Books cover almost every square inch of the studio occupied by poet, teacher and translator Richard Howard.
Photo: Courtesy of Compass
Poet, teacher and translator Richard Howard, who died last March, spent many evenings at WH Auden’s East Village apartment drinking and talking literature. But one night he was distracted by the library in Auden: the shelves had begun to overflow, forming wobbly heaps. “Richard was already starting in this direction, and he decided he couldn’t live this way,” says Howard’s husband, artist David Alexander, who helped enforce a new rule: “A book inside, an exit book”. Over the years, the books that covered nearly every square inch of Howard’s apartment shifted almost imperceptibly. Almost nothing else did.
Richard Howard in the studio in 2019.
Photo: David Alexander
Now the railroad studio that Howard moved into in 1974 and bought when he went co-op in the 1980s is for sale for $525,000a price that his agent, Ippei Iwashiro, set low (the apartment just above sold for $799,000) as he expects most buyers to want a major renovation. That prospective buyer may be drawn to nothing more than the building, an 1891 hat factory with an arched entrance that, like a French Quarter mansion, opens to a brick courtyard – a private outdoor space just blocks away. homes in Washington Square Park. “It has that Greenwich village charm,” says Iwashiro, who says renovations to other units have revealed exposed brickwork, beams and columns.
When Howard moved in, he had already won a Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He came from a wealthy family that raised him in a Cleveland mansion, and his friends sometimes wondered why he would choose to limit himself to 500 square feet. What little space was available Howard gave to his “companions” as he describe his books in a 2007 documentary. Simple wooden shelves, installed as a prerequisite before he moved in, stretched to the ceiling, hung over the entryway and rolled into the recessed kitchen. “His bed was placed in a book nook where he kept the books to quote ‘read at night,'” says Craig Morgan Teicher, the digital editor of The Paris review. When Teicher was house-sitting, he discovered that Howard’s books contained secrets: his correspondence with their authors. “Books were his friends – either friends he knew or friends in literature he never knew. For him, life unfolded in books in a much deeper way than for most people.
Even the bathroom is devoted to literature, with black-and-white photographs of writers covering the ceiling and available wall space. When Howard ran out of room to honor them, some of the portraits hung in a living room, around his sofa and the desk overlooking Greene Street, where he translated from French or met generations of poetry students from Colombia and ‘elsewhere. Then there were the living writers who passed away. Teicher once met the poet WS Merwin on the couch. “If you were a young writer coming to New York, walking into this apartment was like, Oh! Can you live like this? Can you be a writer all the time and live like this?“Writers interested in living this way may be interested to learn that the bookshelves will come with the apartment and that the rugs – from Turkey and Iran – are available, as is the desk that Howard worked on and the couch that Merwin sat on. As with all of his “companions,” Alexander now turns to booksellers to browse the collection; receive personal inquiries from scholars, friends, and former students; and, eventually , look for a bookstore to take what’s left.
Over the decades, the apartment’s most significant renovation has been the kitchen floor, its tiles printed with Alexander’s photograph of a candy box they bought on vacation in Kyoto. “Richard really liked it, and it was his idea to do the kitchen floor that way,” says Alexander. A buyer can quote a price for these tiles, which Alexander described as a “work of art,” not flooring. Alexander himself lived only briefly in the studio when they first met, but his works are everywhere: on the surface of a coffee table and in the large portrait of Howard that is still hanging over the sofa. And Howard’s apartment is printed on Alexander’s work: his 2009 photography exhibition, “Available light,is a series of soft and moody close-up studio images, work that seems to grace Howard’s space as if it were a sanctuary.
Howard deceased at the age of 92. He suffered from dementia, and towards the end of Howard’s life Alexander read him his own poems again. Many, including poems for Untitled topics, which won him the Pulitzer, channeling other voices – sometimes those of authors or historical figures whose portraits would have watched him while he showered and whose cadence he could have heard pulling a book from a shelf.
“The thing for him was the life of the mind,” Teicher says. The apartment was an outgrowth of that life—a physical manifestation of the wanderings of his brain. “It was him as a place.”
In addition to the books, toy pigs – Howard’s “spirit animal”, according to Alexander – seem to walk on the bathroom walls and sway over the picture frames. Then there was her collection of rings, pinned to a wall, and Mildred, Howard’s stuffed gorilla. “During the day she lived on the bed, and at night she settled on the couch,” says Alexander. “Towards the end, I thought there was too much. But I never pushed the question. It made Richard happy.