Norman Mailer’s former house in Brooklyn Heights is on the market right now, for $2.5 million and, like the homes of many famous writers, the place is a weirdly accurate reflection of Mailer’s personality. Mailer’s books, from his World War 2 novel “The Naked and the Dead” to more controversial works like the bloody, x-rated “The Deer Park” and the (arguably) anti-feminist “The Prisoner of Sex,” were saturated with machismo and contrarianism. He was a troll, but he trolled himself too – Mailer, who was terrified of heights, filled the atrium of his apartment with rickety catwalks and crow’s-nests.
You can picture him starting his day by climbing a ladder to a ledge thirty feet above the hardwood floor and forcing himself to white-knuckle it for a full minute, just to prove to himself that he could, before climbing down and going about his business. (The crappy catwalks turned out to be so iffy that they didn’t meet the building code, and had to be taken down before the place was put on the market.)
Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (in 1921, for “The Age of Innocence”), was her era’s leading critic of the upper class – except when it came to architecture. Wharton’s books, from “The House of Mirth” to “The Age of Innocence” show a firsthand understanding of the moral vacuity and bankruptcy of aristocratic society, and yet when she built her dream home, it more or less embodied those vices. “The Mount,” in Lenox, Massachusetts, is a deeply conventional European-style country house built, at Wharton’s direction, according to the principles of “order, scale, and harmony” – the same sort of conservative principles that organized the high society Wharton found so oppressive. (She herself was born into one of the leading families in Manhattan, but wasn’t allowed to read novels growing up because they weren’t “ladylike,” and had to publish her first works under a friend’s father’s name because they might have hurt her future marriage prospects.) But maybe this irony is part of the design? In a letter, Wharton did tell a friend that this house was better than her books.
“The Mount” later became a girls school, and is now a museum. Oh, and it might be haunted. Wharton complained her whole life about being tormented by “phantoms,” and students at the girls school reported hearing disembodied voices and seeing ghostly forms. The cable show “Ghost Hunters” filmed not one but two episodes there, in which the ghost hunters hear creepy muttering and unexplainable footsteps.
George Orwell, who popularized and maybe even invented the dystopian novel with “1984,” had a worldview that you could describe as brutal individualism. In “Animal Farm” (like “1984,” it was a critique of the dehumanizing effects of fascism) he expressed fear and skepticism towards the collective, and in his nonfiction books “Down and Out in Paris and London” (about living as a hobo) and “Homage to Catalonia” (about volunteering in the Spanish Civil War), he proved he was willing to endure hardship and even death in service of a higher principle. So where’s a guy who hates people and has a masochistic streak want to live? How about a remote manor house on a tiny Scottish island so obscure that no one even noticed when a computer glitch erased it from Google Maps?
In 1946, Orwell moved into an abandoned farmhouse on the Scottish island of Jura. From the nearest railway station, the house was a 20 mile drive along a narrow country road, followed by a five mile hike over rough bog, and the living conditions were so primitive that shooting rabbits and fishing were the main sources of food for the household. The setting was so treacherous that Orwell nearly drowned himself and his whole family when, on an afternoon boating expedition, he stupidly steered their small boat into a whirlpool, where it capsized. He and his kids had to cling to rocks until a passing lobster boat picked them up. Orwell caught a chill and was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis. He only lasted a few years in the chilly, isolated stone house, and died in 1950.