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Adieu to Big Easy Haunt

Overrun by memories and fans, gothic writer Anne Rice is selling her house and moving to the suburbs. New Orleans is aghast at the very idea.

April 21, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — 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."

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.

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."

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