September 2, 2009
In a 1956 episode of “The Honeymooners,” Ed Norton (Art Carney) is advising Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) that one of their neighbors reads all the mail that comes into the building. To illustrate his point, Norton tells Ralph what the Kramdens’ gas bill was the previous month. And then he congratulates Ralph for breaking the all-time low gas bill record set by the Collyer Brothers in 1931.
The studio audience laughs, because they remember the Collyer Brothers, whose macabre death had occurred only about nine years before that episode was filmed. Homer and Langley Collyer, offspring of a well-to-do family, lived in a mansion in what was then high-fashion Harlem — remaining there after their father inexplicably abandoned them in 1919 and moved downtown. By that time the brothers were well educated — at least one of them had graduated from nearby Columbia — but instead of pursuing careers in engineering or admiralty law, they gradually withdrew from society, living like hermits and literally filling the house with tons of newspapers, bicycles, firearms, electric motors, musical instruments — a collection far too varied to be characterized, although it is usually referred to as “junk.”
In 1947, the two men died in the house under tragic circumstances. Langley Collyer had been killed by one of the booby traps he had assembled to ward off intruders and Homer, who was blind and largely helpless, had died of starvation, just a few feet from his brother’s body. Police and laborers removed 103 tons of material from the house, which was condemned and razed.
E.L. Doctorow has written a novel, “Homer and Langley,” being released this month, which consists of what Doctorow describes of his “reading” of the Collyer Brothers’ lives. By that he means that the book is not a history; in fact, he said he did no research, which may be an exaggeration, but he makes his point. He was curious, not about morbid details that had been repeated again and again, but about what motivated the two men to shut the world out of their lives or rather, as he puts it, to “emigrate” to a life within their home, a life lived on their own terms.
Doctorow was interviewed on NPR today — specifically, on “All Things Considered: — and his remarks suggested more respect for the Collyers than they usually are afforded. Certainly he eschewed the ridicule that an Ed Norton couldn’t help but attach to the names. The writer apparently doesn’t begin with a judgment about the brothers — or about people who don’t choose to live as others do. He begins with curiosity about how their lives fit into the whole picture of life in their time. He also said that he was saddened by a comment made in the novel by Homer, who is the narrator: “What could be more terrible than to be turned into a mythic joke?”
A story based on the Doctorow interview, the audio, and an excerpt from the novel are at this link: