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The House


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Editor’s note: This appears in William F. Buckley Jr.’s book A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts. “The House” is dated February 1976.

We wanted something by the sea, which excluded my native green and beautiful Sharon, Connecticut, and within commuting distance of New York, which also excluded Sharon. My wife set out every day, at about the time I would go off to the office. We tried leaving the apartment at staggered hours, on the assumption that, that way, one of us would one day bump into our fellow-tenant Marilyn Monroe in the elevator; but we never did lay eyes on her, and about a month and thirty or forty houses later my wife approached me with some excitement. She had found it. “It” meant reasonably priced, on the water, and not further than an hour from Grand Central.

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We came to it on a spring day — I remember Adlai Stevenson had announced that morning that the future of the Republic required him, after all, to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination if proffered. It was wet and cold, and the owner was not there to let us in; so I broke a tiny window, unlatched the kitchen-door bolt, and left a pleasant note of explanation.

We wandered through a house at once startlingly ugly and entirely captivating. Its immediate background was romantic. Chérie — as we refer to her — had recently been phased out, and her benefactor gave her nothing less than this squat, stolid, fifteen-room house — built sixty years earlier in an unsuccessful flight from Victorian excess — surrounded by beautiful trees, three acres of law, a four-car garage with upstairs apartment that, rented, would bring in the tax. The furnishings were startling. I remember mostly chairs, and pink plastic orchids on black wallpaper, and a total of six books — all of them Reader’s Digest condensations. There was a bar full of shimmering mirrors and neon lights. There must have been chairs there to seat everyone in the country who voted for Adlai Stevenson.

Few things hit me instinctively; and I was deeply rooted, along with my nine brothers and sisters, practically all of whom settled in or near Sharon. But I knew that I would never want to live anywhere else; and so it was with my wife, who was now three thousand miles away from her family home in Vancouver, Canada.

I called my father, who authorized me to liquidate capital; and in two weeks we had the closing — after the bankers had poked the furnace, and had found nothing flimsy in the old stucco walls, and a check for $65,000 had passed hands; and a little while later I got a $25,000 mortgage from an insurance company, at the eyebrow-raising interest rate of 4 3/8 percent — twice the highest rate recommended by Lord Keynes, whose dicta on such subjects my classmates at Yale had received as revelation, poor darlings.

 

There was a transformation. Several, in fact. One watches, and says very little, when the lady of the house is pursuing a vision. There was a fairly orthodox phase, consummated in splendid taste; and I was happy. But soon she began to stir again; and, during the cultural revolution of the Sixties, our haven was not unaffected. One day she presented me the new room — tactfully executed during my prolonged absence from the country. It is much better to be presented with a fait accompli. The mind reeled. I thought of the Château at Blois, with its eclectic styles, and the one room — some famous Frenchman (as usual, the wrong one) was murdered there — full of colored spangles and dark and wine-colored bric-a-brac and ornate parquetry. It was the dining room, and its appeal had the at-onceness that Clement Greenberg celebrates as the unique attribute of art.

There was no stopping her. The sun-room soon became the bordello the Shah couldn’t afford. Then the living room, a kind of Haitian concentrate. Self-respect required me, at one point a couple of years ago, to insist on a room of my own — a music room, featuring a beautiful harpsichord and the worst keyboard artist since Harry Truman. I got as far as the windows and the paintings (they are all by the fine Raymond de Botton); but She took over, which is why the room — framing the garden, a slender treetrunk trained like a geisha girl from childhood to give pleasure; the largest wild apple tree our treeman had ever seen; and out there, Long Island Sound, with as many moods as those ersatz fountains the big hotels are constructing, with the Teamster Aeolus who will blow you up a storm, or whisper the sea into kitten-like placidity by turning the pressure gauges — is corresponding beautiful on the inside. There, in the winter, the fireplace alight, a proper musician performing live or on record, you can see what pilgrims saw, as if under glass, and understand the compulsion to Thanksgiving.

The neighborhood is wonderful. There has been, to be sure, a touch of Peyton Place in the seven or eight houses that occupy the point; but, although everyone is friendly, no one is importunate. In twenty-four years, we have been out to dinner not more than three times. That is true hospitality. Life is totally informal, though some of that will now have to go. A week or so after acquiring the house, we lost the keys to it; but it didn’t seem to matter since nobody had ever heard of a burglar in the area. Until two weeks ago. A couple of them (by evidence) found their way in, and helped themselves to three generations of silver, two apples, and one box of peanut brittle, which they pried out of a postal package — this Federalizing their little transgression. If, after they are caught, convicted, and sentenced, they should choose to come back for another course, they will find a house as penetrable as a jewelry store might.

I understand the territorial imperative. I have been (roughly) everywhere. Hew is where I find, increasingly, I want to be. With Her. God knows what She will come up with next, maybe (but I don’t believe it) a Warhol room. But ingenious though she is, she could never succeed in defacing that house. She has only made it more desirable, and anybody who tries to take it from me should be warned that, in addition to a mad wife, I have three mad dogs, and lots and lotsa ammunition.



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