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Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that makes you want to find out absolutely everything that you can about the subject? Anything related to our social history, especially, fascinates me (AND takes up a lot of space in my library!).

My most recent trip down the rabbit hole actually began a couple of years ago, when I first saw the documentary Grey Gardens (1976). Brothers Albert and David Maysles met and interviewed the reclusive mother-daughter pair of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, extensively. Known as Big Edie and Little Edie, they were the aunt and first cousin of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, and lived in a rundown mansion in the East Hamptons. 

The documentary has become a cult classic (see this fantastic website dedicated to “all things Grey Gardens “) I love it. It feels a little voyeuristic and exploitative, but you just can’t look away. It helps that you get the distinct feeling that Big and Little Edie wouldn’t want you to. The squalid conditions and bizarre bantering and bickering that they filmed between the two women is, in turns, painfully sad and outrageously entertaining. The Maysles brothers are always just off screen, giving the occasional soft-spoken prompt, while the women essentially direct their own stories.

Previously unseen footage was released, in 2006, by the Mayles, titled The Beales of Grey Gardens. In 2009HBO released Grey Gardens, a movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore that went on to win six Primetime Emmys and two Golden Globes. It filled in some of the back story on the Beales that was only obliquely referred to in the 1976 documentary. Both Lange and Barrymore give fantastic performances as mother and daughter whose relationship was complicated, codependent, and little toxic years before they met the Mayles.

Fascination with the Beales led, for better or worse, to Wikipedia, that mammoth repository of fact and fiction. As I explained recently, to my 70-year-old uncle, I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) use it for a masters thesis, but, by God, when you want to know something obscure, there it is! As you can see in the above photo of Little Edie by a mountain of cat food cans, the Beales were hoarders, and, in Wikipedia, that leads you to the Collyer Brothers (New York) ….

The living room of the Collyer brownstone, in 1947.

Langley (b.1885) and Homer (b.1881) Collyer were the sons of a successful gynecologist and former opera singer, both attended Columbia, and, by all accounts, were quite bright and musically talented. Homer obtained a law degree, and Langley studied engineering while honing his skills as a concert-level pianist. The family moved into a brownstone in Harlem in 1910, at a time when that neighborhood was affluent and growing.

Dr. Collyer abandoned the family in 1919 and died in 1923. Mrs. Collyer died a few years later, leaving the Harlem brownstone to her sons. They would rarely leave for the next twenty years and became eccentric, paranoid recluses and compulsive hoarders. Homer became blind in his 50s, and Langley cared for him for the rest of his life, while mountains of newspapers, car parts, pianos, typewriters, and every imaginable sort of household refuse grew around them.

In the late 1930s, issues with neighbors, public utilities, the police and fire departments, and the bank that held their mortgage thrust them into the public eye.  Over the next decade, the Collyers remained a media curiousity, until 1947, when reports of a suspected dead body in the house forced police to enter the home — eventually gaining access through a second story window, as all other doors and windows were completely blocked with debris.

Thousands lined the streets as Homer’s body was removed from the second floor by a hook and ladder truck. He had died of malnutrition and cardiac arrest. The search for his brother, Langley would last two weeks and would generate hundreds of leads, but would eventually result in the discovery of his body, mere feet from his brother, crushed under one of his own booby-trapped tunnels through the garbage and papers in the house.

Patrolman attempting to find his way in the home, during the search for Langley Collyer.

Although the truth may, indeed, be stranger than fiction, the first book that I read about the Collyers was a fictionalized version of their story by E.L. Doctorow, Homer and Langley (2008). I came across it at a book sale and picked it up for a dollar, recognizing the names of the infamous hoarders. I enjoy Doctorow’s novels, on the whole, and, with Homer and Langley, he creates a thoughtful, sensitive imagining of the brothers’ lives, particularly their relationship with each other.
The only argument that I have with the novel is the point at which Doctorow artificially extends their life expectancy through the turbulent 1960s and even into the 1980s — in a somewhat forced effort to imagine how they would have experienced those times. In fact, at one point, the nearly blind Homer falls in with a group of flower children and has a brief, improbable relationship (in his 80s?) with one of the young women. Okay. You lost me there. And now I need to more about what ACTUALLY happened.
For that, I tracked down (in New York at The Strand, my absolute favorite book store to visit in person) the book, Ghosty Men (1996) by Franz Lidz, who confirmed a lot of what Wikipedia had to say, and further elaborated on the fascination that the public had with the brothers in the 1940s. In the books, Lidz also draws comparisons between the Collyers and his own eccentric uncle, Arthur Lidz, a compulsive hoarder.  Lidz also wrote Unstrung Heroes: My Improbable Life with Four Impossible Uncles (1995) about his uncles, Arthur, Danny, Leo, and Harry Lidz, which was later made into a movie starring Michael Richards.
In summary, I would encourage anyone similarly interested to check out any one of the movies and books that I’ve discussed above. I hasten to add that, beyond the sideshow curiosity of it all, I get it. No, I can’t imagine living like they have, but I, myself, have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD),  as do, arguably, a handful of my extended family, and it isn’t as difficult to understand their motivation as it might otherwise be.