My Former Bedroom, Before: “The artist and interior designer Richard Lee hand-painted flowers on my bedroom wall and designed and painted the upholstered headboard.”
Photo: Annie Schlechter
I never would have left. I’d always thought that I’d be carried out feet first down that polished wood stairwell with its Arts and Crafts wallpaper. For 27 years, I had lived in this two-bedroom on the second floor of an 1854 brownstone on West 9th Street in Greenwich Village. I wrote three books there and churned out more magazine stories than I can count. I loved to give small parties where I would announce that tray tables had to come down when dinner was served (airplane joke); I never had a proper dining table. Instead, I found huge vintage linen napkins that would spill over to the floor when a plate or small tray was placed on a guest’s lap. I had a fire going all winter — until, about five years ago, I was told I wasn’t allowed to use the fireplace anymore — and in summer I placed a big batch of shells in the hearth. I looked out over a garden with a magnificent ginkgo tree.
And then one day last spring, I got an email informing me that the building was being put on the market. Which meant that unless I could get my hands on millions of dollars to buy the whole thing myself, I was going to have to go.
I grew up in the city. My father was a surgeon and my mother a painter and they raised me and my three siblings in an apartment on the Upper East Side all our childhoods. There was a rhythm in the sequence of its rooms, all decorated by our mother and ordered by her practical eye (she used pegboard as liberally in our father’s study as she did in the cleaning closet — the only difference was a coat of paint). If you listened carefully, I discovered, the apartment had a sound, like it was humming its own song. It always smelled delicious from both what was cooking for dinner and the scent of the branch leaves, never flowers, that our mother put in the entrance hall in a large glass vase on the black and white tiled floor. I’ve carried that apartment with me every place I have ever lived, most of all in the one I now had to vacate.
My Former Bedroom, After: “I took that headboard and the striped curtains with me.”
Photo: Wendy Goodman
It was the longest rental of the many I have had, and it evolved slowly over time to become part of me. Decorating it, if you can call what I did decorating, was more like throwing seeds into a field and seeing what would grow. And I threw a lot of seeds around. Periodically, I would prune, giving me room for something different, and the apartment would bloom anew.
I found it after a breakup. It was a rainy, dark afternoon in 1995, and I had taken refuge in a phone booth to call the broker who had found the Bank Street apartment I lived in with my ex-boyfriend in the hopes that she might have something I could see. She did but warned me that it wouldn’t be ready for me to move in right away, as the current tenants weren’t moving for two months.
When I arrived to look at it, I realized that I had seen it a few years before from the window of a previous boyfriend’s apartment right across the street. I’d fantasized about who lived there and how glorious it must have been inside. Meeting your place is like meeting your person; you know it right away. I wasn’t even halfway up the stairs when I said I would take it. The broker looked at me like I was crazy, but once inside the apartment, I repeated that I would take it; I didn’t care how long I had to I wait.
I moved in with my dachshund, David, who would protest my leaving him alone by somehow opening the closet, pulling the coats off the hangers, pawing them into a pile, and chewing holes in only the best ones. When he wasn’t making a coat nest, he was busy trying to gnaw through the bottom of the front door to escape, managing to make enough of a gap between the door and the floor that it had to be covered in metal to prevent further destruction.
My Former Living Room, Before: “I had always wanted floor-to-ceiling bookcases, so I finally had them built only to discover, of course, that it was a ridiculous idea unless you had a library ladder, which I didn’t have, hence I never finished putting books on one of the top shelves. The large painting in front of the fireplace was done by my mother. The sculpture that looks like knight’s armor is by Eric Rhein, and the plaster leg by artist Arline Wingate was a gift from Dennis Freedman.”
Photo: Annie Schlechter
If my landlords were annoyed with David’s antics, they never said a thing to me. They lived in the floor-through apartment upstairs. He was a psychiatrist — he saw patients in his office on the garden level — and she was an artist. They also owned an apartment in a palazzo in Rome, and they were two of the most wonderful, eccentric, brilliant people I have had the gift of knowing and living with under the same roof. They kept the house immaculate, inside and out, and were constantly tending to it. The wood-paneled hallways always gleamed; the staircase had a patterned runner that felt good under the feet. The building had an intensely personal feeling that made all of us renters feel like part of their family.
I had so many dinner parties. Among the most memorable was one I gave for Richard Avedon. I invited his friend Gloria Vanderbilt and the mysterious and wonderful artist and architectural designer Bill Katz. I thought that Bill and Gloria would recognize each other as soul mates, and I was excited to do some existential matchmaking. Dick arrived with an incredible bottle of red wine, the label of which I can’t remember, but it garnered oohs and aahs and was promptly opened and served. Dick, always the life of the party, was gesticulating mid-story when his glass went flying and the red wine splattered on my white couch. I said it was nothing and thought to myself that it was a sign to make the whole thing a Pollack installation with more spills and splatters, but Dick’s mortification was slow to subside. The next day, a messenger arrived with yet another extraordinary bottle of wine wrapped in violet tissue paper with a handwritten note from Dick that read, FOR THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COUCH. That bottle in its exquisite wrapping had pride of place on my mantel for many years, until I served it, an act I regret to this day.
My apartment became a repository for pieces of art and furniture from our family home — the Florence Knoll sofa my mother bought at auction, the coffee table with its weathered marble top — but it also harbored what seemed to be the spontaneous combustion of hundreds of books that threatened to take over the entire place.
When I learned that the magazine was doing a story on the then relatively unknown tidying phenom Marie Kondo and was looking for someone she could practice her art on, I offered up my apartment. I was so excited to have her come in and work her joyful miracles on me, banishing all disorganization toward a new path of serenity and discipline. For some reason, I agreed to let a camera crew from the magazine’s video team bear witness to this. Kondo came in with her husband and a translator, as she didn’t speak any English then. She eyed my bookshelves and the piles of books on the floor. I asked her what I should do. She replied that I needed to take each book in my hands, study it, and decide if it still gave me joy. This of course applied to each and every item in my apartment. I would have to take a year off from work to do this. My excitement quickly turned to the sinking feeling that she and I were not living on the same planet. The coup de grâce came when I pulled back my closet curtain to reveal a tangle of jammed clothes and a shelf full of God knows what. I wasn’t going to thank my holey socks for all they had done for me before they were discarded.
And then I got that dreaded email and I was forced to reckon with my life and the things I had put into it. My paradise had to be taken apart, and what could fit from it would move with me to my new apartment, which is a studio and far smaller. Book by book, item by item, I had to decide, Is it coming with me? Or is it going to be donated, sold, or gifted to a friend? Turns out Kondo had a point.
I had to sort through stacks of research, book drafts, emails, letters, and photos. I felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean looking up, trying to swim toward the surface to find the light. Slowly, I found my way with the help of friends and a brilliant organizer by profession, Paizhe — pronounced like beige — Pressley and her associate, Valentina Taborda. Together, we weeded the garden I had started all those many years ago. We packed up 90 boxes of books that were variously donated to the New York School of Interior Design, the Salvation Army, and Housing Works or sold to the Strand. I gifted my mother’s beautiful desk I had lived with through my childhood and all the years on 9th Street, as I wasn’t going to have the room. (That white sofa, reupholstered, is coming with me.)
There will always be things you miss. For many years, a massive portrait of the Duchess of Windsor sternly presided over my life from the wall leading to my bedroom, and your eye was drawn to her when you entered. When I was still a fashion editor in 1989, I was doing a story on designers’ inspirations, and Bill Blass told me a recent collection of his had been modeled in part after the Duchess in her circa-1936 heyday, so I commissioned the late artist and fashion designer Michaele Vollbracht to paint her in a Blass dress. I loved the painting so much I bought it. At some point, I had enough of the Duchess’s judgmental gaze and decided she needed a new home. I must confess there are times I long to get her back.
My apartment was my haven. I took care of family there when they needed me, and it took care of me when I thought I was going to lose my mind at the beginning of lockdown. Then I focused on that ginkgo tree outside my windows, its branches so close to my bedroom I could almost climb out on it. That ginkgo saved my life in many ways. It’s not actually mine; it belongs to my friends and neighbors Andrew Solomon and John Habich. The last thing I did before I closed the door for the final time was thank them both for all the years of its friendship and beauty.