The Insider: Victorian Meets Mid-Century Modern


THIS WEEK, “The Insider,” my every-Thursday column on, features a duplex apartment in an 1850s Brooklyn brownstone that takes a mad romp around the color wheel, combining furnishings ranging from Victoriana (hers) to mid-century modern (his).

To see more than a dozen photos of the place in all its unconventional glory, go right here.

Literary Brooklyn

17book-articleInline-v2I’M LIFTING THIS ARTICLE WHOLESALE from Channel 13’s email newsletter, MetroFocus. It expands on Evan Hughes’ well-received new book, Literary Brooklyn, by showing pictures of Henry Miller’s childhood home in Williamsburg and the Clinton Hill house where Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” (the only one of Whitman’s eight Brooklyn homes still standing). Fascinating! Also Truman Capote’s digs on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights…but that one’s well-known.

Another Excuse (As if Anyone Needed One) to Fawn Over Brooklyn Novelists  by John Farley

Explaining why he defected to Los Angeles from his “Motherless Brooklyn,” author Jonathan Lethem infamously told the Guardian that Brooklyn had become “repulsive with novelists.”While the literary blogosphere has certainly gazed obsessively toward Brooklyn’s book scene for the better part of the last decade, the truth is that the borough has always been lousy with novelists.

Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Paul Auster…The list of linguistic legends who resided in Brooklyn goes on and on, but pre-Internet writers were able to be a bit more secretive about their addresses than today’s writers. (Remember which young writerly-couple purchased a $6.75M Park Slope manse in 2005? Hint: Some of the neighbors found their arrival both extremely loud and incredibly close.)

A new book, Literary Brooklyn, by Evan Hughes, sheds (more) light on the subject of Brooklyn authors, past and present. Take a look at the following map, modified from an insert in the book, to find out where your favorite wordsmiths dwelt.


Though some of the houses included in the map have since met the wrecking ball, others still exist.

Here are the three literary homes MetroFocus thinks are worth making the trip to see:

662 Driggs Ave., Williamsburg: Henry Miller’s “Early Paradise”

In several of his novels, including Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring  and Plexus, Henry Miller fondly described his boyhood home at 662 Driggs Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as “the only tooth left in a rotten jaw” — a beautiful brick home surrounded by decrepit shanties. Despite rapid gentrification and ongoing construction in the area, Miller’s description still holds true.

The house is surrounded by an empty lot to one side and a small gaggle of abandoned properties on the other, as if the writer’s words froze this block of Brooklyn in time over an entire century.

70 Willow St., Brooklyn Heights: Truman Capote’s Muse for Rent

In 2010, the house at 70 Willow St. went on the market for $18 million, the most expensive asking price in the borough’s history. Capote certainly didn’t pay that much for the house where he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. In fact, he didn’t buy it. He rented a room in it from his friend Oliver Smith. But when Smith was out-of-town, Capote purportedly threw wild parties where he drunkenly bragged to friends that it was all his.

99 Ryerson St., Clinton Hill: Walt Whitman’s Holdout

You wouldn’t know it from looking at it (few of the neighbors do), but there’s something very special about this otherwise-plain house at 99 Reyerson St. in Clinton Hill. Of the seven houses that Walt Whitman lived in during his 28 years in Brooklyn, it’s the last one still standing.

In 1848, Whitman — a well-known and respected young journalist — was fired from his editor position at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle due to a political argument with the paper’s owner. Whitman, like this house, quickly faded into obscurity. But after seven years of a leading a quiet, poverty-stricken existence, while living in the house in 1855, Whitman self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” — arguably the most important work in the canon of American poetry — and forever altered the course of  American literary history. Henry Miller, it’s worth noting, called Whitman his greatest influence.

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life
Author: Evan Hughes
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
Publication Date: August 2011

Window Boxes Stretch the Season


I’M SHOWING YOU the window box, above, one of two attached to the front windows of my rental apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, not because I’m so very proud of it — they’re rather pedestrian, not to mention lopsided, but out of some documentary compulsion.

If you recall, this is what I started with in early May, below: pale white/lavender pansies, which I knew I’d have to replace in high summer, an interesting twisted juncus, vinca and bacopia vines, a hosta, and some angelina sedum. That, and high hopes.


As it happened, I did what I could on the fly on to keep them up on the infrequent occasions this summer when I spent time in Brooklyn. I had the help of my landlords, who kindly watered. I grabbed fill-in plants at the nearest hardware store, which turned out to be pink-red impatiens and begonias. I’ve done better in summers where I’ve actually been there to coddle, feed, and water, once even inspiring an entire block to follow suit.

Left to their own devices, the impatiens took over, the angelina sedum disappeared (not enough sun), and the bacopia and vinca drastically need cutting back. When I get back to Brooklyn tomorrow after more than a week away, who knows what I’ll find…but I think I’ll pick up a few mums or ornamental cabbages on my way to extend the season even further. After all, that’s what they sell those things for.

The Fall Planting Window is Open


IT’S COOL, IT’S WET, IT’S FALL, as of this morning at 5:05AM — and it’s prime time for planting and moving things around. Now’s our big chance to improve on the design of beds and borders, without stressing plants in excessive heat. I’m out at my cottage in Springs (East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y.), doing just that. I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of color in my main perennial beds, but the lespedeza (bush clover), above, is trying to make up for that. Planted last year around this time, it’s a perennial that gets cut back to the ground each year, like butterfly bush. It was very late to come up in spring, and I was sure it was dead, and that I had killed it. But then it began to grow…and grow… four feet across in a single season, and it’s been in luxuriant purple bloom for the last two weeks.


I moved the hakonechloa at the top of the photo above from another part of the garden to balance the group at right, which greets me at my front steps and always looks terrific.


The boxwoods I bought for screening my next door neighbor’s driveway, above, are settled in nicely, and I consider their staggered placement an aesthetic success. Maybe I’ll even remove the red nursery tapes someday;-)


Above, three types of ornamental grass brought from upstate: fountain grass, pampas grass, and switch grass, eventually to range from 2 to 5 feet tall. Inspired by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Monocot Border, I decided to group them all together in a relatively sunny area of the yard that was bare but mulched and ready to go.


The idea is that this all-grass garden be visible from the blue chaises on my back deck, above, where I frequently perch to survey my domain.


This is the view from the deck, with the grasses arrayed and ready to go. To the left of the contorted pine in the foreground are three old, never-blooming azaleas. I’m planning to move them to another part of the yard and redouble my efforts to protect their flower buds from deer. That will have the dual effect of silhouetting the specimen tree (which was there when I bought the house and with which I have a love-hate relationship) and opening up the view of the new grass bed from the house and deck.


Above, 27 pots of grasses laid out with the taller ones to the rear and back, and the shorter, 18-24″ mounding fountain grass in front.


Above, they’re in and being watered. Yes, it was a big job, fortunately accomplished yesterday before the rains came. In the foreground, another frontier — the free-form island bed being colonized by ajuga (bugleweed), which I plan to replace or supplement with liriope (lilyturf), after a bed I saw somewhere that looked spectacular. I’m on the hunt now for discounted liriope, and I’d better act quickly, because the perennial planting window closes in less than a month.

The Insider: Apartment for One in Cobble Hill


MY NEW EVERY-THURSDAY SERIES for continues today in a new, easier-to-read format, with a garden floor-through in the heart of Cobble Hill by interior designer Julia Mack.

These are rented digs, colorful and cost-conscious, with lots of Brooklyn-based sources and interesting ideas.

Hie on over here to see many more photos and read all about it.