The Battle of Nouveau Orleans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Al is razzle and dazzle, the consummate showman, a speed demon, a sport. He likes gold and chrome and mirrors, ostrich-skin cowboy boots, fast cars.

Anne is dark and deep, isolated, brooding, obsessed with questions of the soul. She collects dolls and religious statuary and historic properties, restoring them into living backdrops for her novels.

Al lives in the suburbs, in a lakefront mansion with a home gym. Anne lives in the Garden District, in a 140-year-old, white-columned, Greek Revival estate. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. She has a master's in creative writing. He races powerboats. She never learned to drive.

During the holidays, Al strings up more than a million bulbs, spelling out "Merry Christmas Y'All" in high-voltage script. For Halloween, Anne hosts a "Coven Ball" for a couple thousand fans decked out in velvet capes and body art.

At least they both like riding in Mardi Gras parades--he showers the crowds with plastic pearls, she hurls rubber rats.

Al and Anne. Copeland versus Rice. He is the Chicken King, founder of the Popeyes fast-food empire. She is the Vampire Queen, creator of the Lestat franchise. Both are New Orleans icons, cultural ambassadors with distinct interpretations of their native land. This year, they went to court. What other city could hatch a pair of hometown heroes so fabulously indigenous and so impossibly different?

"It's like the clash of the Titans," said Bud Whalen, who offered his kitschy watering hole, the Rivershack Tavern, as a neutral mediation site. "Gothic versus Gauche."

For most of their 50-plus years, these self-made multimillionaires might as well have lived on separate planets, having never met or spoken. Rice had at least eaten Copeland's food. But Copeland scarcely knew of Rice, nothing about her best-selling fiction or odd forays into the public realm, like showing up for a book-signing in a horse-drawn coffin.

All that changed in February, when Copeland opened another in his new line of trendy eateries, Straya, in an abandoned Mercedes-Benz dealership. The place is vintage Al, a "California Creole Grande Cafe," which translates into dishes like Tuna Sausage and Fried Oyster Rockefeller Pizza. His third wife--his former receptionist--did the decorating, dolling up the old brick facade in a peach coat, along with neon lights, gold panthers and a galaxy of silver stars.

If it was on Bourbon Street, Straya hardly would have raised an eyebrow. But Copeland christened his latest flagship on St. Charles Avenue, the oak-lined gateway to the genteel Garden District, not far from Rice's 19th century home. To her way of thinking, Straya was nothing short of an alien invasion, an attack on the Old World sensibilities that make New Orleans the most non-American of U.S. cities.

Yet she was not content merely to think it. As she has done before, most famously after Tom Cruise was cast in the film version of her "Interview with the Vampire," Rice took out a full-page ad to voice her disgust.

"This monstrosity in no way represents the ambience, the romance, or the charm that we seek to offer you and strive to maintain in our city," she wrote in a "special message" published by the Times-Picayune.

She called Straya "absolutely hideous," "ludicrous," "egregious," "an eyesore," an "abomination" and an "insult," with less dignity than "the humblest flop house." She expressed her "personal humiliation, regret and sorrow, as private citizen Anne Rice." And she urged others to do the same.

"Maybe then Mr. Copeland will realize the gravity of his mistake, and do something to show respect for his fellow citizens and his city," she concluded.

Copeland was stunned. "Do I know this lady?" he asked, after learning of the ad. "If it was a guy, you'd go punch him in the mouth."

Dueling Newspaper Ads

Sensing a publicity coup, Copeland fired back with a two-page ad of his own, scolding Rice for her lack of manners and defending Straya as a "fine merger of contemporary and classic design." He pointed out that this particular stretch of St. Charles was not a showcase of antebellum homes, but a pocket of blight--a landscape that "might make a fitting backdrop for one of your vampire novels," but which is not in the interests of a city struggling to battle high unemployment and urban decay.

"P.S. See you in court," he added. "In the meantime, I'm putting a little extra garlic in the food at Straya."

In a city that celebrates politics as theater and worships food as art, the Al and Anne show was pure lagniappe--that little unexpected something extra, like a handful of free crawfish to go with a cold Dixie during happy hour.

For weeks, their war of words inspired public opinion polls, editorial cartoons and a Times-Picayune story about Rice that began with this somewhat biting query: "Has she lost her mind?" Readers seemed to think so, siding with Copeland 3 to 1, even if some did describe Straya as "the drag queen of all restaurants" and "New Orleans hillbilly moves to Santa Monica bungalow." Copeland made good on his threat and sued Rice for defamation. The American Civil Liberties Union rushed to Rice's defense, vowing to protect her 1st Amendment rights. Straya was packed every night.

"I actually think that if Al and Anne ever met, they would really like each other," said publicist Kit Whol, who has worked for Copeland but tends to travel in literary circles. "I think they're both a hoot."

But behind all of the chuckles and barbs, Anne and Al are more than a couple of feuding celebrities with cash and ego to spare.

Both come from the same place and time--Catholic, working-class, World War II-era kids with ties to the old Irish Channel neighborhood. Neither inherited any advantage, other than a fierce sense of independence and a burning desire to transcend the mundane. Copeland, starting with one dinky takeout stand in the '70s, latched onto a formula (spicy Cajun-style chicken) that made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Rice, starting with one hastily drafted novel in the '70s, latched onto a formula (the vampire as an erotic and tragic figure) that made her wildly rich too.

The Yin and Yang of New Orleans

Both thrive in the restless spirit of this town, yet each embraces a different dimension of its soul. As much as any two people can be, they are the yin and yang of New Orleans, windows into a city that revels in both glitter and gloom.

Al is the hospitality industry incarnate, a symbol of the Big Easy's good-humored excess--deep-fried food, alcohol in to-go cups, the flash of breasts at a parade--all of which may be a bit much by middle-American standards but which is just the sort of splash most middle-Americans expect to find here. Anne is the champion of mystical New Orleans, the murky funk of a colonial port at the edge of the tropics--secret courtyards, jazz funerals, above-ground cemeteries--a moldering environment that she strives to shield from the homogeneity of the modern world.

"I live in the future," Copeland said, summing up their differences as charitably as he could. "She lives in the past. The way past. The weird past."

Al is by far the more accessible of the two, proud of his style and eager to share it. After his last wedding, held under a portrait of Marie Antoinette at the New Orleans Museum of Art, he had his bride, Luan, showered with thousands of rose petals dropped from a helicopter. She repaid him with heart-shaped fireworks. Latoya Jackson performed.

He boasts a priceless fleet of custom motorcycles, vintage cars and record-setting powerboats, some of which have been fitted with cryogenically frozen propellers. He keeps a full-time crew of three aboard his opulent 120-foot yacht, the Cajun Princess, which more accurately might be called the Love Boat, with its Jacuzzis, exotic animal skins and mirrored-and-padded bedrooms. Recently, he bought a burgundy 12-cylinder BMW 750IL sedan as a "family car" because Luan is pregnant with her first (and Al's sixth) child.

"I guess I like things that are glitzy, but I like them in a classy way," said Copeland, who cuts a youthful figure, buffed by a daily two-hour workout with a personal trainer and topped with a meticulously feathered coif.

From Street-Fighter to Restaurateur

Culturally speaking, he is what New Orleanians call a Yat--as in, "Where y'at?" the boilerplate greeting of blue-collar kids in the old ethnic enclaves, back before all their families fled to the suburbs. His father managed the seafood counter at a grocery store. His mother was a housewife. After they divorced, young Alvin Charles Copeland found himself living under his grandmother's care in the St. Thomas housing project--a fairly miserable place, he remembers, where not everyone could even afford shoes.

He earned a reputation as a street-fighter. He got arrested for stealing a bicycle. At 16, he dropped out. At 18, he got married.

"I never forget being poor," Copeland said. "I know what it is, and I don't want it."

With the help of his two older brothers, Copeland built a doughnut shop from scratch, working day and night to keep his tiny business afloat. Across the street, a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand was clobbering him. Copeland saw the light. In 1972, he opened Chicken on the Run. It was a bust. He closed for three days, boosted the cayenne content of his birds, then reopened as Popeyes--a name taken from "The French Connection," in which a detective busts down a door and announces, "Hit the wall, Popeye's here!"

By the end of the '80s, he owned more than 800 Popeyes and had just bought 1,400 Church's Fried Chicken stores--making him the nation's No. 2 fast-food poultry magnate, behind KFC. But the Church's purchase, financed with junk bonds, soon proved to be a disaster, and in 1991 Copeland was forced into a bankruptcy battle, ultimately losing his retail kingdom. He still kept his millions, though, thanks to a contract to supply every Popeyes with spices, batter and red beans. He also owns a chain of Cajun restaurants, Copeland's of New Orleans, and is working to blanket the country with a new line of burrito-style sandwich joints, Wrap & Roll.

"If you've got a dream," he once told a local restaurant critic, "you might as well dream big."

Anne has dreams, every bit as grand, if somewhat more complicated and less uniform. But she chooses to share them on her terms, in one-way dispatches instead of dialogues.

She tapes messages for her fans. She posts updates on her Web page, http://www.annerice.com She reveals her thoughts via video and CD-ROM, both of which she offers for sale. She will not, however, agree to be interviewed for a newspaper or for any TV show not presented live, citing a history of misquotes and misrepresentations. Not even her editor at Knopf dares to tamper with her manuscripts.

"Anne is underground," said her executive assistant, Ross Tafaro, meaning she is at work on a new book and unavailable for comment.

As the daughter of a postal worker father and a devout but alcoholic mother, Rice--like Copeland--grew up in a New Orleans populated by Yats. But where Copeland sought to elevate himself through sheer economic might, Rice's distinguishing trait was intellectual. It was a gift nurtured by her mother, a natural-born raconteur who tried to raise all her children as budding geniuses "to liberate them from social restrictions that produced mediocre people," wrote Katherine Ramsland in her biography of Rice, "Prism of the Night."

Using language and rhythm to stimulate Anne's imagination, her mother made up poems for her and challenged her to recite them every day. Anne was allowed to draw on the walls and go to sleep at the hour of her choosing, in any bed in the house. She was raised to address her parents by their first names; her own name, at birth, was Howard Allen O'Brien. Yet the nonconformity of her home did not extend to the strict dogma of her family's religious life. It was a contradiction that left Anne and her three sisters feeling more like oddballs than prodigies, especially at school, where the Sisters of Mercy ruled with an iron fist.

"We were real weirdos, really really weirdos," she reminisced in a recorded message on her fan line last summer, adding that she has always suffered from what would now be considered attention-deficit disorder. "We were total failures as American teenagers."

Vampire as Symbol of Alienation

Anne was 14 when her mother drank herself to death. By 20, she was married to her high school sweetheart, Stan, the first boy she ever kissed. They moved to San Francisco and dabbled in the nascent hippie scene, but she was preoccupied with doubts about her faith and her voice as a writer. In 1972, her first child, 5-year-old Michele, died of leukemia.

Lost in grief and wallowing in a daily breakfast of beer, Rice seized upon a theme that would resonate throughout her career--the vampire as a metaphor for man's alienation, eternal life as a foil for the guilt and loneliness of mortals. She banged out "Interview With the Vampire," which features a blond, blood-sucking girl her daughter's age, in a cathartic five-week rush. The paperback rights fetched $700,000. It was her first published novel.

She has since written 17 others, some specifically historical, others explicitly pornographic, but almost all of which grapple with the metaphysical and theological dilemmas that she traces to her New Orleans childhood. Her prose--florid and lurid to some critics, lyrical and seductive to others--has made her one of America's most bankable authors, a cult figure with special appeal to feminists, gays, recovering addicts and sundry misfits who identify with the pains and pleasures of life on society's fringes.

She worships Beethoven. She is afraid of the dark. She travels in a black limousine with vanity plates, "Ophanim," meaning a choir of angels. "All of my books are about outcasts who live in the middle of things," Rice, a disarmingly prim woman with sparkling eyes and long black hair streaked with gray, once told People magazine. "New Orleans is an outcast in America."

After a quarter-century in California, Rice moved back here in 1988 with her husband and son, Christopher, whose birth--six years after her daughter's death--prompted Anne to swear off booze. She was anxious to reconnect with the rituals and the relatives she had left behind, to rediscover the purple twilights and magnolia blossoms that inspire her to wax on about New Orleans as "paradise."

Rice Often Viewed as Self-Promoter

But over the years, New Orleans has not always reciprocated Rice's passion. Although she is a tireless cheerleader for the city, and no small generator of sales tax revenue, many of her endeavors have been perceived as crudely self-promotional. She employs a staff of 50 to oversee her personal affairs and what she calls her "creative expansion," which includes a tour company (1-888-SEE-RICE), perfume (Dark Gift), wine label (Cuvee Lestat) and boutique (the Anne Rice Collection), where fans can buy T-shirts bearing MRI images of her own brain.

Times-Picayune reporter Christopher Rose, with whom she has had a stormy relationship, last year snidely branded her a "one-woman wonder," and deadpanned that her trade in vampire imagery might be "single-handedly responsible for the survival of the New Orleans economy."

It is her foray into preservation, however, that has ruffled the most feathers here, even though she has lovingly restored many crumbling relics of her Catholic youth. After her purchase of Our Mother of Perpetual Help chapel--where her mother's funeral was held--some old-line parishioners reacted as if the devil himself were setting up shop in a house of the Lord. Her Garden District neighbors, fed up with the noise and litter and traffic, forced her to stop bringing tour groups inside her 1st Street home.

Nobody, of course, was paying $88 for a peek "Inside the World of Anne Rice" just to gawk at her furniture. Almost all of Rice's properties share a page with her fiction, a melding of real estate and imaginary milieus. Her lavender residence, where she writes in an upstairs office with notes to herself scrawled on every wall, is the possessed Mayfair Manor of "The Witching Hour." Her cottage on St. Charles, where she hosts an annual Mardi Gras party, serves as the setting for her latest book, "Violin," which was released in October to mixed reviews.

"New Orleans," said Britton Trice, her stalwart at the Garden District Book Shop, "is like a character in her novels."

This is where Al and the shimmer of Straya fit back into the story, although in ways that were not entirely apparent when Anne first took out her ad.

Site Is Also a Rice Landmark

Unbeknownst to all but her most die-hard fans, the restaurant is housed not just in an abandoned car dealership but in another of Rice's literary landmarks. It was there, at the end of her 1995 novel, "Memnoch the Devil," that her most popular vampire--a character she has described as "the man I would love to be"--catches his reflection in the showroom window. "Let me pass now from fiction into legend," Lestat says in the last line, disappearing forever from Rice's preternatural world.

"We got Lestat," said Copeland, who forced himself to read the last pages of the novel, his only contact with Rice's literature, just to be sure of his acquisition.

Was this what her fury was all about--that a Yat with megabucks had unwittingly transformed Lestat's final resting place into a bistro with metallic palm trees? Rice, it should be noted, had been talking for some time about opening a restaurant of her own--a "very, very beautiful and very elegant" place, as she puts it--that would be named . . . Cafe Lestat.

"It's a cafe that's going to serve light food . . . and going to have continuous vaudeville entertainment, and it's also going to have quite a bit of Gothic decor and theme worked into it," she reported in one of her phone messages, noting that it would be located in an abandoned movie theater about a dozen blocks from the old car dealership.

"It will," she added, "present absolutely no competition with Straya or Mr. Copeland."

Al was not so sure, and he amended his lawsuit to include an allegation of unfair and deceptive trade practices. He argued that the author was not criticizing his restaurant as "private citizen Anne Rice," but as an entrepreneur with a financial stake in a similar business venture and an economic incentive to locate her proposed cafe in the very building that now houses Straya.

On a sticky September afternoon, his lawyers tried to pin her down on that point, summoning Rice to the 22nd floor of a downtown skyscraper for a deposition.

"Did you have any thoughts to buy 2001 St. Charles?" asked Copeland's attorney, Eric Gisleson, referring to the Mercedes showroom.

"Definitely," Rice answered.

She explained that she routinely looked at properties in the area, sometimes asking her real estate broker to check on the availability of a particular building.

"In order to open up a restaurant?" asked Gisleson, a former U.S. prosecutor.

"In the hope that I could some day afford to do that, yeah," Rice said. Her designs on the car dealership, however, never coalesced. "It was always under option to somebody, or it was always leased, or we were always told that it was tied up," she admitted.

Copeland believed that he had her nailed, but Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso was not persuaded. At the end of September, she tossed out his lawsuit and affirmed Rice's right to free speech.

If it was a somewhat anticlimactic denouement--Copeland and Rice never even appeared in the same courtroom--the issues underlying their clash remain as urgent as ever to New Orleans. For all its frivolity and mystique, this is a city that often has struggled to contain its decadence, to pave its streets and pay its police and keep its homeowners from simply abandoning their land.

White flight--especially people from Al and Anne's generation--has ripped the heart out of New Orleans' tax base; nearly two-thirds of its 500,000 residents are black and nearly one-third live below the poverty line. Tourism is the city's lifeblood. But with a notoriously high murder rate, visitors rarely stray from the beaten path. So much of what distinguishes the physical appearance of New Orleans, in fact, is as much a function of default as design.

"It is filled with some of the most beautiful architecture in the United States--because nobody has bothered to tear it down," Rice states in a collaborative book, "Conversations with Anne Rice," edited by her friend, Michael Riley. "It's because we are a depressed city, a poor city,' she adds, noting rather thankfully that there just hasn't been enough "money and momentum or Protestant gumption to really change the city into Atlanta or Dallas."

This is the real difference between Anne and Al--and the reason why the stakes of their squabble are so high.

For Anne, history is not just a symptom of the city's economic ills, but also its greatest selling point. Take away that dark, languid vibe and New Orleans becomes just another bland stop on Interstate 10, a place hardly worth fighting to keep afloat.

Al is a believer in progress and growth, in shining light where before there was darkness. He likes to point out that Anne never complained about the car dealership while it sat vacant--indeed, exploited it to her literary advantage--but she went for the jugular as soon as it was replaced by a business that put more than 200 people to work.

Where one sees a shot in the arm, the other sees a lethal injection.

Will one remedy save the patient?

Will one remedy kill it?

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°