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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow
I read this book in 2 sittings. I'd been intrigued by this sad true story since I did some study on hoarding. Langley Collyer and his blind brother, Homer Lusk Collyer, were two recluses and, possibly, the most famous hoarders in America.

Homer Lusk Collyer (DOB 11/6/1881) and Langley Collyer (DOB 10/3/1885) were the sons of a successful gynecologist, Dr. Herman L. Collyer, and his wife. They were from a well known family that had been in America since the 1600's and were rich and well situated. Dr. Collyer moved his family to a fine upper-middle-class home in Harlem. It was a three-story brownstone located at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at 128th Street). Both sons attended Columbia University, where Homer earned a law degree, and his younger brother graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and chemistry. Homer went on to practice admiralty law, but Langley, so far as is known, never held employment, and spent his time playing the piano. For reasons unknown, Dr. Collyer had moved from his Fifth Avenue home to one at 153 West 77th Street several years prior to his death. His sons remained at the family home with their mother. It is possible that a family breakup may have occurred. In 1923, Dr. Collyer died. Their mother died in 1929.

Around 1928, Homer worked for an attorney, John R. McMullen, who later became the family legal advisor. Homer next worked for City Title Insurance doing research in the New York City Hall of Records. He was described, at the time, as being courtly, and dressing in 19th century attire, presenting a rather Victorian appearance. He was said to resemble a gentleman of the 1880's. In 1932, Homer purchased a building across the street at 2077 Fifth Avenue for $8,000. He planned to divide it into apartments and to rent them. This plan was never realized, as he suffered a stroke in 1933, becoming blind as the result of hemorrhages in both of his eyes. With one exception, he was reportedly never seen outside of his home again. Langley then gave up his music to take on the job of nursing his brother back to health. No physician was ever consulted.
Their gas was shut off in 1928, and they also seemed to have given up the convenience of running water and steam heat, and began using kerosene to light their home and to cook with. Water was obtained from a public fountain four blocks from their home.

They were mentioned in an article written by Helen Worden. Worden had kept a watch on the Collyer's home, and finally caught up with Langley one night, as he was leaving the house to go on what was one of his regular night time prowls. She questioned Langley about a boat (his father's) and a Model-T Ford said to be in their basement. Langley confirmed these stories. It seems that the fully assembled Model T had been in the basement of his father's house. When the house was sold Langley had taken it apart, piece by piece, and put it back together in the basement of the Fifth Avenue house. He intended to use it to run a generator for electricity but it didn't work so he just left it there. After the article, the notoriety caused them trouble. People thought the brothers had hidden money and valuables inside and they began pestering the men. Throwing rocks through windows, banging on the doors. Langley boarded up the windows and doors. He even began setting booby traps throughout the house in case someone got in.

Although the brothers were well off, Langley regularly rummaged through garbage cans seeking food. He went begging at butcher shops for scraps, and was known to walk some distance to purchase stale bread cheaply. It sounds like Langley became paranoid and miserly as well as suffering from hoarding.

The Collyers again appeared in the newspapers in April 1939, when a city marshal together with representatives of the gas company entered the brother's two Fifth Avenue buildings and removed the gas meters, which had been in a state of disuse since 1928. A crowd of a 1,000 people gathered outside their home to see what was happening.

In their desire to avoid the world, they hadn't paid their bills or taxes and it caused them no end of trouble. In August, 1942, the Bowery Savings Bank foreclosed on a mortgage that amounted to $6,700 plus interest (no interest had been paid since 1940). After going to state Supreme Court, the bank obtained permission to evict the brothers from their home. The very same day, the Collyer's attorney, John R. McMullen (the one Homer had worked with), met with bank officials with an offer to pay off the mortgage. The Bowery Savings Bank was not all that eager to repossess it since the house was in very poor condition. Mr. McMullen had never actually been allowed in the brothers' house, so instead, Langley, had walked all the way to his attorney's office on Park Row to settle the matter. But he still did not pay the mortgage and later that year, a physical attempt to evict the brothers was stymied by Langley's barricades and booby traps. After the repeated attempts, Langley finally signed a check paying the mortgage off.

Sgt. Collins of the 123rd street station, decided he needed to check on Homer Collyer to make sure he was still alive and well. He encountered Langley, and somehow got his permission, to enter the house through the basement door. In a trek through a labyrinth of tunnels in the trash and homemade booby-traps that lasted a half hour, Langley led the officer to the bedroom where Homer was to be found. Sgt. Collins' own words were, "I switched on my flashlight, and there was Homer sitting up like a mummy. He was on a cot, a burlap bag beneath him and an old overcoat on the foot of the cot, and he spoke directly to the officer. 'I am Homer Collyer, a lawyer. I want your shield number. I am not dead. I am blind and paralyzed.'" Langley made a complaint to the police department about the incident, but no action was ever taken on the matter. The IRS also pursued them for back taxes and took ownership of the house but did not pursue the matter further. No one bid for the house in a tax auction and the house, being in such poor condition and the brothers being so hard to deal with, they just waited them out.

On July 27, 1946, Langley appeared in court against a man who was caught burglarizing the home. Dressed in turn-of-the-century garments, he appeared in the city's Felony Court.

The last time either of the Collyer's was seen alive, was the result of another tax problem. The brothers owned two land parcels in Queens County, inherited from their father. The city wanted the land for new streets and other purposes, and Langley, together with Mr. McMullen, had a meeting about this with the city's corporation counsel. After Langley refused two summonses to testify before Supreme Court Justice Charles C. Lockwood, the land was condemned by the city, and the brothers awarded $7500, which was substantially less than its appraised value.

On March 21, 1947 a mysterious phone call from a Mr. Charles Smith, was made to the New York City police department notifying them that he believed a man was dead inside a decaying building on Fifth Avenue in Harlem. It was the Collyer home. They had to respond but were unable to open the front door.

As crowds began to collect, the police requested an emergency team which tried axes and crowbars at the basement door which successfully got them past the door but left them confronted with the barricades of trash.

Next they used ladders to get to the roof and try the windows but couldn't get passed the shutters and boarding until lunchtime when finally one officer was able to make it in. Patrolman Barker disappeared for several minutes until, on his return to the window, he called to the others, "There's a DOA here." Detective John Loughery made his way up the ladder in order to view the body while other officers began to try to batter in the front doors with earnest. But once through the door, they were again faced with the massive obstruction of neatly tied bundles of newspaper, as well as cardboard boxes filled with assorted contents. Although they tried to tear down the wall of debris, they were forced to admit defeat. Meanwhile, Detective Loughery related what he had seen - the emaciated body of a white-haired man dressed in a tattered gray bathrobe, sitting upright, and tentatively identified as Homer Collyer.

The chair Homer was found sitting in.

The medical examiner, Arthur C. Allen, arrived at 3:45 p.m., and declared that the individual had been dead for approximately ten hours. The autopsy showed he had probably died from starvation and dehydration.

There were numerous rats darting through the piled trash. Looking through various windows and around the second floor where they had entered revealed that the entire house was packed with debris of various kinds. It appeared that the building was riddled with a maze of tunnels through which Langley had moved, pulling bales of newspaper in behind him, to prevent intruders from entering. The police also found tin cans and piles of heavy debris wired together to form booby traps, in which the cans would sound an alarm, and a mass of junk would fall on the unsuspecting invader. Langley was not found. So they held off ,hoping Langley would show up within 24 hours. But he didn't, so the police made the decision to start pulling the house apart. They figured it would take them 3 weeks. They started from the top down.

They brought in tall ladders and went on the roof and broke in some skylights and a roof trap door. Once inside they smashed out the windows for ventillation. Crowds kept growing and watched and cheered as large items were thrown down to the street below.

A team of sixteen men inspected each object as it was thrown out, looking for valuables and important papers to be saved. On the first day, they found enough ledgers, correspondence, and legal documents to fill eight crates which were taken to the West 123rd Street Station to be looked over by someone from the public administrator's office. Important documents and papers continued to turn up, and these were removed to the 123rd Street Station. Any useless material that was combustible was carted away in two truckloads by the Department of Sanitation, to be burned in it's incinerators. The first load weighed 6,424 pounds, and the second a bit less. Near where Homer's body had been found, they found an old cigar box containing thirty-four bank books from various savings banks. Eleven of them had been canceled, and they showed savings totaling $3,007 dollars. Family members began complaining that the police could be ruining valuables so it was finally decided to ship the debris to an old school building to be sorted. Items of obvious trash would be removed by the Sanitation Dept. Nineteen tons of trash and objects were removed in one day, the bulk of which came from the first floor hallway. By the 7th of April, workers had removed approximately 103 tons of rubbish. On April the 8th, Langley's body was finally discovered, pinned by one of his own booby-traps in that same room on the second floor where Homer's body was previously found. Langley's body lay on its right side, inside one of the two-foot-wide tunnels that was part of the maze he had created, his head turned toward the area where his brother's cot had been, only eight feet away. The room, itself was filled with piles of newspapers, books, old furniture and tin cans. The materials that had apparently trapped Langley were a suitcase, three metal bread boxes, and bundles of newspapers. One particularly unpleasant detail was that the numerous rats that infested the house had gnawed at his partially decomposed body. The next day, on April 10th, the medical examiner concluded that Langley Collyer had been smothered by the debris, which had collapsed upon him, and had been dead for at least a month before his brother, Homer.

E. L. Doctorow plays loose with the facts of this true story. In his book Homer slowly goes blind at a young age and he is the musician of the two who never works. In real life, Homer is a practising lawyer but has a stroke and goes blind due to hemorrhages in both eyes, and Langley is the musician who didn't work. Doctorow has both parents die in the 1919 Spanish Flu Epidemic when we know that they died in 1923 and 1929 respectively and were estranged. (I have to wonder if Langley's hoarding, or insanity, was the contention in the home? The police found newspapers and other things dating back as far as 1915!) In Doctorow's book, Langley suffered gassing in WWI but I didn't find any reference to military service. Doctorow also has the brothers living into the modern age but they died in 1946.

There are graphic sexual stories scattered in the book that were unnecessary. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it to someone younger than 17 (I know they read and see worse, but that would be my recommendation.)

"They had opted out--that was the primary fact. Coming from a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. A major move, as life-transforming as emigration. In fact it was a form of emigration, of leave-taking. But where to? What country was within that house? What would have caused them to become the notorious recluses of Fifth Avenue?" -E. L. Doctorow

The story is about the relationship between the two brothers and the various characters they come into contact with throughout their lives. It is told through Homer's voice. Doctorow says, above, that they wanted to lock the door, close the shutters and absent themselves from life. The real Collyer brothers did that. But in his book, the Collyer brothers meet new people, invite them in and live with them for a time such as the flower children, Gangster Vincent, Harold Robileaux, Mary Elizabeth Riordan, Siobhan, etc. It was a very compelling story of their slow descent into madness. Someone described them as co-dependent and I agree. But Doctorow gives them an unconditional love for each other that was probably there in the real brothers.
He portrays them as eccentrics but sympathetically. What was their life like behind all those shutters and doors and barricades?

I found some book club discussion questions that I liked and some I came up with. These would make for interesting thoughts or topics to discuss.

* Evidently Langley Collyer had single-handedly searched for these items and brought them back home and stored them over the years. Like an ant building an ant hill. Tons and tons of items and debris that he had walked all over and collected and then transported back home and up and down steps until he left it in it's final resting place. So much energy, time, thought had gone into this horrible collection that was literally thrown out and burned. Such a waste! Discuss how you feel about that.

* In real life, Langley's body was found very close to where Homer was found. You know Homer knew what happened and knew, from that moment on, he was doomed to a slow death. He had only been dead 10 hours when his body was found but Langley had been dead for weeks. Homer sat there, unable to see or move in that house of horrors. What horror was going through his mind?

* Both Langley and Homer had been so intent on being independent, reclusive, and wanted only to be left alone. Langley had made their home a fortress to protect them from the rest of the world and yet, they died horrible deaths BECAUSE of Langley's "protection" and they were all alone. Discuss how people create the very thing they fear.

* In the book, do you feel that Homer collected people the way that Langley collected objects?

* Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of "seminal events". Several times they discuss the topics in which he files his stories. What categories would you use?

* In real life it was said that Langley collected these newspapers so that Homer could catch up with the world when his eyesight returned. Compare this with the Doctorow's idea of a generic newspaper.

* Discuss the importance of Jacqueline in the story. Do you think she really existed? Was she really his muse? Do you think she really returned?

* In what ways is the house a character as well as the setting? How does the house's condition reflect the brothers' physical and mental conditions?

* Think about the difference between collecting and obsession (hoarding); loneliness and depression; paranoia and self preservation; and the entrapment of age and disability.

* Homer becomes increasingly isolated by blindness and deafness, Langley by depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia. How do these conditions affect their relationship with each other?

* How does Doctorow's writing style seek to reflect the brothers descent into emotional and physical decay and madness?

* What part did the park play in the brother’s lives? Compare it to the house.

* Homer had several occasions to develop a relationship with a woman. Langley even commented about his brother’s affinity for the ladies. Why did Homer choose to remain single and live with his brother?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully done.

Hove you read My Brother's Keeper by Marcia Davenport written in 1954. A fictionalize version, but wonderfully written about Homer and langley.

Long out of print, may be at your local library or available at alibris.com


Rick Bihner 832.489.2498

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