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Adieu to Big Easy Haunt

Times Staff Writer

Any day now, amid the Spanish moss and the Georgian manors of the Garden District, Anne Rice will descend the long stairs of her home, her shoes leaving behind dimples in the blood-red carpet, her graying bob reflecting one last time in the mirrors of her double parlor.

The author is moving, and New Orleans, her hometown, is aghast. It is not so much her decision to relocate as her destination -- a decidedly unhaunted, gated community in the suburbs -- that explains why this is seen as more than a real estate deal here. It is seen as something of an affront to civic identity and sensibility, even by her own son.

“I almost died when she told me,” said Christopher Rice, 26, an author who grew up largely in New Orleans and now lives in West Hollywood. “I thought it was a passing fancy. My friends said: ‘The queen of New Orleans can’t move out of town. What is this about?’ ”

Rice’s sumptuous and chilling first novel, “Interview With the Vampire,” was published in 1976 and quickly became a bestseller. The book, and later the film of the same name, was constructed around a confessional “interview” with a Louisiana vampire, and it gave her fans a prescient line that would underscore much of her work: “Evil is a point of view.”

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Since then, Rice has earned a fervent and at times cultish following by exploring the sinister, the erotic and the living dead, and by introducing a new sort of character: the charismatic vampire, well aware that immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. Now 62, Rice is worth millions, has published 26 novels under three names and has sold more than 50 million of them in the United States alone -- one every 24 seconds at one point in the late 1980s, according to her publishers.

Because her fiction often takes place in the nonfictional streets of New Orleans, she is more than a literary figure here. For nearly 30 years, she and her city have been each other’s muse.

Rice’s novels have long delved into the texture of New Orleans -- its history and architecture; its decadence and excess; its sexy, steamy nights. But they are not merely set here.

The details of Rice’s books are, by and large, details of real New Orleans -- the way the dead are buried aboveground because the high water table would otherwise carry away their caskets; the way locals refer to the grassy median dividing a busy street as the “neutral ground,” just as they have for nearly 200 years, when a wide strip of land separated the Creole community from newly arrived immigrants.

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Her characters struggle with the contradictions that make New Orleans so complex and alluring today -- its simultaneous obsession with religion and red-light districts; an ethos that is at once cheerful and forlorn.

The New Orleans of Rice’s books is the New Orleans of her childhood. The elaborate cemetery she has often written about, where characters in her “Lives of the Mayfair Witches” series are buried, is Lafayette Cemetery. There she wandered over raggedy old crypts as a wide-eyed girl, the second of four daughters from the Irish Channel section of the city. The house used by Louis and Lestat, two of her seminal characters, is modeled after the Gallier House, an opulent 19th century townhouse in the French Quarter.

But no property in New Orleans is as central to her work as the house she is preparing to leave for the last time -- as soon as she finishes moving everything out, that is, and as soon as someone bites on the $3.75-million price tag.

The 11,000-square-foot mansion, once owned by a federal judge named Minor Wisdom, is a three-story, purple-gray Greek Revival home not far from the Mississippi River. She and her late husband, Stan, a poet and artist, moved there in 1988, when they returned to New Orleans after living in Texas and San Francisco.

Except for Rice’s personal gym, where there are two purple 5-pound weights on the floor and several exercise machines, virtually every room in the house -- as well as the gardens surrounding it -- is in Rice’s work.

It is in this house where the spirit Lasher, in “The Witching Hour,” began to torment the Mayfair family. Here too is the window where Antha, another character in the “Mayfair Witches” series, was pushed to her death -- or did she jump? And the small pool out back is where Michael Curry, the orphan from New Orleans and another “Witching Hour” character, nearly drowned a second time.

Rice readily acknowledges that she will have a difficult time weaving the suburbs into her next novels, which is why many here are surprised that she is moving. Her decision has sent her fans flocking to Rice’s website to read her posting about the move: “Of course this is a drastic step,” she wrote to them. And the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, ran an article this winter headlined, “Adieu, Old Haunt.”

“She has spent so long capturing this place -- the feel and the smell and the temperature and the breeze,” said Michael Riley, a retired educator who has known the Rice family for more than 40 years and who is working on a biography of Stan Rice. “In my mind, I had her fused with this city and this house. And I was not alone.”

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Indeed, at virtually any hour, self-avowed “creatures of the night,” dressed in black, wearing heavy mascara and ever inspired by Rice’s work, can be found at the corner of 1st and Chestnut streets, gazing through her half-drawn silk drapes. When she walks to her stretch limousine to go to church every Sunday -- she is a devout Roman Catholic -- there are often dozens waiting to escort her with cheers and flashing cameras.

“She is more ‘New Orleans’ than most New Orleanians,” said Anne Laborde, a local resident and a Rice follower. “I live in the suburbs, and you just can’t see her there. She belongs in this city. This is all just very hard to imagine.”

There are regular tours of New Orleans locales mentioned in her books, and enough tours of her street corner to annoy her neighbors at times. Costume balls with gothic themes are held in her honor here. She has played to her devotees with panache and excess, arriving for one book launch at the Garden District Book Shop, her unofficial literary headquarters, in a mule-drawn hearse, inside a closed coffin.

“It will be a loss for New Orleans,” said City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt, whose district includes Rice’s home and the rest of the Garden District -- an elegant, 40-square-block neighborhood south and west of the French Quarter and peppered with aging Southern mansions. “She’s part of the city.”

Byron Scalzi, 29, a New Orleans-area resident, concedes that this is probably the only place in the country where he can make a decent living selling high-end prosthetic fangs. Scalzi, who goes by the name Maven, calls his business Dark Awakenings.

“A lot of my customers are the Goth people, of course. But I also get the ravers, the yuppies, the corporate types. I get people who just have dark sexual fantasies,” Scalzi said. “The vampire aesthetic is universal here. It is truly a haunted city, a city of mysticism. The ambience here is perfect for her work, and it’s hard to separate the two. That’s why people are paying so much attention to this.”

And yet this spring, recently widowed, with her only child on the West Coast, and contemplating writing her memoirs along with her next novel, Rice decided to make a change. She closed earlier this year on a two-story house with a swimming pool about 45 minutes west of the city, in Jefferson Parish. It was a dream house built by a lineman for the New Orleans Saints, who was traded not long after its construction.

“I have had a romance with this city and this house,” Rice said one recent afternoon. “But I’m tired. I really am.”

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It was a sentiment she would repeat six times over the course of the afternoon, seated in her library, dressed in a prim black dress.

Rice is purging all her property in New Orleans, including St. Elizabeth’s, a former orphanage that she once turned into a museum for her priceless collection of antique dolls, and a house on St. Charles Avenue where she lived as a teenager and where her book “Violin” is set.

Most significantly for the city, she is selling her manse at 1st and Chestnut, where a “For Sale” sign now hangs on the wrought-iron fence, framed by four columns and an eruption of red roses.

Rice, always a private person, has retreated further from the public eye since the death of her husband in December 2002. They were married for 41 years before he died of brain cancer at age 60.

Toward the end, Anne Rice was as involved in his death as she had been in his life. When Stan became too weak to hold his head up, she helped strap his forehead to his chair so he could paint. When he required a hospital bed, she moved their king-size bed out of the house and bought two hospital beds so they could still sleep side-by-side.

To this day, she refuses to set foot on the third floor of her house, which was used as Stan’s studio. Anyone wandering upstairs would see things exactly as he left them. An unfinished self-portrait he started leans against one wall. His last coffee cups are on a stool. A plastic Barnes & Noble bag with Anne’s likeness on it is tacked to the wall, because he thought the image captured her face nicely. On the opposite wall is a small sign reading, “Seize the Carp.”

For all of her eccentricity and mystique, Rice is an alarmingly normal person with normal emotions. She shops at Rite Aid. She has seen “Robocop,” subscribes to Nature magazine and listens to the soundtrack of “My Fair Lady.” She is afraid of the dark and does not believe in ghosts. And she is pained by the loss of her husband.

“It’s funny, I never thought about it when he was alive. But he did love this place,” Rice said. “I think about him all the time, of course. And now it just seems like a lot of house.”

As she sat in her library, she was dwarfed by floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with the books she uses for her research: “The Architecture of Europe,” “Palaces of the Gods,” “Earthquakes and Other Disasters.”

Rice owns more than 15,000 books, so many that she has a full-time personal librarian who uses the Dewey Decimal system to catalog her collection. That way, she said, in a moment of inspiration she can lean her head over the second-floor railing, yell down for “everything we have on 18th century Florence,” and have it in her office in minutes. That familiarity with her home was a luxury, she said, but it could not compensate for being alone.

“I’m the only one here,” she said. “I found myself looking around one night and saying: ‘Who am I keeping this for? What am I doing here?’ New Orleans is a city where there are very few secrets. Everybody is everybody’s cousin -- literally. And there are times when I wish it was a little quieter, when I could just sit out on my front porch. And I think that’s what I’m going to do.”

There were moments when the close relationship between Rice and New Orleans got a little out of hand -- the letter she received written in a fan’s blood, for instance, and her acrimonious and public battles with developers and other civic leaders over competing visions of New Orleans’ future.

In the end, though, Rice’s love story with New Orleans was no mere pleasantry but a necessary part of her recipe for success, her son said.

“I don’t think it could have happened in any other city,” Christopher Rice said. “But a certain stage of her life has come to an end. It’s time for a new one. It’s true, there is nothing haunted about her new place. But I think that’s the point.”


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