NEW ORLEANS -- He was seeking redemption, a literary ex-con wrestling dark demons here in his adopted hometown, juggling good girls he courted and bad girls he bought.

High on whiskey, pills and a toxic dose of his overnight celebrity, Seth Morgan cranked up his 1972 red and white shovelhead Harley that night last fall and roared off for one more ride.

First stop was a French Quarter bar to pick up an old girlfriend, Suzy Levine, 37. Just the day before she'd bailed him out of the city jail for drunk driving. Morgan, 41 years old, a brilliant glamour-boy desperado, was fresh off a Random House book tour for "Homeboy," his acclaimed first novel about a junkie strip-show barker behind bars. It drew hard on his own dark past: a trust-fund baby who tumbled from his Park Avenue roots to San Francisco's demimonde. There, he played Janis Joplin's live-in lover, shot heroin, dealt drugs and women and wound up serving three years in prison for armed robbery. Paroled, he split for New Orleans, where, between drinking binges and at least a dozen arrests, he somehow managed to write The Book.

Critics hailed him as a powerful new voice in American fiction, a cross between Tom Wolfe and Henry Miller. He claimed to be on the wagon and hard at work on novel number two. But that night, Oct. 17, he was wired. Levine punched out from behind the bar where she worked, straddled the hog, and off they roared, without helmets, toward an old drawbridge across an industrial canal.

Morgan was hunting more Percodans, say friends, as the twosome raced past the Tango Bar and the Casablanca Rooming House, beneath a billboard for Jack Daniel's, the brand he guzzled straight from the bottle, and on into the night.

They hit the median at 40 mph, slamming into six telephone poles wrapped in steel cable. Police photos show his face embedded in the asphalt, the toes of his black cowboy boots twisted 180 degrees skyward. They were killed instantly.

Lab reports show Morgan's blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit, 0.3 to be precise, with traces of cocaine and Demerol. Levine's blood-alcohol registered .28. From the street, police Sgt. Melvin Howard plucked court papers showing that Morgan was driving on a suspended license, that he'd refused a breath test after his drunk driving arrest the night before. In the pocket of Morgan's ripped bluejeans was a bar coaster warning, "I've gone {to the restroom}, leave my {expletive} drink alone!"

Seth Morgan almost made it in New Orleans. "He wanted badly to be accepted here," says Susan Larsen, book editor for the Times Picayune newspaper. "He attended all the right parties and readings. ... He said, 'I want to stake out New Orleans. This is my kind of town.' " Indeed, it was bipolar, just like Morgan, Old World gentility and class conscious on the surface, get-down raunchy underneath.

After the crash, cult status was bestowed. "He's become our own literary James Dean," says William Byrne, a Louisiana appeals court judge who owns the Abstract Book Store, a bohemian haunt frequented by Morgan that concocted a $3.50 "Homeboy" sandwich in his honor: a Monterey Jack melt over turkey, ham, peppers, tomatoes and a secret sauce.

"Alive, we sold maybe two copies a week," says Byrne. "But the day he died, we sold out our last 20 signed copies. It's crazy. Strangers still offer us $80 for them, but we sold the ones Seth signed a long time ago." Street people from the neighborhood bought the book on layaway. "One guy put $5 down on a book," says Byrne. "He sells cans. That's how much Seth was admired."

In one corner, beneath biographies of Robert Kennedy, Steven Biko and Karl Marx, Byrne has set a table shrine with two candles, stacks of "Homeboy" and news clippings.

"For us, he was a literary hero," says Byrne. "People couldn't believe his success after all he'd been through, his picture on the cover of the New York Times Book Review last May 6."

If death is a good career move, it's "a helluva way to have to promote a book," says Jason Epstein, the Random House editor who discovered Morgan. "He had a gift. He was irrepressible. He had great energy and a real future if he'd been able to stay alive."

"In a certain way, the same culture that appreciates its writers also destroys them," says New Orleans poet John Gery. Indeed, the city has spelled trouble for writers: Mark Twain feared that its seductive Creole ambiance might suck him under and moved elsewhere to write, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. But Walker Percy made it work, and Tennessee Williams managed somehow too.

Yet fallen artist nostalgia is hardly knee-jerk in the French Quarter, especially for Morgan. "You say that name around here, you're liable to stir up some violence," says one drinker at Cosimo's, a cozy neighborhood bar once frequented by the woman who died with him.

"I believe he did it on purpose, to set himself up as a literary myth," says Mark Grandinetti, 33. "I think he was a psychopath. ... He was brilliant, but that's the only nice thing I can say. ... Suzy was a victim."

"Naw," says a stripper named Dusty, a former neighbor of Morgan's, pulling her very own copy of "Homeboy" from her purse at the raunchy Monkey Bar blocks away. "He was just a drunk who killed himself being stupid.

"Seth had two sides," she goes on. "{One} had a heart good as gold. But after the book came out, he acted like a nutball with an attitude."

On a break from nude gyrations, Dusty ignores a pawing patron and turns to the page where Morgan signed it: "Walk softly and drink a lot of water," his credo for how to survive jail. "A fine-looking man," she sighs. "I don't think he wanted to die. If he'd wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, he'd have done it alone."

"Hey, can I borrow your book?" asks the bartender.

"No way," says Dusty. "It's signed, might be worth something one day."

Privilege and Poetry Born of wealth and literary genes April 4, 1949, Seth Morgan grew up on Park Avenue, amid WASPs, finger bowls and dance classes. His father, poet Frederick Morgan, was heir to a soap fortune and founder of New York's prestigious literary magazine the Hudson Review. It was a home filled with books, and his father's writers often dropped by -- T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, Ezra Pound.

But childhood was traumatic. After his parents divorced, his mother, a hopeless alcoholic, drank herself to death. His father married two more times. Raised by nannies, Seth was the classic middle child, "allergic to authority," he often said. He was the fourth of six siblings whose trust funds were designed merely as modest safety nets, generating about $2,000 a month each. The soap patriarch didn't want to breed irresponsible heirs by leaving them too much.

Early on, Seth was booted from one prep school to the next. He relished telling about how Hotchkiss kicked him out at age 16 for paying town girls $10 for sex. (School officials would only say he was "incompatible" and not invited back.) He had no better luck at the American School in Switzerland, a rich kids' lycee. But he managed to graduate from a progressive school in Mexico and, at 18, wound up at Berkeley. "He was good at drinking whole bottles of tequila and seducing women," says Mike Rubino, a classmate.

It was 1967, the historic Summer of Love. He embraced the excitement. "I pulled buckshot out of his nose after one student protest," says Rubino. "He was running toward the cops, not the other way." Another time, he disrupted a Yippie rally by smuggling in a pig. "We had to chase the pig around Berkeley with a lasso to catch it," says Rubino. "We were probably stoned out of our minds."

After class, Seth rode with the Hell's Angels for fun, sampled all the drugs and explored sundry kink. "I never saw him in bed with more than two women at a time," says Rubino. "It was the '60s. Everybody explored the pleasurable. If you could think of it, Seth would try it."

"His sexual tastes were eclectic," says fellow preppy Alfred Ulmer, a D.C. bartender who hung out with him in those days. "We traded off girls. Seth practiced free love with a vengeance."

He shared everything with friends: money, women, drugs. "Seth was actually pretty nice to people," says Rubino, who, as a scholarship student, was grateful for Morgan's largess. "We admired his courage. ... He'd do things where people got hurt, but never intentionally. No one blamed him until they saw it happening again and again."

Everyone was baffled after Seth's older brother, John Canfield Morgan, a straight and narrow Stanford student, committed suicide, jumping off San Francisco's Bay Bridge in 1968 at the age of 21. He'd been depressed, but Seth told one friend that he felt guilty for pressing drugs on John. Two years later, he dropped out of Berkeley.

"Seth lived 20 years longer than I would have figured," says Rubino, who last saw him in the early '70s "falling down stoned on heroin" in a San Francisco bar.

By then he was running drugs between two coasts, buying grass in San Francisco, swapping it for nose candy in New York. He panicked one day after a cocaine stash in his cowboy boots melted into pink mush. He feared no one would buy it, but a pal recommended he try Janis Joplin, who was often so stoned she would buy anything. He brazenly rode his bike to her house in Marin County across the bay. She snapped it up, and they adjourned to a Mexican restaurant. After a food fight, they fell in love.

Joplin was an overnight star fresh off the coffeehouse circuit. "He fell in love with her because she was a star," says Joe Malandra, his former attorney. "He liked the fact she was rougher and cruder and coarser and had no pretensions. ... Every time I saw them, they were wrapped up in each other, {but} they had mutual doubts about each other's fidelity."

Morgan told friends he first experimented with heroin with her. The night before she overdosed, on Oct. 3, 1970, she'd asked Morgan to fly down to join her in Los Angeles, where she was cutting an album. But he begged off, opting to play strip pool with two waitresses at her house, and flew down to meet her the next day. Members of her entourage picked him up at the airport and told him she was dead. Soon he was shooting up heavy all by himself.

Morgan later captured that nightmare in "Homeboy": "Gingerly, his finger prodded for a vein tender and defined enough to drink the shot. Ooooh, there we are; hush now, slowly, breath held, sloooow ... Looking back down, he saw in the amber lumen a filament of blood, the merest undulant tendril. Sucking air through his teeth, whimpering softly, he adjusted the needle's depth. Bingo! A mushroom cloud of blood exploded into the barrel, billowing, blooming a crimson orchid. Weeping gently, Joe ... slammed the syringe like a detonator, plunging the flower of forgetfulness into his bloodstream."

Crime, Prison, Love Much of the time he stumbled around San Francisco's trendy North Beach, degenerating from a preppy with a penchant for white suits to a bum in ripped jeans, dealing drugs, working as a barker beneath Carol Doda's neon mammaries.

Morgan married one girlfriend after she was injured on his motorcycle, but it didn't last long. Soon enough, he was married again to Laura, a curvaceous model turned waitress whom he'd turned on to smack. When his trust fund ran dry, he told friends, he raised money for drugs by selling her body to high-rolling businessmen. "Whether they were actually married is in dispute," says brother Jeff Morgan, 37, a photographer. "He told me he only changed her name to get money from Grandmother. It was a hoax, but she kicked down a little cash as a wedding gift."

Soon afterward, he moved from scamming to violence.

With Laura tagging along, he'd stake out arriving passengers at the airport, offer them a ride to the city, then rob them en route, according to Malandra. Or he'd "find a woman in the classified ads with something for sale and go up and rob her, sometimes with a gun, sometimes with a knife. ... At first, he was like a gentleman robber. He'd assure them he meant business, but never really hurt anyone, then fence the stuff and buy drugs." Morgan later confessed to stabbing one victim in the hand and firing a shotgun into the air to frighten his quarry. "You couldn't help but like him, even if he was robbing you," said attorney Terence Hallinan, now a San Francisco supervisor, who once represented Laura Morgan. "He was very glib, a good con man, a charmer, right out of the Barbary Coast days."

But he left a briefcase after one armed robbery: His name and address were on it. Two cops busted into his seedy Tenderloin digs in 1977 while he was shaving off his beard. Before detectives could pin a host of unsolved rip-offs on Morgan, Malandra worked out a deal for him -- three years in California's Vacaville State Prison for armed robbery.

Suddenly, he was locked away from his old temptations and sought redemption in his roots: literature. He took writing classes and won the PEN American Prisoner's Writing Contest for "Pink Cocaine," a short story about his Joplin drug deal. He took reams of notes while learning the system, pumping iron for protection. He snagged the job of keeping the guards' time sheets, then exploited his power over them to obtain favors. Among his Vacaville neighbors was cult killer Charlie Manson, who, Morgan told interviewers, dispatched greetings between the cells via notes and cigarettes transported by carrier roaches, thread tied to the insects' legs.

Sober, he saw himself as a literary Columbus, sailing over the edge to report on monsters Down Under, as he, in fact, dropped from sight behind bars. "No one in the family knew where he'd gone," says his sister, Gaylen. "He vanished. Then my father found out." Seth was furious: Someone had ratted to the man whose acceptance he wanted most. Yet he was grateful for his family's love and support. He wrote his brother Jeff: "Better here than a slab" (at the morgue.)

Then he was out on parole, a redeemed man, celebrating briefly with his family on Park Avenue and advising Jeff to seek help for his drinking.

But it wasn't long before Seth was back to the streets of San Francisco and old habits, eschewing heroin for the slower, if no less certain, dead zone of whiskey and cocaine. More than ever he was the swashbuckling con man who found doomed relationships with women he burned to control and degrade. His last shrink figured it was Oedipal revenge. As one of Seth's "Homeboy" characters put it, "There's a saying in life, Sidney -- 'You can always treat a woman too good, but never bad enough.' "

In fact, his love life had taken on a dual character: He'd have one girlfriend he'd put on a pedestal, another he'd walk all over. In Valerie Moore, a waitress he met at the hungry i, he found the Good Girl of the moment. She loved him but had no better luck.

"You could tell he was brought up very well with money, culture, education, he had it all, the world by the tail," she sighs. "But he just couldn't overcome ... ."

He bought a house, tried hard to write, courted her with poetry, breakfast in bed, flowers, candlelight dinners with champagne. "I pushed him to write, but whenever things were going well for Seth, something happened. I'd find him sitting on his living room floor, shooting {cocaine} into the back of his hand because he didn't have any veins left, and he'd be shaking and crying and jabbing at his hand. I have a cast-iron stomach, but I couldn't take it."

She fled, then after a couple of weeks, Morgan phoned, remorseful, and the cycle began anew. He lost antiques and family heirlooms to junkies, totaled a dozen cars and recruited a chubby blond runaway from the bus station as his Bad Girl. He nicknamed her "Baby Chubs," tutored her on how to shoot up, pimped for her, brought strangers to the house so he could play voyeur as they dallied. He told Moore all about it.

"It was sick," Moore concedes now. "I loved him so much, it was easy for me to play mommy."

Finally, she had to break it off, lying that she was getting married. "It won't last," he smirked, after barging into cafes where she worked, screaming for her to come back, costing her jobs.

That's when he took up with another of his Bad Girls, headed east in a Chevy El Camino and wound up in New Orleans. His sidekick this time was a pretty blond cokehead who stripped for a spell at the French Casino on Bourbon Street.

"Sure, I remember 'em," says owner Joe Nuccio, 62, a burly ex-pro boxer. "Threw 'em out of here a dozen times. They were bad for business, always in knock-down drag-out fights with each other." After Nuccio fired her for drinking on the job, Morgan showed up loaded and "said he was gonna kick my ass. ... You'd never dream he was an intelligent man. I felt sorry for him. I never put him in jail, just told the police, 'Get him out of here.'

"His girlfriend looked like Marilyn Monroe, but they'd fight; we'd find her laying in the street drunk. He'd abuse her, but she loved it. She did everything out there except eat garbage, knew more about drugs than any drugstore."

By 1985, New Orleans had turned deadly. So, desperate to write, Morgan holed up in New Jersey to work on his book near his younger brother, who baby-sat Seth in and out of detox. But before long, he got to fighting in bars up there, and then took off, back to New Orleans, where he met his last rider, Levine.

She stuck by him while he finished "Homeboy," cheerleading a brief but productive sobriety. Levine, a divorced mother who struggled to control two teenagers, delighted that Morgan took an interest in them. She admired his intellect, his wit, told friends he made her laugh. Her kids adored him: Morgan gave her son Joey his black motorcycle jacket, which he still wears. Morgan and Levine became lovers, then friends. About that time, he bought the Harley, for cruising the city where, he liked to say, "Huck Finn ran out of river and Seth Morgan ran out of road."

Excited, he called Valerie Moore, to tell her he'd bought the bike.

"You what?" she said.

"I know what you're thinking," he said. "That it will be the death of me, right?"

The Triumphant Tour By fall 1987, Morgan had a draft of a novel, 1,100 pages long, and a respectable publisher: Henry Holt and Co. When his editor left the publisher, the book was in limbo, so his father sent it over to a close friend, Jason Epstein, at Random House. Epstein spied talent, picked up the book for a mere $7,500 advance and advised chopping it by two-thirds. Morgan reluctantly agreed.

"It was odd to find someone in the late '80s writing so back in the '60s," Epstein says, "but he had a real voice, entirely imaginative."

Sobriety lasted long enough for Morgan to deliver the cuts; "Homeboy," published early last year, sold 25,000 copies in hardcover, a striking performance for a first novel. Paperback rights fetched $50,000, foreign rights another $60,000, a movie option, $75,000.

The book was just out when he visited his dentist and met a bedazzling woman in the waiting room: strawberry blond, aqua eyes. It was another Susie, last name Groover. She was 39, a divorced mother who tended bar -- and the last Good Girl he courted for salvation. He tried to snow her with press clips. She confessed a fondness for the vampire fiction of local author Anne Rice. "I guess this means I'll have to put her down and read you now," she laughed.

"He made me feel so special," she says. "He had a great heart, and I loved his shoulders. He had a big spider tattoo on one. I loved to kiss the spider."

He asked her to go on the book tour, telling old girlfriends that his publisher had assigned Susie as an escort, ever the con. And what a tour it was: Morgan made great copy. Having descended into hell, he rose again on the "Today" show to declare his "rebirth" in New Orleans, insisting he had replaced his "destructive addictions with a positive one: writing."

At least that was his story, and he was sticking to it.

It was a heady time: In May, there was an elegant SoHo soiree at Epstein's apartment. Norman Mailer was there, saying he had glimpsed big powerful phrases inside The Book but aimed to delay reading it until he finished his own work-in-progress, say those who overheard.

After New York, it was on to San Francisco, where he saw an ex-wife and old girlfriends, Groover in tow, staying out of trouble, fearful old warrants might resurface and land him back in jail, says Malandra. After one dinner at the Grill in the Portman Hotel, where Madonna was staying, he dispatched a signed copy of "Homeboy" to the singer's room. He was baffled and insulted when she didn't respond. "C'mon, Seth, she's more famous than you," chided Groover.

"I need some Jack Daniel's," he confided to her. "I can't wait to get home and get a drink."

On interviews, he wore jeans and tank tops, showing off his tattoos. "He was being peddled like a piece of flesh, and on one level didn't mind," says Joanna Leake, a New Orleans college professor who advised Morgan on "Homeboy" revisions. "But he really needed to believe it was a real book and would have been good even if he'd been Joe Blow from Omaha. He also realized he was the bad-guy artist who was expected to play it to the hilt," which he did. "He griped, but he was a willing co-conspirator, a media hooker."

He was hard at work on his second novel, "Mambo Mephiste," a sordid tale about New Orleans, voodoo, sex, murder. Random House loved the idea, signed him for $250,000, but refused to spring for more than $30,000 for starters, keeping a short leash.

Morgan was bitter. His agent leaned on Epstein, who held firm. It was a wise call. Morgan claimed 400 victorious pages, but estate lawyers have found little more than two chapters and notes.

What happened? "He was under great pressure when he was writing it, very disciplined and compulsive the way alcoholics sometimes are," says Epstein. "Then he went through a very rigorous book tour last spring, and on to England last summer. Whenhe got back, he was dying for a drink and just let it all go."

From Bad to Worse There were some good days, when he'd crank out 2,000 words, rising early to churn laps in a back-yard pool and pump iron at the YMCA, his muscled arms mapped with old track marks. He'd take breakfast at the Abstract bookstore, write till past noon, tune in to CNN and out for a nap. Later, he'd rev up his Harley to cruise, percolate ideas, drop in on mechanics restoring the beloved black Corvette he'd twice wrecked when drunk. To unwind, there was opera and Roy Orbison.

When Morgan wrote, he kicked everyone out, enforcing a "fascist regime of discipline," he liked to say. But fame and royalty checks spawned groupies, who hustled him for drugs and cash just the way he'd done before. Groover walked in on wild, nonstop orgies inside the aging Victorian Morgan was renovating. Police busted up one; Morgan told friends he'd dived naked off a two-story sleeping porch into his pool. It was even too weird for one hooker, an ex-girlfriend he'd flown in from the coast, who turned around and flew home, telling friends she was spooked by his "death trip."

He'd gone back to shooting coke, he confessed to his brother. "He was arrogant enough to believe he could kick it alone," sighs Jeff Morgan, who watched him try to keep his relapse under wraps.

By mid-September, he was out of control, attempting to mask his decline as he was trotted out to promote his book at the Southern Booksellers Convention here. When he didn't show for a promised signing at the Abstract, Byrne rousted the stoned Morgan from home and warned he'd better show up fast. He did, just barely, sweating from drugs as he held forth, says Byrne.

A local talk show host blessed him on live TV for staying sober. But he was coked to the gills at the time.

Finally, Groover figured out that Morgan's detox was bogus and threatened to break it off. "Seth knew he couldn't offer me drugs to control me like his other women," she says, "so he bought me a car." It was a 1984 Cadillac Seville with a leather interior he picked up for $10,000. It was baby blue, but he called it " 'periwinkle,' said it matched my eyes."

After he realized her ultimatum was real, he had a key made and stole the car. She called the cops to get it back. "She was lucky," says estate lawyer Carol Neff. "It was one of the few things he'd completely paid off when he died."

Groover loved him but felt used. She phoned People magazine to warn them that they'd been conned, too, into thinking he'd gone straight.

"Why'd you do that?" fumed Morgan.

"I'm not going to be part of the lie," she shot back.

Susie and Suzy "Vultures kept coming around," says Groover, who still mourns him bitterly. "He just couldn't say no with all these people saying, 'I've got Percodans, I've got needles, I've got coke.' They knew if they could get him started, they had a free ride for days."

Morgan dabbled with Alcoholics Anonymous; Groover tried Al-Anon to understand. She talked him into trying therapy to work on his attitude toward women, which she suspected was a result of maternal abuse as a toddler. It lasted a mere session or two. Too painful, he said. Two weeks before he died, he vowed detox but checked out of one hospital hours after he set foot inside.

One week before the fatal crash, Morgan was riding in a car with Suzy Levine, who was driving. According to a friend of Levine's, Tudi Saunee, he was high on booze and Percodans, and he kept pulling at the wheel because he wanted to get off the highway to get more pills. According to Saunee, Levine told him, 'Seth, I'm not going to die for you. I have children.' " Saunee added, "I'll always believe he killed her on purpose, like the way people commit suicide with their pets because they don't want to die alone... .

"I'd feel safe in saying she was his only friend in New Orleans. When he was drinking, no one wanted to be around him, so Suzy would go baby-sit. She was a French Quarter Mother Teresa. As many problems as she had, she always had time to listen to someone else."

"You can't paint Suzy as a heroine," says her father, Robert Skidmore, engineer and ex-Marine. "She had just begun to hit the bottle bad, lost a couple of jobs. On that last night, she'd phoned friends who were too busy to give her a ride before Morgan showed up." Skidmore says he can't hate Morgan, and he refuses to entertain any theories beyond an accident. "That's the only way we can handle it," he says. "She climbed on that bike all by herself."

The Last Plea The night before the accident, Suzy Levine had phoned Susie Groover from the jail, where Morgan was behind bars for drunk driving. "She said, 'Seth's in jail, he needs to get out,' " recalls Groover.

"I said, 'Let him stay there, it will do him good.' As much as it hurts, I learned the best thing you can do for an addict, no matter how much they cry, is to move away, shake them up and into treatment. As long as they think they can get sympathy whining and moaning, they will."

Earlier, she remembers, Morgan had begged her to reconsider their breakup, "to see him, let him explain. It may sound cold, but I said, 'Seth, go write another book. I'll read it.' "