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“Oh, Marcel!”

Sharing the apartment with Marcel Duchamp’s ghost and other tales of historic-home living.


George Balanchine’s apartment:
West 67th Street
Laura Skoler, trustee and collector
“The listing never mentioned George Balanchine, but when I came to see it in 1985, the real-estate agent told me this was his old apartment. The place was mostly cleared out, but there were some items that he’d left behind. He was a very good cook, so he had a lot of recipe books. There was a copy of a magazine with him and Baryshnikov on the cover lying around that I had framed. A woman in the building next door told me she used to see him through her window, ironing! We have one of those cage elevators with a leather seat, and when there was an elevator-operator strike, he manned a shift. When people ask me what it’s like to live here, I tell them the karma is great. Sure, I’d love more closet space—but I’m never moving.”


Marcel Duchamp’s studio:
West 14th Street
Kelly Cogan, events coordinator and singer
“People used to stop me out front all the time and ask, ‘Do you know who lived here?!’ An old friend of Duchamp sent us a few letters in the mail and came to visit. It was a little nerve-racking at first—I knew who Duchamp was but not much about his work. My roommates and I feel a bit of his presence. Doors will close a lot. We’ll hear people moving when there’s no one there, loud water dripping that we can’t explain. My dog, Max, will bark out of nowhere—and he’s not a barker. When something weird happens, we just say, ‘Oh, Marcel!’ ”


A site of the 1960 Park Slope plane crash:
Sterling Place
Sarah Sirota, actress
“Before I bought this apartment, I asked the broker if we could expose the brick behind the living-room wall, and she said that a plane hit the building in 1960 and she wasn’t sure how it would look. I dismissed it. But when we took down the wall, there was this huge crack. I knew I didn’t want to get rid of it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the crash a lot, and I can almost visualize what it must’ve been like to look down at the street below with the corner of the building exposed. It’s easy to move on and forget about it, but the crack is a reminder. If this wall could speak—I mean, I guess it kind of does.”

Allen Ginsberg’s living room and bedroom:
East 12th Street
Daniel Maurer, editor of the nymag.com-hosted Bedford & Bowery and NYU visiting assistant professor
“I saw an ad two years ago and it mentioned this was Allen Ginsberg’s old apartment. On my way to see it, my mind was kind of already made up that I’d take it. I live in what used to be his living room and bedroom. My neighbor lives in his old kitchen and office. I dug up all the old photos of the space when Ginsberg lived there, and I looked up my Ginsberg biographies, just so I could make the space come alive in my mind. And I would watch old videos—there’s one of him strolling in the Village and then walking into his apartment, and when I saw it, I thought, Oh, man, there’s that shelf that’s over there! That’s really the only thing left in the apartment, a little indentation where he had the record player.”

Where Washington Irving allegedly penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
Commerce Street
Blaine Dunham Birchby, writer
“I have a little writers group that meets at the house, and everybody loves the fact that we’re in Washington Irving’s old home. We joke around, we say, ‘What do you think? Should we get out the Ouija board and ask Washington Irving what he thinks? Washington Irving says your writing sucks.’ Some people don’t like the tours that stop in front of the house, but it doesn’t annoy me at all. My husband looks a little bit like Irving, so maybe for Halloween he’ll dress up in old-timey attire and spook the people on the tours a bit.”


The apartment where Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
Riverside Drive
Constance Sutton, anthropologist
“Before moving here in 1963, I had spent time in Barbados and became good friends with the writer Paule Marshall, who was part of Angelou’s circle of friends. Because we all knew each other and I had this huge apartment, I invited Angelou in 1968 to stay with us while she was looking for her own place. Maya would work during the day and write at night. At dinner, she’d tell us these wonderful stories about her past. I was teaching at NYU at the time, and sometimes when it got too late, I had to say, ‘Maya, I’ve got to go and prepare for my class!’ And she’d go back to her room and write. Then, when she gave me an early copy of the book, I said, ‘Maya, these are the stories you told us at the table!’ ”

As told to S.J.R.


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