In the heat of the civil rights struggle, the Ku Klux Klan tried to intimidate Shirley Ann Grau, a white Southerner who had written about interracial marriage, by burning a cross on her front lawn.
But they forgot to bring a proper shovel. Unable to plant the cross upright in the hard ground, they laid it down instead, and the flames soon sputtered out.
As it happened, Ms. Grau (rhymes with prow) wasn’t even home. And on hearing of the incident, she was more amused than distraught.
“It scorched a few feet of grass and it scared the neighbors,” she shrugged to The Associated Press in 2003. “It all had kind of a Groucho Marx ending to it.”
Her response typified her unflappable nature. “She didn’t hesitate to tackle controversial subjects, and she certainly wasn’t going to be intimidated by the Klan,” her daughter Katherine F. Miner said in an interview.
Ms. Grau died on Monday at an assisted-living facility in Kenner, La., a suburb of New Orleans. She was 91. Ms. Miner said the cause was complications of a stroke.
The object of the Klan’s ire back in 1965 was Ms. Grau’s novel “The Keepers of the House,” the story of a wealthy white widower and his 30-year relationship with his Black housekeeper, whom he secretly marries and with whom he has three children.
Most of Ms. Grau’s six novels and four story collections explored themes of race, power, class and love. They were deeply atmospheric, lyrical tales, most of them set in the Deep South, in worlds unto themselves.
“Shirley Ann Grau writes of our most sublimated and shameful prejudices, about how miscegenation infiltrates every level of society, and about how racial harmony is a pretense that integration alone is unable to address,” Alison Bertolini, the author of “Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction” (2011), told Deep South Magazine in 2013.
“The Keepers of the House” was the best known of Ms. Grau’s brooding sagas.
“The sounds and smells and folkways of the Deep South are conjured up and the onerous burden of the South’s heritage of violence and of racial neurosis is dramatized in the lives of a few unhappy people,” Orville Prescott wrote in a review in The New York Times.
“It is all an old and familiar story,” he added, “but seldom has it been told so well.”
Many agreed. “The Keepers of the House” won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
That was the last thing Ms. Grau expected. When the Pulitzer representative called to tell her she had won, she thought a friend was pulling a prank.
“Yeah, and I’m the queen of England,” she replied, and hung up.
Ms. Grau was pleased, of course, but not overly impressed with herself. She hung the award inconspicuously over the closet in her study, where few would see it.
Along with attacks from the Klan, her work drew threatening phone calls from white supremacists. She took those calls in stride, undaunted, partly because she knew she could defend herself — she had spent time in her youth hunting rabbits and squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle in Alabama.
“I remind the people,” she told The A.P. of those callers, “that I’m probably a better shot than they are.”
Shirley Ann Grau was born on July 8, 1929, in New Orleans. Her father, Adolph Eugene Grau, was a dentist, and her mother, Katherine (Onions) Grau, was a homemaker.
She grew up in New Orleans and spent part of her childhood in Montgomery, Ala. She attended Newcomb College, the women’s affiliate of Tulane University, where she majored in English and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1950.
She pursued graduate studies in literature at Tulane with the goal of teaching and writing. But, she told Deep South, when the English department chairman said he wouldn’t hire women as teaching assistants, she dropped out before earning a higher degree.
It was about that time that her short stories started to sell — to The New Yorker, Redbook, the Saturday Evening Post, Vogue, Southern Review and Cosmopolitan, among other magazines.
She married James Kern Feibleman, a philosophy professor at Tulane, in 1955. He died in 1987. In addition to Ms. Miner, Ms. Grau is survived by another daughter, Nora F. McAlister; two sons, Ian J. and William L. Feibleman; and six grandchildren.
Ms. Grau’s first collection, “The Black Prince and Other Stories” (1955), was a finalist for a National Book Award. Time magazine called it “the most impressive U.S. short story debut between hard covers since J.D. Salinger’s ‘Nine Stories.’”
Her story collections — the others were “The Wind Shifting West” (1973), “Nine Women” (1985) and “Selected Stories” (2003) — generally received more favorable reviews than her novels, though Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, among other critics, had a fondness for her novel “The House on Coliseum Street” (1961), about a young woman who has an abortion after an affair with a professor.
If some faulted her novels for not presenting an overarching vision or unifying theme, others said that was not her goal.
“She had no agenda,” her friend Maurice duQuesnay, an associate professor of English at Louisiana State University at Lafayette, said in an email. Her interest, he said, was human nature and in creating a sense of place.
She had told him, he recalled, that she viewed life as “a muddle” and that she wanted to show characters struggling to free themselves from the past and forging their own identities.
Ms. Grau put it this way, when discussing “The Keepers of the House” with The New York Post in 1965: “Somewhere in the book I try to say that no person in the rural South is really an individual. He or she is a composite of himself and his past. The Southerner has been bred with so many memories that it’s almost as if memory outreaches life.”