Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1991
My friend Brad knew two sisters in Brooklyn who were looking for a roommate. "They're English," he said. "A little odd..." he said, then added, "...you know, like you." They lived in a Civil War-era house in Williamsburg and the rent would be $300 a month for my own bedroom. It sounded too good to be true.
Out I went on the rumbling L train to Bedford Avenue. A short walk later, I reached 154 North 9th Street. In front of me stood an unprepossessing tenement building. The buzzers all indicated various apartments except for one that had a piece of paper taped above it that read "Rear House." I buzzed it and the door clicked open, revealing a long hall that completely bypassed the building and led out back to a small private yard.
What I saw took my breath away.
In front of me was an enchanting two-story Lilliputian carriage house that looked as if it had just escaped from the pages of "Alice in Wonderland." The small yard was hugged tightly on three sides by wooden trellises which were profuse with climbing roses. Wanton roses. Fearless roses. Roses that had refused to have their ambitions clipped by pollution or city stress. As for the house, it was covered in so much ivy that it was clearly in the midst of a grudge match with the flowers for "Best of Show."
Of course I moved in immediately.
(Front door of carriage house, Williamsburg, 1991-ish)
My two roommates, Jane and Mary, soon became my best friends and co-conspirators in style. Mary was a self-employed couturier and Jane was a music promoter/Jill of all trades. They were Pre-Raphaelite beauties with a thrilling ability to create glamour, drama and humor out of the most quotidien details. In our house, the heels were high, the lipstick was red and the books were Virago (the pre-Persephone Persephone). Oh, and every night we drank a tipple of amontillado sherry "purely for medicinal purposes."
I still dream about our kitchen table. The top was covered with two huge slate slabs that Mary had discovered in the earthen basement and then painted with coats of shiny shellac. It was rough and uneven and where the middles met, she planted a row of live moss from end to end. (Yes, we watered it.) You had to be slightly careful about where you set your coffee cup so it wouldn't tip over, but other than that, it was a eco-surrealist fantasy.
(Mary in the kitchen. Note the slate table.)
The house definitely had its quirks. When it rained, you needed to use an umbrella in the bathroom. In winter, the wind blew through the paper-thin walls with such ferocity that we would regularly wear winter coats inside. The floorboards sloped, the staircase was wonky and it was the most vocal house -- creaks, groans, moans, you name it -- I've ever lived in. But we loved it in spite of its weaknesses. It was blowsy with personality, that house. It was a Civil War dame who had long outlived all her contemporaries, but who was seeking with every nail and joist and length of timber in her body to remain upright for as long as she could.
In the upstairs salon, Mary and Jane had draped velvet remnants over the threadbare sofas for a bit of rough luxe glamour and stippled the walls a Venetian gold.
(Me in the upstairs salon. Note the nearby coat.)
Our dining room was painted many times, depending on our boredom level. In the incarnation below, it was "Oscar Wilde Green." On the right, you can see a mannequin draped with one of Mary's dress designs. She made me two neo-Edwardian fitted suits that I still own today. Both had accentuated shoulders, a nipped-in waist and a slight bustle effect in the back that made me feel like a post-punk Wharton heroine. I'm wearing one of them in the photo below.
(Me after a lengthy repast, circa 1991-ish.)
There was never a dull moment. One day I came home from work and discovered that Mary had planted more moss on the fireplace and was growing flowers out of it. You can see them on the left side of the mantel. She and Jane sewed damask slip covers for the wooden chairs they found on the street so we could "entertain properly."
(Dining room, circa 1991-ish)
Another time I walked in the door to find my roommates, in high heels and lipstick, sawing up one of our four salvaged dining chairs to use as kindling. There was a winter storm raging, the furnace was broken and the inside temperature had reached crisis levels. When you live in a homestead, sometimes you have to make tough choices.
(Upstairs fireplace, Christmas time, 1992-ish)
I wish I had a photo of my bedroom, but I don't. It faced a Polish sausage casing factory, not the most scenic of views, so I transformed it into a Moroccan fantasy with dark tangerine walls and a navy-blue ceiling that I swirled with celadon to conjure up an approaching storm. I hung a mosquito net over the bed and decorated the room with vintage fabrics and cushions. It was very "Sheltering Sky."
We had two blissful years together before love and career opportunities pulled us in separate directions. But our experiences together in that house, as well as our friendships, remain vivid to this day.
(Three thrill-seekers on a barnacle-laden barge on the Hudson River, 1992-ish)
From Mary and Jane, I learned first-hand that great personal style isn't about money, it's about attitude, wit and a dash of devil-may-care. Somehow on the tiniest of budgets we managed not only to live with elegance but also to entertain with flair. Countless friends from Manhattan trooped out to see us, the eccentric adventuresses living in a tumbledown house on the wrong side of the river and having the time of our lives.
We welcomed them with glasses of amontillado sherry, of course.
(Side note: One of my readers, Daniel Halifax with the compelling blog, has a scandalous story to tell regarding one of his ancestors and this very house. Perhaps he'll comment....)
Up next: Cool Britannia, 1996