Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

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Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Friday, February 25, 2005

Collyer Brothers

In this age of bloated books, how nice it is to have a book that comes in at a fighting weight, with nary an ounce of fat on its spare frame. It's books like this that diehard book addicts truly live for -- they can literally be consumed in one large bite. In this case though, therein lies a tragedy. Ever since I first discovered the legend of the Collyer Brothers, I hunted for every meager scrap about them that I could find. What minor league hoarder wouldn't be curious about the hall of fame Collyers who hold every record in the rather neglected sport of accumulation.

There is of course a bit of information about the Collyers on the internet, but hardly enough to whet your appetite. As interested as I was, it's hard to believe that it took me this long to get to Franz Lidz' Ghosty Men: The Strange But True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders (Bloomsbury, 2003). This pint-sized (5.5 x 7.25 inches) book packs a real wallop but sadly the 161 pages go by all too fast. If time travel were possible and I had a lot of trips, I'd love to have been outside their Harlem brownstone when they began hauling out the 180 tons of "junk" that made them a legend. There were a lot of things in the book that I hadn't known -- that Homer and Langley's dad, Dr. Herman Collyer, a gynecologist at Bellevue, left his family in 1919 when his wife refused his request to make their townhouse into a sanitarium! The good doctor was reputed to be something of a booklover himself, with a medical library of some fifteen thousand books in the house. From little acorns, mighty oaks certainly grow.

Franz Lidz masterfully contrasts the story of the collecting Collyers with the equally heartbreaking story of his Uncle Arthur, first immortalized in Lidz' earlier classic Unstrung Heroes: My Improbable Life With Four Impossible Uncles (surely you remember the film based upon this book).

As always, there are references in the book that require further investigation. Lidz mentions Helen Worden, a reporter on the World-Telegram (one of NY's eight daily newspapers), who first broke the story of the "ghosty men" who lived in the mysterious mansion. There is a reference to Out of This World, a book she wrote in 1953 that chronicled the Collyer Brothers and other lesser New York hermits and recluses. There are ten copies of this book advertised on the internet with prices ranging from a mere $78.67 to $186.84, with five coming in at $159.95 to $160 (curious that tight grouping). The book is subtitled: A Collection of Hermits and Recluses Their Ways of Life and the Stories Behind Their Retreats. Although there are no copies of this book available in nearby libraries, I'm sure I'll stumble across it at some library (even if I have to sit there and read it right then). For now I'll content myself with planning a trip in the spring to Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery to see if I can find their gravesite.

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