December 13, 1999 12:00 PM

While millions delighted in Vincent Price’s ghoulishly campy performances in countless horror films, as a child Victoria Price couldn’t bear to watch her father’s flicks. It wasn’t because the actor, who died in 1993 at age 82, specialized in villains with a taste for torture. No, Victoria was terrified “because he got killed in almost every one,” she says. “I couldn’t distinguish fiction from fact.”

These days, Victoria, 37, a television writer and author in Santa Fe, has long since outgrown her fears. She has also developed a profound appreciation of her father’s work—and of the complicated man lurking behind it. In her painstakingly researched memoir Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, she provides an intimate glimpse of the fiercely private star who appeared in more than 100 movies, including 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, 1950s cult favorites like House of Wax and The Fly and the classic romance Laura in 1944. The book also contains some unsavory revelations, including Price’s early anti-Semitism. “When you love somebody, you want to protect them,” says Victoria. “But I wanted to tell his story in a way that makes him a complete person.”

With his pencil-thin mustache, arched eyebrows and courtly manner, Price was a suavely sinister presence onscreen. “He was a great gentleman who brought intelligence and sensitivity to horror films,” says Roger Corman, who directed him in several. The man Victoria remembers was a kindly, doting father who rode roller coasters with her and had a penchant for storytelling—when he was around, that is. “We were separated a lot because of his work, but we were emotionally inseparable,” she says. Her father also instilled in her a passion for life. “He always said, ‘If you’re curious, you’ll never be bored.’ And boredom for him was the eighth deadly sin.”

Although she worships her father, Victoria does not shrink from disturbing matters. For example, she was shocked to discover, sifting through Price’s archives, anti-Semitic letters he had written as a student in the 1930s. “Dad spent a lot of time in Germany as a young man and probably was a little awed by what he saw as Hitler’s ability to pull the country together,” Victoria says. “But within two years, before the war even began, he had changed his mind and turned against the Nazis.” Victoria also found a letter Price sent to the FBI during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when, to save his career, he condemned actors who had taken the Fifth during congressional investigations into Hollywood.

The Yale-educated son of the president of a St. Louis candy manufacturer, Price was often mistaken for an Englishman because of his cultured, mellifluous voice. In 1938, he wed actress Edith Barrett, with whom he had a son, Vincent Barrett Price, 59, now a poet and journalist living in Albuquerque. The couple divorced in 1949, the same year Price married Victoria’s mother, British-born Mary Grant, a costume designer who now works as an architectural designer. Their divorce was final in 1974, when Victoria was 12. Price then married actress Coral Browne and, says Victoria, “I became peripheral to his life.” In 1987, after Price had begun battling emphysema and then Parkinson’s disease, Victoria moved to Los Angeles to help take care of her father.

Victoria has warm recollections of growing up in L.A., where she often visited her father’s sets. “My main memories are of meeting Lucille Ball and stars like that,” she says. But celebrities didn’t impress her, and as time passed, she says, she grew more curious about the private man behind the public facade. Some people speculated Price was bisexual because of his effete persona. Victoria found no evidence to support that theory, but she has said her father told her he’d had a relationship with a man that he described as “a love affair without the sex.” Price was certainly tolerant of homosexuality. Victoria says that when she told him in the early ’80s that she was a lesbian, “he was incredibly open and loving and unjudgmental.”

Victoria and her companion live in a sun-drenched house high in the mountains above Santa Fe. It’s filled with Native American and African art—an interest she acquired from her father. One of Victoria’s pastimes in particular reminds her of Price—horseback riding. “He hated horses, but I was obsessed,” she recalls. So he did the best he could. “I have all these pictures of him with me on merry-go-rounds.”

Alec Foege

Zelie Pollon in Santa Fe and Diane Clehane in New York City

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