May 17, 2004
Dark Days in New Orleans as Anne Rice Goes Suburban
EW ORLEANS, May 12 - They come in voyeuristic packs or as solitary black-robed Goths, posing for snapshots in front of the gnarled live oaks and peering through the wrought-iron gates, hoping to catch a glimpse of their flamboyant quarry. But that individual, Anne Rice, the owner of the gargantuan Greek Revival house at Chestnut and First, has been gone for weeks.
Thirteen years after she swept into town, bought up a collection of decaying Garden District buildings and became the city's best-known living resident, Ms. Rice has abandoned the haunted heart of New Orleans and fled to a gated subdivision in the suburbs.
For Ms. Rice, 62, the departure of her only child to California, and the memories of her husband, Stan, who died in 2002, were too much to bear, she said. Then there was the never-ending upkeep on the 1860's mansion and the constant whirl of Lestat fanatics who gathered outside her yard day and night, trying to spot the giant oak where Lasher and Emaleth are buried.
"I was creatively and emotionally exhausted and craving a fresh start," she said from her new contemporary home in Jefferson Parish, about 30 minutes northwest of the city. "I guess I wanted to go to a place with no memories and no history, with light pouring in the windows." She asked that her new address remain unpublished, although most everyone here seemed to know it already.
If the move is bittersweet for the author, it has been excruciating for her literary devotees and vexing for a tourist industry well fed by Rice lore and mythology since "Interview With the Vampire" became a best seller nearly three decades ago. After all Ms. Rice, who once showed up for a local book-signing in a coffin and whose musings on politics and Hollywood were never demure, had become the very essence of this sultry, ghost-filled city of eccentrics. For some, losing The Queen of the Night to a suburban citadel is akin to draining Lake Pontchartrain, banning public drinking on Bourbon Street or turning Mardi Gras into a chaste Easter Parade.
"We are devastated," said Lloyd Sensat, 59, a guide who was leading a cemetery/voodoo tour past her home on Wednesday afternoon. "I consider Anne Rice a national treasure, and as far as the city is concerned, she put us on the map."
But for a few New Orleanians, Ms. Rice's departure is a thing to be celebrated. Although she has been a great boon to tourism, her crowd-stirring presence in this genteel quarter of antebellum dowagers has been a minor irritant to some. Gawkers in search of ghoulish thrills often stomp around the neighborhood well after midnight, and until the city intervened, Ms. Rice offered free tours of her home every Monday, with lines often curling around the block. The house across the street has had three owners since Ms. Rice arrived here from San Francisco in 1989.
Then there was a very public feud with Al Copeland, the founder of the Popeyes chicken chain, who built a garish restaurant on the site of the Mercedes-Benz dealership that figured prominently in "Memnoch the Devil." Ms. Rice condemned his aesthetic tastes in a full-page advertisement in The Times-Picayune and Mr. Copeland replied with a screed of his own, followed by another volley from Ms. Rice. The exchange amused some, but annoyed others.
"She's nice, but let's just say she's unusual," said Elroy R. Alfortish, 76, a retired stone engraver, who was taking an afternoon stroll in his white cardigan, seemingly unbothered by the 85-degree heat. He offered a smile that doubled as a sneer. "No, she won't be missed," he said, tipping his Stetson and walking away. "And no, I've never read her books."
Still, it is not difficult to find those who will miss her black limousine, with its inscrutable "Ophanim" license plate, and her preservationist zeal, which led her to buy and restore a dozen properties in the neighborhood. Her generosity was legion. Nonprofit groups held charity events at the sprawling St. Elizabeth Orphanage and when confronted by upwards of 200 loyalists at her front gate, Ms. Rice would not leave until every adoring fan got an autograph. "Often times I could look forward to a soda when I went to her house," said Staford Cola, 50, the local mail carrier. "I sure will miss her."
There will be more tangible losses as well. At the Garden District Book Shop, where her 26 novels occupy a separate section, Britton Trice, the owner, is expecting a small hit to the bottom line. Ms. Rice always began her book tours there, including the time she arrived in a quilted coffin, and most years she signed as many as 6,000 copies of her books, which Mr. Trice would sell to buyers around the globe. But with the death of her husband, the writer became more reclusive and her zeal for book signings slowed.
"It's certainly been a big part of business, but even more, it's a big loss for the city," Mr. Trice said.
Ms. Rice, too, feels the loss. Although she spent her adolescence in Texas and two decades on the West Coast, she was born and raised here, and the neighborhood is peppered with landmarks from her past, many of which show up in her writings. Many also ended up in her real estate portfolio, including her childhood home on St. Charles, the primary setting for "Violin."
Although her two remaining Garden District properties recently sold, the Chestnut Street house known as Rosegate, one of the largest private residences in New Orleans, is still on the market for $3.75 million. Ms. Rice left the house in April, but it is still filled with macabre knickknacks, including a stuffed piranha, a lemur skeleton and a creepy antique-doll collection that overlooks the second-floor landing.
A note to potential buyers: Ms. Rice's personal effects do not come with the house, says Martha Ann Samuel, the listing agent. (The property includes an 11,000-square-foot main house, two guest houses, a pool and an elevator. And although exterior alterations are restricted by a preservation ordinance, the new owner may wish to do away with Ms. Rice's interior color scheme of mauve and fuchsia.)
Ms. Rice says the move is permanent but there are doubters, including Joy Dickinson, the author of "Haunted City: An Unauthorized Guide to the Magical, Magnificent New Orleans of Anne Rice."
"When I heard Anne was moving to Jeff Parish, I thought the world was coming to an end," said Ms. Dickinson, who has just issued the third edition of her book. "The city is such a part of her soul. I wish her peace and happiness. But still, I give her six months and she'll be back."