Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Homer, Langley and the Bouvier-Beales

I'm always amazed at how many connections there are in the world and it seems that, for the well read, they abound. I've been a theatre buff all my life, thanks to my parents' foresight and penchant for community acting and Broadway getaways. I love my weekend subscription to the Times just so I can keep up with what's going on in New York even if I never get back there myself. When I saw that a film had been made of the play (or was it vice-versa?) Grey Gardens, I took it home to have a peek and what a stunning revelation. Drew Barrymore is not just another pretty face. She put in a remarkably brave performance as Edie, the stiffled daughter of Jackie Kennedy's aunt Edith Beale, the recluse at the heart of the Long Island mansion Grey Gardens.

At the same time I've been listening to a recording of prolific award winner E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley, a fictionalized novel about the lives of the famous Collyer brothers who, like Edith and Edie Beale, simply withdrew from society to become infamous curiosities to the media and even despised by their neighbors in the toney brownstone neighborhood opposite Central Park.

What happens to people to precipitate such a drastic withdrawal from society? Is it personal? Political? Is it fear or laziness? Agoraphobia? Which comes first-the disease or the hibernation? In the movie, it was a bit easier to see how it all began, though not to condone it. The senior Edith Beale was not, to me at least, a very sympathetic character even though the film makers tried to nuance her situation. Apparently a frustrated perfomer and party girl, played beautifully by the versatile Jessica Lange, Mrs. Beale was married to a stuffy, wealthy, attorney who had a lover in the city and consigned his wife and family to the "beach house" where he deigned to visit on weekends but where they filled their time entertaining.

When her husband finally divorced her, Edith took up with a young piano player and they lived off her alimony until the famous first financial crash put an end to the money. Though her sons tried to convince Edith to sell the mansion she refused it seemed, out of spite, which would be understandable except that she took her daughter down with her. Young Edie had high hopes of a life in entertainment but her mother took advantage of her insecurities after a disastrous love affair with a married man and guilted her into moving home to Grey Gardens where the house was falling down around them and they sustained themselves on ice cream and garbage.

Similarly, Homer and Langley were the progeny of two selfish, wealthy parents who left them in the care of servants most of their young lives to the point where the parents were scarcely missed after their deaths. Homer, who was going blind and then deaf, narrates the story of their lives and also, through Doctorow's use of poetic license, the entire history of the 20th century. Though the brothers actually died in 1947, the author has them living through the Vietnam era so that he can use their actions and observations to comment on the politics of each generation.

The novel is a slow building tour de force ably read by Arthur Morey. Langley, educated at Columbia, goes off to World War I returning, like so many, damaged physically by mustard gas and mentally by the brutality and futileness of war in general. He becomes a lifelong pacifist, an eccentric inventor and pack rat, rebelling against any authority but, in his own way, protecting his young brother from the outside world. The question is, like Edith Beale, did his attempt to shield Homer from the cruelties of life, do more harm than good?

These two stories are great studies for those interested in the psychology of eccentricity and the extent to which it can go before it's beyond repair. Doctorow's novel can also just be read as historical fiction with a conscience. Further information about the real Collyer brothers can be found all over the Internet, in particular at the bottom of this Wikipedia entry (with apologies to my fellow librarians)

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