Don Pasquale playing on the radio contribute to the notion of having entered an otherworldly place where time stands still.
An oft-quoted Tennessee Williams scholar and professor emeritus at the University of New Orleans, Holditch devised a popular literary walking tour that is a featured event of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, March 29 through April 3. Originally developed by Holditch in 1974, the tour not only visits sites where the playwright lived, but restaurants and bars he was known to frequent. (tennesseewilliams.net)
Holditch’s birthplace of Ecru, Mississippi, was named for the color of paint a workman was brushing on the depot for the train that ran through the Holditch property, about 60 miles from Columbus. By junior high, Holditch was living in Tupelo, where he attended school with Elvis Presley.
It was during that era in the 1940s that Holditch became an avid reader, devouring all the plays and stories he could get his hands. Some of his favorites from that time were written by New Orleans native George Washington Cable and transplant Lyle Saxon.
“I yearned for New Orleans,” Holditch said, a passion that was stoked by a family trip to the city in 1949 when he was just 16. “We spent four or five days in the French Quarter. We ate at Tujague’s, we ate at Galatoire’s, we ate at Morning Call. When we left, I told my parents, ‘I’m going to live there someday.’”
Holditch went to college in Memphis where he earned his bachelor degree, then to Ole Miss for his master’s degree in English. When he was awarded his doctorate in English from Ole Miss in 1961, it was the first such degree the storied university had ever awarded. In 1964, Holditch made good on his promise to his parents, moving to New Orleans to take a job as an associate professor at what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans (the precursor of UNO).
“I had taught elsewhere for a couple of years, but when I learned about the job opening at UNO, I had to apply, even if it meant taking a salary cut of several thousand dollars,” Holditch said. “Southern Mississippi and New Orleans are two places I’ve loved all my life.”
It seems the city has loved him back, for his home is brimming with works of art and literature that attest to the friendships he has made over the past 52 years.
Hanging high on the wall in the entry vestibule is a glowing portrait of his home, painted for him by the wife of the former owner. In the parlor, a portrait of William Faulkner leans against a piece of furniture, a memento of his involvement with the local Faulkner Society.
At his request, a friend painted a portrait of Galatoire’s, the subject of the biography he partnered with Marda Burton to write in 2004.
Author Walker Percy was “a good friend,” and so was artist George Dureau (as evidenced by the half-dozen or more works by the artist, some of which hang in Holditch’s bedroom). Dureau even drew a stunning sketch of opera singer Joan Sutherland for Holditch, because he knew she was his friend’s favorite soprano.
The study is the center of Holditch’s domestic world. He built bookcases on the far wall after buying the place in 1971, then filled them with so many books that he eventually constructed more bookcases in a room toward the back of the house that serves as a library.
Holditch’s desk faces the floor-to-ceiling windows that open to his front porch and Washington Square, the park across the street. Portraits of him by Ann Strub and Rise Ochsner are propped up between the windows, and three paintings by Tennessee Williams hang high on the wall opposite the bookcases. When visitors express surprise at learning Williams painted, Holditch has an explanation at the ready.
“He was what people call a ‘Sunday painter,’” Holditch said. “He painted for relaxation.”
Holditch likes to sit at the big desk in the study, listening to opera and poring over clippings from newspapers and magazines. A pile of them is ever present atop the desk, dramatically reducing the usable portion of the desktop. But Holditch doesn’t really care.
“I think I got the pile down once so I could see the top of my desk, but before I knew it, it grew back,” Holditch sighed. “And collecting books the way I do — thousands of them — is a disease. Some I have reread seven or eight times, but others I still have because I think I might want to reread them. It’s called bibliomania.”
Although Holditch’s approach to life is decidedly cerebral, his sense of humor is never far away.
Witness his collection of Elvis-centric folk art by Elayne Goodman of Columbus, Mississippi. One of her pieces, atop the curio cabinet in the parlor, is a hand painted iron emblazoned with Elvis’ likeness and the words “I’m Steaming Hot for You.”
“I planned to give it as a Christmas present to a friend,” Holditch said. “But then I couldn’t part with it.”