It all began when best-selling vampire novelist Anne Rice took out a full-page ad in the New Orleans Times-Picayune going for the neck of a fellow celebrity for opening an "absolutely hideous" restaurant on one of her hometown's most famous avenues.
Al Copeland, whose peach-colored Straya restaurant, complete with palm trees and enough neon to guide air traffic, brings a splash of Las Vegas and Miami Beach to a decaying stretch of New Orleans' elegant St. Charles Avenue, bit back 48 hours later with a two-page ad of his own. Copeland, who favors ostrich-skin cowboy boots and is known across Louisiana as a powerboat racer and founder of Popeyes spicy-fried-chicken chain, began his volley with "Dear Anne" and ended with "P.S.: See you in court. In the meantime, I'm putting a little extra garlic in the food at Straya, keeping a crucifix under my pillow and carrying a wooden stake for good luck."
Within a week, Copeland had sued Rice for defamation and libel, Rice had reportedly tossed gold-colored rubber rats out of her midnight-black limo during the Mardi Gras Eve parade, and Copeland had ridden on a float with a stake holstered to his waist and a ring of garlic around his neck.
The city has a reputation to uphold.
Some New Orleanians have wondered what makes Rice--who lives in a Garden District lair with an artificial German shepherd on the balcony, showed up at a book-signing event in a horse-drawn coffin and wears beaded headdresses on her more understated days--an arbiter of good taste. They also note that her sensitivity to neighbors' wishes isn't as pure as the blood of a virgin. She worked Catholics into a lather last year when she bought their chapel for her own use even as her hit novel Memnoch the Devil, which recounts Creation from Satan's viewpoint, filled her coffers.
Public sentiment may have turned against Rice in the Straya affair after her second full-page ad, which struck some as self-promotion. In it, she noted that her most famous vampire, Lestat, just happens to disappear at the end of Memnoch at the abandoned auto dealership where Straya is now. And Copeland, who missed no public relations classes, realizes that the presumably fictional vampire can be as big a draw as Siegfried and Roy.
Be that as it may, Rice, who lives a few blocks from the restaurant, wasn't the only one who went apoplectic when the Straya California Creole Grand Cafe was unveiled, looking like an accident between a cruise ship and a strip mall. "It gives me high blood pressure," says Louise Martin, a member of a neighborhood group. But she seems to be expressing a minority opinion, especially now that Copeland has been giving discounts to customers bearing Rice's ads. In a Times-Picayune poll, readers took his side 3 to 1. "And we're booked," says Copeland as he showed off Straya's casino-like interior of mirrors, chrome and gold-painted panthers with studded collars. "There's a wait for lunch, and it's two or three hours for dinner on weekends."
"I hated it when it first opened," Marnie Thompson, a Tulane University graduate student, says from across the street. "I still think it's ugly, but I like it now in a Vegas kind of way. It's bringing money, jobs, lights and police to a neighborhood that needs them. With all that, it seems trivial to quibble over aesthetics."