Mr. Faulkner is Here and He’s Drunk

by

01/15/2003

Madison Ave & E 51st St, New York, NY 10022

Neighborhood: Midtown

Among the stories I have either heard or read about the Villard Houses, my favorite is one about William Faulkner. Between 1949 and 1969 Bennet Cerf’s Random House occupied the north wing of the stately brownstone that takes up the entire block between 50th and 51st on Madison Avenue.

During those years Faulkner divided his time between Oxford, Mississippi and Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter with trips, I suppose, to New York when necessary.

On one such trip it is alleged that a taxi deposited Faulkner at the gated entrance at 457 Madison Avenue. He wrenched himself from the backseat –a bottle in hand–staggered through the courtyard past what is now the patio for Le Cirque 2000 as well as one entrance for the New York Palace Hotel, and up the short flight of stairs and into the building.

I imagine that he sat in the lobby just outside the parlor that is now, and has been for the last seventeen years, Urban Center Books, where I have worked for the past two years.

I like to wonder while I am shelving books if the receptionist conferred in hushed tones with his editor, while the great writer listed badly in his chair, conveying that, I’m paraphrasing, Faulkner is here, very drunk, and he must see you, now. I imagine further that his editor was a slightly nervous, bespectacled man who was prone to sweating in all seasons.

He collects himself, and receives Faulkner and at the same time requests that coffee be brought to his office right away.

The story goes that once he is seated, he begins to cry. He sat in his chair across from his editor and wept, though no one seems to know what was troubling the author who said during his Nobel acceptance speech, “all of my work is about the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Like Faulkner lore, stories abound about the Villard Houses, and in my view special houses and buildings do take on a life of their own.

The history of Villard Houses is, in part, a history of the people who have passed through them over the years. “The Bear” is, perhaps, the best known Faulkner novella. On the morning Faulkner went to work on it, he came downstairs, snared a jug of whiskey from the kitchen counter and said, “I am going to the barn to write a novel and won’t be back until I’m finished.” I think about the house and barn. I would like to go there, stand in the kitchen, walk out to the barn. The homes of those who might inspire me are compelling. Faulkner’s “Rowan Oak” is now a museum, and to visit it is an effort to get closer to him. Standing in Faulkner’s study, I can imagine it being an inspiring experience.

In January I visited Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges in Paris and standing in the bedroom before his massive stand-to writing table I felt a kind of free-floating sense of awe. And although I’ve never been to Charleston, the home place of the Bloomsbury group, I own a book of photographs of their home that includes the surrounding gardens, and I have spent hours looking at the pictures. Inevitably their work, their lives are more vivid after seeing the rooms where they lived and worked.

Urban Center Books is a specialty bookshop devoted to architecture, both monographs and theoretical texts, a New York section, historic preservation, theory, interiors, design, houses, urban planning, gardening, landscape, and construction. I came to the bookshop with more than 10 years of experience, though all of it at independent general bookstores with small architecture sections.

Urban Center Books is small (about 400 square feet) but the sections are complete and it is cozy with well organized stacks that reach from floor to ceiling. Located in the heart of midtown, it is a haven for the bibliophile with a penchant for architecture and its allied arts; a respite for those weary of the bustle and congestion on the streets, a break from the screed of cellphone chatter and the deafening roar of emergency vehicles attempting to part the perpetually heavy traffic.

Customers report that it is difficult to depart the bookshop and rejoin the world. To be around but not in the deal-making mecca that is midtown is a smug pleasure.

William Faulkner in the foyer. Al Gore in a meeting in the gallery with snipers on the roof and other undisclosed locations during his run for the White House. Michael Jackson looking to improve his gardening library. Henry Kissinger in the courtyard.

These are snapshots, if you like, from the grandest house on Madison Avenue, where you never know who you will see or better still imagine.

Inspiration is in the air here at 457 Madison Avenue as it is at Charleston and at Roanoke.

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