Harvard professor Marjorie Garber's afternoon debauch began with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the back of a black Rolls-Royce. She shared it with Corcoran Group real-estate broker Sharon Baum. Sy Presten, Corcoran's old-school, Brylcremed publicist, had invited the professor to go look at fancy apartments after someone in the office read Garber's new book, Sex and Real Estate, a lusty pop-scholarly treatise on "why we love houses." In it, Garber asserts that real estate "can be a primary object of affection and desire -- not a displacement or a substitute or a metaphor." So when Presten called, she was hot to trot.
Garber is a big shot at Harvard, where hundreds of undergraduates throng her Shakespeare lectures. She owns a huge house in a chichi area of Cambridge and a place on Nantucket. After three books on the Bard, she started writing about cross-dressing, bisexuality, and dogs. Sex and Real Estate was somewhat viciously reviewed: The New Republic called it "so serenely silly -- so untroubled by any whiff of a serious idea -- as to invite a kind of awe." Did the other professors tease her about her subject matter? "Not to my face," she says. "The book was the best-seller at the Harvard Book Store the week it came out. So I know a lot of deans are reading it."
First stop: an apartment in the former Pulitzer mansion at 11 East 73rd Street. She and Baum, both dressed in black pantsuits (Baum's with a glittery sold brooch on her lapel), walk reverently through the dim wood-paneled tomb of the lobby. "Can you imagine this as your home?" asks Baum. "All too well," says Garber, rubbing her stomach as she admires the creaky, intricate floors. Upstairs, in the sunny, high-ceilinged yellow room that used to be the ballroom, Garber trills, "It's got that Auntie Mame feeling!"
As the Rolls proceeds up Park Avenue, Baum points out a huge townhouse that recently sold and could become a single-family house again ("It's like a dream!" says Garber, wringing her hands with excitement) and a $7 million duplex that was stripped of its details -- though the new owner is going to "renovate it back." "That's a good punch line!" says Garber, who sees a similar shift in her own aesthetic, from modernism to traditionalism.
For the professor who made a name in gender studies, shelter fetish is just one more shame to overcome: "So many people say to me, 'I thought it was just me,' " she says, climbing into the car. "Now we can say it out loud." As she drives off, Presten growls, "That professor sure loves real estate. She was practically salivating."