From growing up in the Mississippi Delta to interning at Newsweek to 20 years at Vogue profiling celebrities and political figures to chronicling the high and low life for Garden & Gun, Julia Reed has led, to borrow from one of her many book titles, “An Entertaining Life.” Now living in New Orleans, WhereTraveler caught up with the witty writer and consummate hostess before her appearance at the 2014 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, where she appears again this year as part of a Williams tribute reading (March 23 at 7:30 pm) and on the panel "Fixin' to Set a Spell: Southern Storytellers on Southern Hospitality" (March 24 at 11:30 am).
Much of your work revolves around food and drink. What’s a good springtime cocktail?
The Pimm’s Cup. There are all kinds of ironies about living in New Orleans, like the Napoleon House: a bar named after a French emperor that is famous for an English drink. It’s a great, delicious spring drink. These days every bartender in town has their own version, but the Napoleon House is where I tried my first.
You recently sold your house on First Street.
If you move to a very visible corner, like I did at First and Chestnut, and then write a book about your house, you’re pretty much putting yourself out there. So I have no one to blame but myself.
Where are you living now?
Still in the Garden District, in a duplex apartment. It’s a lovely Garden District aerie; when I’m working, I walk around looking at the tops of all of these live oak trees and squirrels running around. It’s got great light … and it’s about a half block away from Commander’s Palace, which is easy to roll around to for one of their excellent cocktails. [Owners] Ti [Martin] and Lally [Brennan] wrote “In the Land of Cocktails,” a wonderful book I reference all the time. It’s nice to have them as neighbors.
You’ve lived in the French Quarter as well. What’s the difference between the two neighborhoods?
I love them both, but after a while in the Quarter it’s like, “Oh, my God, if I get behind one more mule-driven cart I’m going to scream!” One of the things I miss about the Quarter, oddly, is the utter privacy. I would close my gate on Bourbon Street, of all places, and I was literally on another planet. New Orleans has always had an other-worldly quality—I’m tapping into that right now just walking around looking at all the tree tops up here—but especially in the Quarter with its magical courtyards. I do miss that, I’ve got to say.
What is the best way to entertain oneself in New Orleans?
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, where, as I’ve written many times in my books, we had to learn early on how to entertain ourselves because basically you’re just looking around at a lot of cotton fields and mud. If I can entertain myself there, I can certainly entertain myself in New Orleans. There is no limit to what you can do; I could come up with 8,000 itineraries. Even when I walk the dog, I’ll discover something new—some architectural detail or piece of graffiti, all of those things that make this city so quirky and endlessly interesting. I think my personal record in Galatoire’s was about 7 ½ hours; you can certainly entertain yourself there from noon until dinnertime and beyond.
Name three New Orleans-set must-reads.
Walker Percy’s “Moviegoer,” is the most obvious choice. I also love Percy’s “Lancelot,” which is set around New Orleans, Shelia Bosworth’s “Almost Innocent” and Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories.
What about your favorite Tennessee Williams play?
“Streetcar” and “The Glass Menagerie” are both almost perfect. But I love his weirder stuff, too. I just watched the movie “Baby Doll,” which was based on one of his stranger works, “27 Wagons Full of Cotton.” People forget how prolific he was, and even his weirder works are pretty awesome.
What is it about New Orleans that continues to draw creative types here?
During Williams’ time New Orleans was one of the few places you could be open about your sexuality and sleep all day, drink all night and have that be fairly normal. New Orleans was—and still is—one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America. Before I was born there was a train that went from my hometown in Greenville, Mississippi to New Orleans and it did not stop anywhere between, because there was nothing interesting about those places. And the good news is that all those things that drew those people—the music, the food and all—are thriving almost even more today. This city is always going to draw people.
You write often—and fondly—of Doe’s Eat Place (in Greenville). What compares locally?
There’s a picture of my mother pregnant with me on the front steps of Doe’s. For me, walking into Doe’s is like going home. People complain about the recent changes at Galatoire’s, but it’s that same kind of feeling, the same familiarity. It may not be the world’s most sophisticated cuisine, but there’s nothing wrong with Galatoire’s martinis—ever!