“The dimensions of my bathroom are very much like an Egyptian tomb,” Freeman Gunter says. “A noble tomb, not a royal tomb.” We are standing in the bathroom, and Gunter is moving among his glyphs: a limestone chip from the Valley of the Kings, a cornbread-colored towel, a reproduction from Saqqara showing a pair of priests circumcising some noblemen. “Hold him and do not allow him to faint,” goes the inscription on the original. “I will cause it to heal.”
A stranger’s bathroom is an excellent place to snoop in any apartment, but especially so if that stranger has occupied his bathroom since 1974. To have lived, as Freeman Gunter has, in one place for so long is both a luxury and a pain in the ass. A luxury because his one-bedroom in the Ansonia, a child’s doodle of a legendary building on Broadway and 74th, costs Gunter so little that he refuses to divulge his rent for fear that people will murder him. A pain in the ass because an apartment like Gunter’s can become inseparable from its occupant. Though for Gunter, the idea of a rent-controlled mausoleum makes him happy.
“Nobles who could afford a nice tomb fixed it up so that it either reflected their life as they wanted to live it in eternity or their life as it was,” he says. “I like to be constantly reminded of what makes me feel good: the voices I love to hear, the people who loved me, the people I love or just love to look at.” He points to the yellow towel. “I stole that from a little steamer the first time I went up the Nile. There’s nothing that my eyes fall on that doesn’t remind me of something nice in my life.”
What a thing to say. Gunter, a retired journalist who edited a string of gay porn magazines (Michael’s Thing, Mandate, Playguy, Honcho) starting in the seventies, is not famous, but he is an example of that mythical creature the New York City character, and his apartment is an illustration of what happens when a person of charismatic weirdness is allowed to stew in his weirdness for four decades. The place is jammed with souvenirs from trysts, crimes, and celebrity encounters. Here is the authentic funerary statuette acquired semi-legally from a museum that might not have known what it gave him. Here is a gilded panther. Here is Marky Mark with his junk out. There’s so much to see.
A 1974 photograph in Gunter’s bedroom shows Sarah Vaughan performing for a crowd of shiny men in towels. The picture was taken four floors beneath his apartment, at what was then the Continental Baths and is now a parking lot. The baths were what first got Gunter to the Ansonia and eventually prompted him to move in; they were opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow, a businessman and opera singer, and they were decadent and clean, with fresh flowers, orgy rooms, a hamburger stand, and a mirrored sex maze.
For $5 per room, a visitor could stay as long as he wanted. Gunter went at least once a week. “Much of my life revolved around the baths,” he says. “It was an evening scene that doesn’t exist at all now. You could mix and mingle, have a drink, see a great show, and wander off in the shadows and have sex.” Because no natural light entered the baths, Gunter tended to lose track of time.
The Sarah Vaughan picture shows Gunter in the front row: handsome, paler than a cotton ball, in ecstasy. “Sass had the best weed, could roll her r’s, and liked her suite at the St. Regis, but she was just like a little girl,” he says. The two became pals. “Before going onstage, she’d pick up a bottle of Tabasco from the piano and take a swig. She said it opened up her head.” The Continental’s entertainment—Bette Midler, Barry Manilow—was originally a ruse to distract patrons from the threat of police raids. Gradually, the show-business aspect of the place overrode the utilitarian aspect, and by the time Vaughan appeared, there was a sense of mission creep. The baths closed within a few years.
Gunter keeps one more memento from that era hidden behind a lamp: a photo of Rudolf Nureyev, naked and lissome. “One night at the baths, I was lying on my little cot, trying to be as alluring as possible—actually, I was dozing,” Gunter says, a lotus-eating grin spreading across his face. “And when I woke up, someone was caressing me. I looked up, and it was Rudolf Nureyev. That Tatar face, and the body as taut—bnnng!—as a violin string. I got ahold of myself, figuratively speaking, and thought: Okay. Don’t say a thing. And then I reached for him and he closed the door.”
The Ansonia is known for its uncommonly thick walls, which allow Gunter to listen to his Carlos Gardel records at concert volume whenever he pleases. “I shut the world out,” he says. He purchased his phonograph—a 1909 Victor Talking Machine with a quarter-sawn oak escutcheon and horn—from a collector for $4,000 last year. “True analog,” Gunter says, winding until the tension in the spring is just right. A new needle goes in every time. There are soft, medium, loud, siren, and generic needles, with each kind changing the output.
Because of its oval shape, Gunter’s parlor functions like an opera house; there are certain coordinates—a corner of the sofa, to the left of an armchair—where sound enlarges and warms. “I love to get my buzz on in the evening and play my antique records. I can play them for hours and wander around the apartment. I carry my drink around—put it down there, pick it up here, lose it, find it. Lose it. Find it. I do this until I’m quite buzzed, and then I know it’s time to eat.”
Dinner is eaten alone, often, but Gunter’s collection of portraits are a certain kind of company. The faces are chaperones and emissaries: Isis, Serket, Hathor, Kim Novak, an owl, a deceased boyfriend, Tutankhamen, Tutankhamen with a mustache, and, with greater frequency than any other face, a nineteenth-century Spanish mezzo-soprano named Maria Malibran. Gunter furls and unfurls his hands when he thinks about the opera star. She came to him as a ghost, he says, in 1985, about 150 years after she died in Manchester. Gunter was startled. “Why did you come?” he asked.
“I like the music here,” said Malibran.
She visited a few more times to say hello or to evaluate Gunter’s records, including one by Cecilia Bartoli (Ghost, 2007: “She sounds like a chicken”). A few years ago, he bought a copy of Malibran’s death mask, which he stores beneath a stack of DVDs. “Like any sculpture, so much depends upon the light,” he says, lifting the lid from the mask. “Sometimes it looks like a loaf of bread.”
The death mask is one of several micro-tombs tucked within the megatomb of the apartment. Another is a jar of Saharan sand and ancient scarabs that sits atop a bookshelf. (Gunter’s Egypt thing originates, like a lot of Egypt things, in the Met’s blockbuster King Tut show of the late seventies.) The jar is where Gunter keeps his most precious souvenirs, including a small lightbulb. In 2007, when the building was covered in scaffolding, a squirrel found its way onto Gunter’s terrace. The two became friends, and Gunter named the squirrel Bandit. “I would crawl out the window and put three peanuts on top of the fence each day,” he recalls. “One day, I saw Bandit out on the fence, and it looked like he was blowing bubbles. He had this bubble coming out of his mouth.”
“And it was a tiny lightbulb. Someone had apparently cut down a string of lights, and he had found them. He put three of them right where I’d put the peanuts.” The bulbs pleased Gunter. “It was a gift from a wild animal who thought I’d be interested. That guy with the window will probably like this. Maybe he’ll give me more peanuts.”
Bandit continued his visits for a year, burying the food in Gunter’s dried-out planters until a jungle crop of peanut plants waved in the air.
If Gunter’s tastes are not quite obsolete, they are specific and require maintenance. Liquor needs to be ordered, supplies collected. “I call it my inventory,” he says. “I have a fetish for it. Razor blades, deodorant, glue, roach traps—I can’t stand the idea of running out. Toothpaste. I like to see several tubes of it backed up. Bars of soap. Phonograph needles—I buy them by the thousands. What if I ran out? My whole operation would fail.” He keeps cases of Teacher’s Scotch stacked in the kitchen. “There are two kinds of people in this world: people that run out of toilet paper and people that never do. Now I’m freaking out that they’ll discontinue incandescent bulbs. I will not live my life in fluorescent lights. I just won’t.” In the kitchen, Gunter opens a cabinet full of inventory and giggles. “Look! A child’s garden of lightbulbs. In case of an apocalypse.”