You have some of the Collyer brothers in you. Admit it.
You have a special drawer, closet possibly, even a whole room or garage crammed with accumulated junk that you will never use again, as long as you live. But you will never throw the junk away, will you? You will hang on until you die and leave it to your poor grieving relatives to shovel out the garage, closet or room and haul it away to the dump. It just doesn’t mean that much to anyone else.
With me, it is newspapers and murder novels. If unchecked, my collections could collapse on me and pin me, dying in my own trash — like the Collyer brothers.
Perhaps you have never heard of this duo. That would be unusual, given the torrent of publicity surrounding the new E.L. Doctorow book, “Homer & Langley.” I heard of the boys while I was in my teens and have always been fascinated with their tale, since I am a card-carrying slob.
At the turn of the (other) century, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in Harlem when white faces were not quite so scarce. They inherited the family mansion on Fifth Avenue near 128th Street. They were wealthy, cultured and educated, both Columbia graduates. Our boy Homer, born in 1881, practiced law until a stroke in 1933. Langley was an accomplished pianist and dandy who favored bow ties. They were noted for their fabulous parties, much like Cobb Manor.
No one knows when the madness moved into the Fifth Avenue mansion.
The telephone went in 1917 over an argument about long-distance calls. The gas followed in 1928 and the brothers lived without central heat or running water, using kerosene for lights and cooking. When neighborhood vandals broke the mansion windows, the Collyers boarded up the windows, blocking out the light and any communication with the outside.
The mansion was worth a fortune. On Aug. 11, 1938, Realtor Maurice Gruber tried to buy the place but the brothers would not answer his letters, calls or knocks on the door. World Telegram reporter Helen Worden caught Langley on a midnight grocery run. He would not say much, but he confirmed there was a rowboat in the attic and a Model T in the basement.
Her World Telegram articles just made everything worse. Nosy neighbors knocked on the doors, and even more windows were broken. Terrified, the brothers transformed the mansion into a fortress crammed (I mean crammed) with junk-filled packing boxes, piled in interlocking tiers that concealed a maze of booby-trapped tunnels.
The madness spread like a Stephen King novel until March 21, 1947, when neighbors reported the mansion smelled even worse than usual.
After failing to force the front doors, the police unhinged them to find a solid wall of boxes. The basement stairs to the first floor were similarly blocked. After forcing a first-floor window, they saw rooms and stairwells jammed with ceiling-high, rat-infested stacks of boxes, paper, and furniture.
Much, much worse than Cobb Manor.
The source of the smell was Homer, who died from chronic bronchitis, gangrenous bedsores and senile pulmonary emphysema.
I do not want go that way.
There was no sign of Langley. By the end of the second day, according to The New York Times, the first-floor hallway alone had yielded 19 tons of debris. Thousands of passers-by walked or drove by, but the Daily News reported that “few lingered. … They were driven away by the smells.” The cops were smoking cheap, foul-smelling cigars against a stench of organic corruption “like a blow from a mailed fist.”
And I think Cobb Manor is bad.
A Surrogate’s Court official hired movers on March 31 to empty the house. After ripping out the cellar doors, they began removing Homer’s 2,500-volume law library, only a 10th of the books in the house. Amidst hundreds of tons of garbage, they found family oil portraits; hope chests jammed with unused piece goods, silks, wool, damask and brocade; a half-dozen toy trains; 14 upright and grand pianos; chandeliers; tapestries; 13 ornate mantel clocks; 13 Oriental rugs; five violins; two organs, and Langley’s certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct from Public School 69 for the week ending April 19, 1895.
I have no pianos, grand or otherwise.
By April 3, the Herald Tribune reported that the movers, in clearing only two first-floor rooms, had removed 51 tons of stuff. Another 52 tons later, on April 8, they found Langley’s body only 10 feet away from his brother. Police told the Sun that his clothing might have snagged a tripwire, releasing a booby trap that had buried him alive in paper. On May 9, the city’s buildings commissioner ordered the mansion demolished as a public menace. The brothers’ estates totaled $66,000.
All the Collyers had wanted, Langley once explained, was to be left alone.
More than 100 tons of rubbish in the Collyer mansion. I am going out to clean that barn right now. I suggest that you do, too.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at email@example.com.