NEW ORLEANS — Way down St. Charles Avenue, beneath ancient oaks, in a 19th-century mansion, the vampires who love Anne Rice were gathering for a masquerade ball Saturday to celebrate the woman many said had changed their lives and opened up their worlds.
Anne Rice is gone, but her New Orleans vampire ball lives on
In their fangs and finery, the late author’s devotees gather to grieve the novelist, who died last year, and honor her spirit
It was the first time Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat Fan Club held its annual ball without its namesake, who shuffled off this mortal coil in December. She had often attended the balls (this year marks the 34th) and even hosted many of the early ones at her various homes in the city. If she couldn’t come, she sent a message. For her fans, and especially for those who knew and worked with her closely, this was a chance to mourn her, New Orleans-style, with joy and music and dancing.
“I think it’s celebration of life, even though we are vampires,” said Ramona Robles, a D.C.-based Army reservist in a handmade Medusa headdress. “We are celebrating the life of this community and what she brought to it. Definitely no sadness. We’re happy. Now she is truly undead.”
It seemed a fit setting for releasing grief in general. Rice had written “Interview With the Vampire” for her daughter, Michele, who had died of leukemia at 5; in the novel’s character of Claudia, she imagined what it would be like to keep a child alive, or undead, forever. The grief of the coronavirus also looms. This was the second ball since the virus shut down New Orleans and the rest of the world, and the first to be at full capacity. Longtime friends were seeing one another for the first time in years. And it was happening when gathering in groups to celebrate Halloween suddenly felt incredibly sad and even dangerous, following the tragic crowd crush that killed at least 150 at a Halloween parade in Seoul earlier that day.
“The fact that she’s not here, that’s bittersweet,” said Ritchie Champagne, fan club president from 1997 to 2002. She loved these balls.
“She called us all her cousins, because she said everybody was her family,” said Kimberly Thompson, who worked for Rice as an event coordinator. “I think that’s great, because it’s like found people that have not been accepted at home. You’re not the weirdo in the family.”
And this year, she’d probably be basking in adulation with the new, somewhat controversial (among fans) “Interview With the Vampire” series on AMC Plus. “I’m hoping the TV show will bring more people to the books, like the movie did in ’94,” Champagne said.
Love of Rice’s books is really what brought this community together. Champagne and fan club co-founder Sue Quiroz would often see people come up to Rice crying at her book signings. “They’d bring paperbacks that were held together with Scotch tape,” Champagne said. “She goes, ‘Well, wouldn’t you want me to sign something nicer?’ And they’d go: ‘No, no, no. This is the one I read.’ ”
If you’d managed to show up at the ball without your fangs, a “fangsmith,” Maven Lore, was on hand, up the spiral staircase on the second floor, who could make you a custom pair in 20 minutes, starting at $200. Outside, there was a fire-breather; a statue of Akasha, Queen of the Damned; and a goth band named Cervix Couch. Anyone in need of a dance partner could pick up “Claudia’s mother,” a life-size stuffed corpse representing the deceased parent of the child vampire in “Interview.” “She died of yellow fever, so I made sure she was appropriately jaundiced, put some yellow in there,” said the current fan club president, Mary Dugas, who wore a black mourning dress she’d sewn herself, modeled after one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
All proceeds from the silent auction went to the New Orleans-based nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries.
The theme of the night had been “The Reign of Osiris,” the title of Rice’s last book (Dugas said she hasn’t been able to bring herself to finish it yet, because it’d be too sad), and at one point, some dancers in the crowd threw off their blue cloaks, revealing gold paint, and swirled around to vaguely Egyptian-sounding electronic music.
“It’s a delicate subject, nowadays, doing anything like that, you know,” Dugas said. “But, I mean, we have a Krewe of Cleopatra here and it’s New Orleans. Yeah, we have to learn how to coexist with the rest of the world.”
Friday, before the ball, the fan club put on a corsetry fashion show and a Bazaar Bizarre selling witchy goods. On Sunday, after the ball, it held a traditional New Orleans second line for her, with a band and mourners parading through the streets of her beloved Garden District neighborhood, first playing a dirge until they paused for a moment of silence near the house where she wrote the Mayfair Witches trilogy, then dancing to jazz music, sending her off in style. (Rice held her own second line for a book launch in 1995, wearing a white dress and riding in a coffin on a horse-drawn carriage, “because nobody gets to enjoy their own funeral,” Dugas says. She has not yet had an official celebration of life; that will eventually be organized by her son, Christopher Rice.)
Appreciation: Anne Rice changed vampires for the better. And helped fans become their fuller selves.
The lore of the balls always seems to return to the Memnoch Ball in 1995 — the blowout Rice threw the year after the release of the “Interview” movie. She’d paid for the whole thing herself, told the fan club to spare no expense, and held it at the former site of St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage, which she’d turned into the largest home in the city. Kirsten Dunst, who played Claudia in the film, was there in her little blue Claudia dress. According to legend, 3,000 tickets were sold and 8,000 people showed up, if you counted the gate crashers.
Saturday’s ball attendees, who numbered about 600, included Gina Stebbins, 57, who’d attended her first ball (“ball is a loose term”) with her mother at Tipitina’s, a music venue, in 1994. While looking for a taxi, she met a Tulane architecture student, Joseph, who offered to drive her and her mom to the airport. Instead, he gave them a tour of French Quarter architecture. Then he invited Gina to come back to ride a steamboat and clean his family tomb. “Then he invited me to meet his parents in Mobile, and the next thing we knew I was getting a divorce and moving across country from California,” Gina said. “So Anne Rice and this ball changed my world.”
Joseph proposed in the chapel at St. Elizabeth’s during the 1995 Memnoch Ball. The next year, they came in their wedding clothes. This year, they brought their 21 year-old daughter, Emma, and wore the costumes they’d worn in 1995, which had been made by Joseph’s mother.
“They fit a little better last time around,” Joseph said.
Everyone had stories of discovering Rice’s work “when I was way too young” and getting hooked. Justin Myles, a Goth from Denver who wore a top hat and silver wings, said he had started reading her books when he was 8 and in foster care — and calls Lestat de Lioncourt, a famed Rice character, his “toxic role model.” Another woman, Khoriana Vaercomun, came all the way from Hibbing, Minn., near the Canadian border, after discovering Rice via a randomly rented VHS of “Interview” as a kid. Her children are grown, and she finally had enough money to splurge. She could never get to a ball before, but now her kids are 18 and out of the house. “I’m crushed I couldn’t meet her, because she’s been such a figure in my life,” she said. “It’s been a lifelong dream, and one year too late.”
In the crowd, too, was Lee Emery, 47, who’d had a bit role in “Interview” as a young fop who becomes dinner for Tom Cruise’s Lestat, while Brad Pitt’s conflicted newbie vampire, Louis, drinks the blood of some poodles. Emery is now living in Westport, Conn., and produces commercials. He’d come in a replica of his costume that he’d commissioned after going as far as calling the movie’s costume designer trying to dig up the original. “It’s the only place in the world I’d get asked to sign an autograph,” he said.
He’d been a college student at Tulane at the time he was cast and hadn’t known Rice’s work, but he later found out that his character had been one of the first openly gay or bisexual characters in a major studio film — and one with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. He felt as if “it was just time to come and show my respect, because Anne Rice was just such an interesting influence on my life. She represented what was possible in my life. She created a whole universe, and just being exposed to that and being a part of that was very special for me. ”
Toward the end of the night, two men dressed as Lestat and Louis were among the last to leave. The Lestat said he had been playing the role for 20 years, ever since he was 20 and got plucked out of the crowd — knowing nothing about Anne Rice — and became the official vampire of the ball for some time. For a long time, Lestat became his nickname. Then he changed it officially.
Rice had once kissed him and told him that he was the Lestat. “With Anne, that’s a deep cut, her loss. We really, really love her. She’s always been very kind to us,” he said.
“She knew that we’re crazy. I’m sure that she knew we were a little nuts, but she loved us anyway.”
An earlier version of this article misstated where Lee Emery lives. He lives in Westport, Conn., not Los Angeles. This article has been corrected.