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My Vertical Land Grab


Illustration by Roderick Mills  

Every morning at the age of 79, I wake up in the same bed, in the same third-floor apartment, in the same four-story brownstone on the East Side of Manhattan that I first moved into in 1958, when I was 26 and feeling older than I do now. At 26, I was constantly worried about things that worry me no longer. Where was I going? What was my next move? Now I never question myself about my next move, I know the answer. Don’t move. Change nothing. Let the world come to you.

On a sunny afternoon 53 years ago, a man invited me to see, and perhaps sublet, his one-and-a-half-room apartment in this once-­elegant, 1871-built brownstone with its cracked molding, its rusty water pipes, its DC current, and its termites. His name was Joseph Dever, a refined and smartly dressed man who had a job a block away, near Madison Avenue, working as a ghostwriter for a syndicated gossip columnist. Dever was about to quit and allow his young co-worker, Liz Smith, to assume all the responsibility. He had just been offered a column of his own at the New York World-Telegram, which would feature his name and his picture at the top, and allow him to rent a larger and more modern place. So he said I could take over this smaller, rent-controlled $70-a-month apartment with the understanding that he would keep the lease under his name (and I would be ghostwriting his checks). He would also be giving me a few things at no charge, including, hidden under a towel in a bureau drawer, an unloaded Luger P08 pistol. Dever said he had gotten it when he was in the Marines and did not want to be taking it outside. I said I didn’t want it. He said he would soon return to collect it.

The first thing I did after Dever had given me the key was to invite my girlfriend, Nan Ahearn, a Random House editorial assistant (she was then living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, on Lexington and 63rd Street), to come and see my apartment. She was unimpressed with the building’s downtrodden exterior and foyer, and offered suggestions on how the apartment might be rearranged. We had been dating for more than a year, and I was worried about the prospect of being married. On my lowly reporter’s salary, how could I afford it?

But Nan wanted to get married, and in 1959, we got married. After three months of living together in Dever’s apartment, the couple who occupied the second-floor front—a young lawyer named Herbert Blecker and his wife, Gloria—decided to move out, and I quickly persuaded them to allow me to take it over. Nan and I would make the Bleckers’ space our bedroom and utilize Dever’s as our living room and study. Nan convinced me that we could afford the two apartments because I had been making extra money writing magazine pieces. Herbert Blecker was aware of this because sometimes late at night, bothered by the sound of my typewriter, he would register his disapproval by banging against his ceiling with a broomstick. When Nan and I moved into his apartment, I noticed three small indentations in the ceiling.

Within a year or so, there was another vacancy: the tenant on the first floor, a fashion model named Hope Bryce, whom I persuaded to relinquish her lease, although I could not really afford all three apartments. So I sublet the Bleckers’ old 2-F place to the novelist William Styron, who wanted a pied-à-terre in the city. I charged Styron the same $100 a month that I had been paying after the Bleckers’ departure, and I moved our marital bedroom back to 3-F, while moving our dining room and studio down to Hope Bryce’s former dwelling. But in 1964, with Nan expecting our first daughter, we had to reclaim 2-F for reconversion into a place for the baby and her nanny; and when a second daughter was born in 1967, we had already acquired 4-R, where an airline stewardess named Deborah Cartright used to live. One morning while rushing to catch a flight, she left her toaster blazing, which caused a small fire resulting in her eviction and my good fortune.

By 1973, with dozens of violations lodged against our building for faulty maintenance, and with the Park Avenue cooperative willing to sell the brownstone, Nan and I bought it for the low price of $175,000—50 grand of which was absorbed by the seller to be used to repair and restore the floundering property. Now, when I arise each morning in my marital bed in 3-F, my surroundings do not seem all that different in appearance from what I remember being shown a half-century ago by Joseph Dever. Who never returned, incidentally, to pick up his pistol.

Gay Talese is the author of twelve books, the latest of which is The Silent Season of a Hero.


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