The Day Dustin Hoffman’s House Blew Up

by

01/01/2001

160 W 11th St, New York, NY 10011

Neighborhood: West Village

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It was a quiet block. Then one cold March day in 1971 a house blew up. It was a bomb. When it came to light that it had been the (accidental) work of the Weathermen Undergound, it changed the face of radical politics on a national scale. More locally, the explosion set off a wave of bomb scares throughout the city (over 500 were reported on March 13th). Dustin Hoffman lived right next door in a garden apartment, and Mel Gussow lived in the apartment above him with his wife and young son. His account of the explosion follows.

Photographs: Black and White by Mel Gussow, John B. Baily, Wire services. Color by Josh Gilbert

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Eleventh Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was one of the quietest, nicest residential blocks in Greenwich Village. As the Village changed, as Eighth Street became a penny arcade of pizza stands, peddlers and button-and-poster stores, 10th, 11th and 12th Streets held fast to tradition and esthetic standards. With its tall trees and handsome ivy-covered townhouses, some of them still one-family houses, 11th was one of the few streets in the Village that seemed left over from an earlier, more elegant age.


18 West 11th Street: Before

There was a pride of residence and ownership. Apartments were highly prized, and changed hands infrequently. The building superintendents, the first to know of prospective vacancies, were courted and flattered. Those who lived there cherished the street, and even its oddities like the tiny wedge-shaped Second Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Let a developer cast a covetous eye at that parcel and people would be up in rebellion, just as they were years ago when the New School first moved in. The New School was in fact a modern intrusion on an old-fashioned street, and when the school announced its intention of razing brownstones on 12th Street in order to expand facilities, residents on both streets?sually hesitant about community action?poke out and signed petitions. The main bane of 11th Street was probably the restaurant on the corner, which had gone through many transformations, including a stint as a homosexual Hawaiian restaurant, and was now a Blimpie Base. It was a teenage hangout and reportedly a drug center for youngsters who loitered on and littered the streets.

But basically the street was old and preserved, like something out of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Some residents had lived there for decades, clinging to low-rent apartments. Others were new and paid royally for the privilege of living on the street. At least a few of the townhouses were always being renovated or painted.


After

The street, as we came to know it in the three or so years we lived there, was heterogeneous, but with a definite emphasis on people in the arts. My wife and I (and our three-year-old son) lived at 16 West 11th Street in a house owned by Joe Hazan and his wife, the painter Jane Freilicher. We lived on the third floor. Dustin Hoffman and his wife and daughter lived on the second floor. Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft owned a house down the street and rented half of it to James Goldman, who wrote The Lion in Winter. Barbara Harris rented an apartment across the street. Actress Cynthia Harris and her husband, producer Gene Wolsk, owned a house. Among these artists, actors, writers, there was a certain contact. But generally, as in most of Manhattan, there was something insular and isolated about the lives of the people on the street?ntil the house at 18 West 11th Street exploded.

On March 6, 1970, at 11:40 a.m., my wife Ann and I left our apartment and as we walked past 18 West 11th, a one-family house owned by James P. Wilkerson, Ann noticed a girl looking out of a downstairs window. She said nothing about it and walked with me to the subway. I went to my office at the New York Times and she picked up our son Ethan at his nursery school around the corner. Several minutes after noon, I entered my office, and Clara Rotter, the drama secretary, informed me hesitantly that Ann had just called, was terribly upset, and had said that the house next door to ours had blown up.


Ethan Gussow and Karina Hoffman enjoy a giddy holiday moment in the Gussow household. Note the stocking hanging on the mantle.

Ann and Ethan had taken shelter at a friend's house. I called her immediately, caught a taxicab, prodded the driver as traffic slowed, finally jumped out of the cab at 16th Street, and ran down Fifth Avenue. Together with my wife?e left our son at the friend? house?e walked over to the scene of the explosion, and she told me what had happened.

Precisely at noon, she had picked Ethan up at school, and was walking south on Fifth Avenue with the other children and mothers. As they reached the corner of 11th Street, there was a deafening blast, followed by a billowing cloud of black smoke, and?s soon as they could see through the smoke?lames leaping from a house on the south side of the street. "My God, it? my house," said Ann, and leaving our son with a friend on the corner, she ran toward the house. As she approached, she saw that the flames were coming out of the windows of Number 18. She ran into the building on the corner and telephoned me. Then she went back toward Fifth Avenue, which was shrouded with dense black smoke three blocks south to Washington Square.

At the moment of the explosion there was only one person inside 16 West 11th Street, Marie-Th?r?se Thiesselin, the baby-sitter for Dustin and Anne Hoffman? daughter Karina. Marie-Th?r?se was standing in the middle of the Hoffman living room when the fireplace came crashing out at her. Calmly, she picked up O.J., Dustin? pet terrier, walked into the kitchen, telephoned Dustin and the fire department. Afterward, she went outside and for most of the rest of the day seemed to be in a state of nervous shock.

On the other side of 18, at 20 West 11th Street, Arthur Levin, the owner of the house?nd an occupant?as at home feeding a dog. Also in the house were two tenants. At the sound of the blast, Levin ran outside, then back in, called the fire department and then went back out again.

At the time that my wife was running west on 11th Street, Anne Hoffman was running east on 11th Street. She had been in a taxicab at the moment of the explosion, had jumped out and run toward her house. After seeing Marie-Th?r?se, she entered the building, ran upstairs and knocked on our door to make sure that we were not trapped inside.

At 12 noon Bob and Lenore Schwartz, who rented a duplex in a building toward Sixth Avenue, were standing in their kitchen with their maid. The blast shook their house. Lenore ran outside toward Fifth Avenue. "There was mortar flying out of Number 18," she recalls, "and a gray screen of dusty debris." She rushed back to her house to call the fire department which, to her anguish, insisted on asking, "Who are you? Where do you live? What? your telephone number?" Finally she shouted, "It? a dire emergency! Get here quick!"

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Dustin Hoffman rescues a painting from the wreckage amidst a media circus.

Meanwhile her husband had gone down the street to the blast. "There was stuff blowing across the sidewalk, and rubble all over the place. The blast was so strong that a drape from the front window was hanging across the street on a railing . Virtually no one was present. As I stood there, a lady crawled out of a window of Number 18 with no clothes on. She was like a mine victim?eavy dust all over her, glass cuts on her breasts, no major bleeding. I took one of the drapes that was on the fence of her house and said, ?ere, you better put this on.?She was indifferent to this. She said, ?here are people inside. I have to go back.?She looked very abstracted. I repeated, ?ere, put this on.?I felt like an idiot haberdasher. Then I heard the fire engines on Fifth Avenue. Rubble blocked 11th Street, so I pushed some of it aside and moved traffic through. I was motioning a truck and as I watched, a huge column of flame shot out of every window. It was like a Cecil B. De Mille movie."

In addition to Schwartz there were at least six eyewitnesses to the explosion, including two patrolmen, a retired fire marshal (who had also jumped out of a taxicab), a medical student from NYU, and Arthur Levin. Two girls escaped from the fire; all of the witnesses saw one or both of them, and the first four witnesses reportedly helped them out of the house. At the same time at least two series of photographs were being shot, one by an architectural student who, it was said, was photographing buildings at the other end of the block; the other, color pictures by someone apparently in the building across the street. In these pictures appeared not only the eyewitnesses but the two girls.

"From the beginning one of the great mysteries was the role of the police and the FBI."

Also in her kitchen at 50 West 11th Street at the time of the explosion was Susan Wager. She ran outside toward Number 18, saw the two girls, put her coat around the one who was naked, and led them to her house. She offered them her shower and some clothes, and went back to the burning house. When she returned to her own house, the girls were gone. They had told the housekeeper they were going to the drugstore for medicine. The fastidious housekeeper straightened the bathroom, in the process removing all fingerprints. Mrs. Wager felt it strange that the girls left so hurriedly, but "I thought that, if they didn? have anything to hide, why wouldn? they come back?" The girls have never been found.

As my wife and I watched, it was a scene of great horror. We both felt that certainly our house?ith every one of our possessions?ould burn to the ground, that perhaps more blasts would follow until the street was wiped from the map. That initial horror was followed by a feeling of relief, something we were to feel a great deal in subsequent days. After all, we were alive. Actually my son? school had let out five minutes late that day. Otherwise he and my wife would have been in our house during the blast. Every other day of that week I had been at my desk at noon, with my back to the wall of the Wilkerson house. What if Marie-Th?r?se had been standing by the fireplace rather than in the middle of the room?

The earliest arrivals on the scene were the fire and police departments, but almost simultaneously there were the Red Cross, the press, the sightseers, and the insurance adjusters. The adjusters seemed the most ghoulish. Like ambulance chasers, they tried to sign up everyone in sight. The Red Cross immediately set up Disaster Headquarters in the Parish House of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension?wo doors from our house?nd tried to give everyone coffee and doughnuts. They also offered all of us, including Dustin, a room for the night. Fortunately, each of us had friends and family easily able to accommodate us, and we politely declined. The Red Cross lady actually seemed surprised. I wondered later where she would have sent us.

The street, sidewalk, and parish house were soon swarming with newspaper, magazine, and television reporters, lugging heavy television equipment. With the massive, immediate press coverage, and the gaping sightseers, the scene reminded me of the movie Ace in the Hole. The press and the tourists (and some of the city officials) seemed almost as interested in Dustin as in the disaster. He said later that one of the strangest experiences was being interviewed in front of the fire and realizing that the man interviewing him was wearing television makeup. Whenever news of fresh disaster reached the networks, they mobilized the reporters and camera crew?ut first, the reporters stopped to put on makeup. Even before the explosion, we had been friendly with the Hoffmans. Their daughter Karina and our son?ho were only one month apart in age?ere best friends. They would wake each other up in the morning, play inside their apartments, on the stairs, and in the hallway outside. To facilitate their free play, we left our doors open. The children came and went at will. We were not on the same basis with the other tenants. I had never met the man who lived in the garden apartment. We said hello to our upstairs neighbors, but did not know them well. Now in the closeness brought on by the shared disaster, we instantly became great friends?nd regretted not having known our neighbors before.

This friendship also sprang up with people in the neighborhood. People at both the Church of the Ascension and the First Presbyterian across the street, where our son went to nursery school, were exceedingly hospitable. Tradespeople?ome of whom in the normal course of business seemed quite aloof?uddenly became compassionate as citizens in a Welsh coal-mining town. Everyone volunteered to let us store things in his apartment. Surrounded by homeless tenants, the mailman held mail call in the middle of 11th Street.

Everyone was interested not just in our plight, but in what had happened next door. We snatched at rumors. The most frequent one was that the explosion had been caused by a defective boiler. I wandered through the backyard of the Church of the Ascension and looked up at the rear of our apartment and the flaming structure next to it. A seedy, unshaven man approached and said that he had inspected the boiler at Number 18 a few days before, and found it needed repair?ut nothing was done about it. I never saw that man again.

In a curious way, we were isolated?he residents of 16 and 20 West 11th Street?ot really victims, but victimized by the occurrence. We were a group unto ourselves, and commiserated mostly among ourselves, and with friends from around the city. As our friends heard about the explosion, they thronged to the site, offering comfort, consolation, rooms for the night, every possible kind of assistance.

The rest of 11th Street was concerned, but then slowly became estranged from the disaster. As one neighbor expressed it, "At first there was a camaraderie, but then there was a general sense of helplessness, a kind of loneliness, a sense of distance." Beginning that first night there was also the noise of drilling and demolition. The street looked like a war zone. I would guess that everyone inspected his boiler and locked his doors securely (although of course there was no shortage of police on the street). I wouldn? be surprised if some people left town immediately.

Almost as soon as the fire died, a huge crane appeared, dwarfing the townhouses. The firemen began tearing down the side and rear walls and carefully sifting the rubble. They were obviously looking for something, presumably bodies. It was also clear that our building and the other one on the other side of the cavity were weakened. After the blast, in fact, both buildings were condemned, and remained so until the owners had them shored up. High above the street, clinging to the side of Number 20, and lurking ominously long after the explosion, were the remains of Number 18? bookcase, charred and seemingly sealed to the wall, looking like a spectral Louise Nevelson sculpture.

Late that first afternoon, the firemen in charge said that each tenant in our building could make one quick trip to his apartment?ne person for each apartment, accompanied by a fireman?o reclaim small essential property. I tried to decide what was our most essential property, and as if struck by amnesia couldn? at first think of anything. I went upstairs with a fireman. We walked in the door to the bedroom, and as I entered, the telephone on the night table rang. I looked at the fireman as if the call might be for him. He, as astonished as I was, shook his head no. I picked it up. It was our friend Nancy Cunnison calling from Great River, Long Island. "I? sorry. I can? talk," I said, matter-of-factly. "Our house is burning down." "That? why I? calling," said Nancy. Her husband had heard about the explosion on his car radio, had called her at home, and she had frantically been trying to reach us?t my office, through friends. Finally her oldest daughter, Liz, had said, "Why don? you try their number?" Nancy had said, "But they wouldn? answer." She had dialed just as I entered our apartment. "Talk to you later," I said, and put down the phone for the last time.

Our apartment was a shambles. Everything was full of smoke and water. The ceiling in the bedroom was splitting. The windows were smashed. I walked quickly to the rear of the apartment. The ceiling above my desk heaved as if it were about to collapse. The fireman urged me to leave at once. I took a manuscript of my biography of Darryl Zanuck, a large oil painting by my brother, and a few small framed photographs I had taken of my son, and started down the stairs. Dustin and I almost collided at the entrance. He was also carrying a big painting. He went out the door first, and the photographers popped their shutters.

One of our neighbors, a playwright, decided before he made his one trip upstairs?t the time we all assumed this would be our only trip?hat three things were most important to him: his completed tax forms, an oil painting and a Picasso drawing. He took all three and was starting for the door with scarcely a look at his collapsed skylight, his ruined antique furniture?is now-desecrated apartment had recently been the subject of a beautiful photo spread in the New York Times Magazine?hen, overcome by insatiable gourmet greed, he walked into the kitchen and came out with a tin of truffles. "And then," he remembers, "the chimney collapsed."

We planned to stay at my parents?apartment that evening?e stayed for almost two weeks?ut Ann and I remained at the blast until about nine o?lock, watching with compulsive fascination. Finally, late that evening, a body of a man, unidentified, was found. It was removed in a blanket, like a limp sack of ashes. Our street was all over the late news that night. There were many more rumors than facts. One story persisted?hat there was a child missing inside the house. As possible proof, the newscasters showed a boy? red tricycle standing outside the house. The tricycle belonged to Ethan. We had left it that morning in the lobby of our building and the firemen, charging in, had removed it and thrown it outside.

Saturday morning we began an early vigil. When the firemen informed us that we might be able to go into our house that day during the firemen? lunch hour?hen the crane was not working?nd reclaim a few small things, we called a number of our friends, mobilizing them for action. The fireman advised us not to stray to the far side of the building since it had been weakened by the blast.

Our upstairs neighbors brought an assortment of packing boxes, which we shared. All of the tenants, each with a legion of friends, stood lined on the sidewalk. I found a brown paper bag and on the back of it scribbled the few most essential items in the house and read them off like battle assignments. At a nod from the fire marshal, and as the sightseers watched, we each grabbed a box and flew upstairs. It looked, for all the world, like a supermarket sweepstakes. How much could we squeeze into our shopping carts? How many trips could you make in ten minutes? Once inside, everyone forgot my instructions and grabbed whatever was nearest or dearest to his heart. My sister-in-law lifted an unwieldy sliding oak cabinet, and hugging it like a baby, carried it downstairs. One male friend darted into our kitchen and snatched a toaster (but apparently not the mouse who had been cozily living in it before the explosion) and an electric mixer. Ann and I were mostly interested in saving Ethan? books and toys. We looked like Santa as we bounced down the stairs. Meanwhile our gourmet neighbor liberated, among other things, a cold beef salad Lyonnaise from his refrigerator, and had if with friends for dinner that night. We?he army of scavengers?lew down the narrow stairs. The action speeded up, as in a Keystone comedy. Up the stairs! Down the stairs! Grab a new box! What none of us knew as we thumped and bumped through the building was that there were some 60 sticks of live dynamite buried, as yet undiscovered, in the Wilkerson house?nough, said one inspector later, "to blow up the entire street."

We stored our booty in the church parish house, which with uniformed officers, field phones and piles of boxes looked more and more like a frontline command post. With our friends, we went over to the Cedar Tavern for lunch. As we were eating, it suddenly grew dark outside. It was not the apocalypse but a total eclipse of the sun. Shielding our eyes, we went outside. It was impressive, but, I must admit, after the explosion even a total eclipse seemed anticlimactic.

Sunday was a clear sunny day. The explosion had disappeared to page 71 of the Times, the only news being that one of the girls who fled the blaze was thought to be James Wilkerson? 25-year-old daughter Cathlyn. The police were still trying to identify the body of the man discovered in the wreckage. We went downtown early and spent most of the day looking at the house. The fire had stopped and the fire department was cleaning up the rubble and searching the debris.

Mr. and Mrs. James P. Wilkerson had been on vacation in St. Kitts in the Caribbean, and returned to New York on Friday night. At 1 p.m. Sunday, they walked past the scene of the explosion and no one seemed to recognize them.

On Monday we took Ethan to nursery school. Some of his classmates thought that Ethan? house had blown up, and they were happy to see him. The teacher explained the explosion to the three-year-olds, and that seemed to calm them. But it was obvious to us from the beginning that our son was terribly touched by the event, that no matter what we did or said, it would probably be traumatic. Not just our son, but many of his classmates, became preoccupied with the fire?he blast, the black smoke, the flames. In subsequent days, Ethan would often mention some toy that "I used to have?efore the explosion." We would tell him that it was at a friend? house, but he would still insist that it was something "I used to have." He was never to go back into his room again.

With the identification of the body as that of Theodore Gold, a Columbia University strike leader, people began talking about possible conspiracies. My attitude was that just because Gold was a campus radical was no reason to assume that there was a plot being hatched in the Wilkerson cellar. But on Monday firemen discovered the building? oil burner in the debris. It was in one piece, which gave credence to the theory that something else might have caused the explosion; something other than a simple accident might have shattered the tranquility and architectural serenity of 11th Street.

The Wilkerson house, like ours, had been built in the 1840s by Henry Brevoort Jr. Ours was a four-family, four-floor dwelling, but Wilkerson? housed just one family. It was, according to the realtor Allan House, one of the few townhouses in the area that had always been a one-family dwelling. From some time before the explosion, the house had been for sale?t $255,000. The Wilkersons were planning to move to England. In the preceding weeks Mr. House had been in and out of the building with prospective clients. He was, in fact, very close to a sale and was scheduled to bring his buyers back to the house at noon on March 7. But Cathy Wilkerson asked if they couldn? come at 2 p.m. instead; they couldn?, and so the visit was postponed.

The house was one of the choicest on a choice street, a Federal townhouse with the original molding, woodwork, and glass. There were ten high-ceilinged rooms, including a huge double-drawing room on the parlor floor, a sauna bath, a wood-paneled library where Wilkerson kept his collection of fragile sculptured birds, and an enormous master bedroom with a bathtub in the middle of it?n the open?ith recesses for martinis and books, and with a picture next to it of boating on the Thames. Wilkerson had furnished the house Georgian-style, and if was full of Hepplewhite furniture, Georgian silver, and fine English landscape prints. In the sub-basement there was a workroom where Wilkerson himself repaired and refinished his antiques.

Often my wife and I would sit on our tiny terrace and have lunch or an afternoon drink and look down on the gardens of 11th Street, the handsomest of which was next door at Number 18. It was the scene of afternoon teas?oured by the lady of the house?nd cocktails at dusk. The bushes were finely pruned?gain by the lady of the house. The paths were pebbled. At the far end was a fountain with a mirror behind it. The garden seemed frozen in time, like a Seurat painting.

Once, coming home late, we arrived at our house just as a formal dinner was ending at the Wilkersons? Guests in tuxedos and gowns seemed to dance through the door?limpses of mahogany and crystal chandeliers inside?o waiting limousines. A touch of Fitzgerald to your Henry James. There was an elegance to that house?nd to its occupants.

Soon after the Wilkerson house exploded, my wife and I passed Mr. and Mrs. Wilkerson on Fifth Avenue. The Wilkersons expressed concern for us and for the loss of our apartment. Then Mr. Wilkerson showed us what he was carrying in his hands?he remains of a glass vase. He said it was the only object he had been able to save from his house.

At that moment it was our lives and those of our neighbors that had been upset. For some it was an economic misfortune, although, like the Wilkersons, most of those financially affected could apparently sustain the loss. Ted Gold had died, but the cause appeared to be accidental. Then suddenly that day, Tuesday, the townhouse explosion became a national tragedy.

Digging in the ruins, the workers found the torso of a young woman, some 60 sticks of dynamite, 30 blasting caps, and a supply of homemade bombs, many of them, it was reported, with nails protruding, making them vicious anti-personnel bombs. The huge crane stopped in midair, and the watchers ran for cover. Apparently Cathlyn Wilkerson, Ted Gold, and their friends, members of the radical Weathermen were making bombs in the sub-basement of the Wilkerson house. The story leaped back onto page one. "Not Idealists: Criminals" read the headline of a Times editorial. The papers were filled with stories about the youngsters?radical activities. These were not young kids accidentally blown up by a boiler, but desperate revolutionaries bent on the destruction of someone?r something?lthough succeeding only in killing themselves and blowing up Cathy? father? house.

What were they planning to blow up, and why the anti-personnel bombs? What if the entire street exploded? Dustin appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and spoke for many of us when he said that it was not anger he felt against the bombers, but fear: for ourselves, our families, our country.

Our landlord felt angry. He had marched on Washington and supported peace movements, and was now suddenly cursing the young revolutionaries. They had destroyed his house. Partially it was his economic loss. But also there was the fact that it was his house, which he and his family had lived in for a number of years. Arthur Levin said, "It convinced me more than ever of my belief in nonviolence. It just substantiated how dangerous it is to try to control violence your way. Violence is uncontrollable in every form." Levin, like myself, had ridiculed the bomb theory, the thought of a conspiracy. Now we were faced with proof. Our narrow escape would never be forgotten. Who is living next door to you? What are they doing in the basement? But also we were jolted out of our solipsism. One was forced to wonder, what had created the bombers?

On Wednesday night, standing in the glare of television floodlights in front of what had been his home, Wilkerson made his first statement to the press. He addressed a message to his daughter asking her to contact him "just to let us know how many more people, if any, are still left in the ruins of our home." He looked tired and sad, and finally perplexed, as newsmen surrounded him and asked further questions. When had he last heard from his daughter? Had he known she was staying in his house? How did he feel about SDS? Was he "communicating well" with his daughter? He answered frankly, "As parents, we? have to say no, not in recent years."

In the following days more dynamite and another body were found. The torso was identified as that of Diana Oughton. The girl who escaped with Cathlyn Wilkerson was apparently Kathy Boudin. I searched for reasons and meanings as I read about these girls and Ted Gold. They came from different, but converging, backgrounds. Within the families, the accumulation of wealth, position, education, intelligence, respectability, was astounding. The 11th Street radicals were very much the children of affluent America. To a certain degree a group profile emerges. These men and women?ne has to be constantly reminded that they were not children, Gold the youngest at 23, Miss Oughton the oldest at 28?ere for all the right things and against all the wrong things. Or so it seemed. Somehow all their feelings and frustrations led from pacifism to activism to violence to bombing to death.

One day that week, an older couple and a child (later reported to be a student fro

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