When Stan Rice died of cancer at age 60 on Dec. 9, New Orleans lost one its most intriguing, if reclusive, citizens. Best known as the husband of vampire novelist Anne Rice and the father of novelist Christopher Rice, he was the author of seven poetry books and the recipient of numerous honors, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Academy of American Poets. Before moving to New Orleans in 1988, he had been the chairman of the creative writing department at San Francisco State University. Since then, he has increasingly become known for his art work; a large coffee table compilation, Paintings, was published in 1997.
Such are the milestones, the public markers of his presence in this world. While such records may tell us what he was, they do not tell us who he really was as a person. Content to be a hermit, a recluse described by The Los Angeles Times as "the wind beneath the wings" of his famous wife and son, he was a true original, as I discovered when we first met.
"I can do this because my wife is rich," he said with an affable grin, gesturing to his paintings on the walls of the Stan Rice Gallery in the old St. Elizabeth's Orphanage building on Prytania Street. It was a startlingly candid comment, but he meant it matter of factly. He had been the family breadwinner for years, until his wife's success and their 1988 move to this city meant that he could spend the time he had formerly spent at his day job pursuing his passion for painting. As with everything else he undertook, he pursued painting with intensity while continuing to write his poetry at night.
"For Stan, it was a good mix," says gallery director Lew Thomas, referring to the way his poetry and painting seemed to reinforce each other. Four of Rice's seven poetry books, including Red to the Rind: Poems, published earlier this year, had been written since his move to New Orleans.
For Rice, poetry and painting almost seemed like two sides of the same coin. He once said that the same impulse -- what he called "a hunger for the vivid" -- had guided his creative approach, going back to his Spartan childhood in Texas, when he first became interested in words: "There were no books in my house when I was growing up, but I sat down and wrote things that basically just jumped my bones. I knew that there was a way to use language that was highly physical and visual. I didn't know the masters, but I knew that if you put the words down in what I later learned were called metaphors, the words felt like they had hands. They were on you. They were on your eyes. They were physicalized."
In that, and subsequent conversations, it became clear that the same vividness that sparked his painting and verse was often evident even in casual, spontaneous comments. It was something he had internalized into his own distinct persona. In his words and images, as in his personal presence, he was not like anyone else. "I'm really an autodidact," he once said of an expressive style that was forged with no obvious debt to any established mentors or models.
Ever enigmatic, Rice exhibited, but refused to sell, his paintings. "He was probably the most elegant person I've ever known," notes Thomas, referring not so much to the outer trappings but to a personal presence that was gracious and direct, yet as self-contained and inscrutable as a cat. It was a quality that readers of Anne Rice's vampire novels might have found familiar. Or as Anne Rice herself recently put it in a phone message to her fans just after his death: "In 1973, when I wrote Interview With the Vampire, my beautiful husband Stan was the inspiration for the vampire Lestat. He had Stan's long blond hair and blue eyes and feline grace that inspired Lestat's charm and magnetism and mesmerizing movement."
It might also be noted that it was Stan Rice who purportedly encouraged his wife to undertake writing Interview and to become a fulltime novelist. Close since high school, where he was editor of the school paper and she was a feature writer, they married in 1961. Both were later devastated by the loss of their 6-year-old daughter to leukemia, a soul-rending event that inspired Stan's first book of poetry, Some Lamb, in 1975, and is said to have influenced Anne's literary interest in vampirism. Through tragedy and triumph, their marriage endured for 41 years.
Stan completed three paintings even after his left side had become paralyzed from the radical radiation treatments he had been receiving. His last was a self-portrait of himself in his wheelchair, which he had managed to get to his study every day, where he worked until the end. In his death, New Orleans lost an important poet and painter, one of a kind. It's a pity we didn't get to know him better while he was with us.
- Lew Thomas
- Stan Rice with a bust of Lenin at Barrister's Gallery's Lenin Busted show.