Spring 2010

Buried Alive

At home with the Collyer Brothers

Christopher Turner

On 21 March 1947, the New York Police Department received an anonymous phone call claiming that there was a dead body in Homer and Langley Collyer’s house on upper Fifth Avenue. They used an axe to smash in the front door of the derelict-looking Harlem brownstone, only to have a mountain of trash cascade on top of them. A patrolman climbed in through a second-floor window and, amid a houseful of stinking mess, found the sixty-five-year-old Homer slumped dead in an armchair, emaciated in a tattered blue and white bathrobe. In the search for his missing brother, the police emptied the house of a hundred and thirty tons of refuse, including a horse’s jawbone, an early X-ray machine, a doll carriage, twenty-five thousand books, the chassis of a Model T Ford, fourteen pianos, five dressmaker’s dummies, and several guns. It was three weeks before they discovered Langley, even though he was less than ten feet from where Homer had died. He had been crushed some time before in a landslide of newspaper bales and other rubbish, and his decomposing body had been gnawed raw by rats.

Police searching for Langley Collyer. Courtesy Bettmann/CORBIS.

We are fascinated by mess and chaos, the psychotherapist Adam Phillips wrote in Promises, Promises, because of our “unconscious fantasies about what disorder might entail: something orgiastic, something violent, something inchoate, something longed for and feared.” The story of the Collyer brothers, after whom compulsive hoarding syndrome is named, has inspired over a dozen novels and plays, almost as if their anarchic clutter invited writers to sort and make meaning. The most famous of these fictions is Marcia Davenport’s 1954 bestseller, His Brother’s Keeper, which explained the Collyer brothers’ decline into hermetic squalor as the result of their lives being destroyed by two women.

More than half a century later, novelist E. L. Doctorow picks up the story again in Homer & Langley, billed as a “free imaginative rendering” of the brothers’ lives. Doctorow has reversed the order of the brothers’ ages and he makes the blind Homer—who narrates the plot—the faded pianist, rather than his long-haired younger brother who was in fact the promising musician. In the novel, the eccentric duo, though shut into their private world, don’t live the completely reclusive life we know they did; indeed, they seem to welcome the world into their disorderly home, thereby holding up a murky mirror to history: a jazz trumpeter from the Harlem Renaissance, a Japanese couple who are interned after Pearl Harbor, and a flock of hippies all pass through their doors. Doctorow extends the brothers’ lives three decades so that they can usher in the Age of Aquarius.

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