Philip Roth’s Apartment is on Sale for 3.2 Million Dollars
Buying it won’t help you win a Pulitzer—but if you have the cash, why not imagine that writers’ homes are somehow special?
This week Philip Roth’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was put on the market for a casual $3.2 million. Roth bought the apartment in 1989 to use as a writing studio while he lived a few blocks away with his then-wife, the British actress Claire Bloom. In 2004, after his divorce and a personal hiatus in Connecticut, Roth bought a second unit in the building and merged them into one 1,500-square-foot apartment where he lived full-time until his death last year. (Altogether Roth owned four units in the building — one sold to another resident and the last is listed separately for a comparatively cheap $675,000.) The apartment is still covered in small mementos of Roth’s life — there is the stand-up writing desk which he used because of his chronic back pain, the fax machine he stubbornly clung to until he gave into email just before his retirement in 2010, and the 1998 Pulitzer he won for American Pastoral. A map of Newark, New Jersey, where Roth grew up and which inspired books like Goodbye, Columbus, hangs on the wall.
The listing for Roth’s apartment is so full of his personal details that it practically reads like a passage from one of his books. Normally real estate brokers try to make houses seem like blank slates, open to new futures, but in this case someone clearly hopes to make a premium on Roth’s apartment because he wrote Nemesis there, not because it has three balconies in spitting distance of Zabar’s. It’s a good bet — if my friends and family are anything to go by, the public doesn’t know much about the actual process of publishing a book (“What’s an agent?” “Who’s royalty?”) but they are certain there is a special bond between a writer and the place where they work.
Someone clearly hopes to make a premium on Roth’s apartment because he wrote Nemesis there, not because it has three balconies in spitting distance of Zabar’s.
You can visit the homes of many famous writers: Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo, and Robert Frost, to name a few that I’ve been to and recommend. The allure of these museums is generally not the collections, which can be sparse, but to see the place where the magic happened — even if it didn’t, exactly. For example if you make the pilgrimage to Hemingway’s home in Key West hoping to see where he did his great work, you’ll have to ignore that The Sun Also Rises was written in Europe, while A Farewell to Arms was penned at a guest ranch in Wyoming’s Bighorns, his wife’s house in Piggott, Arkansas, and a rental in Mission Hills, Kansas. In a way, the authenticity of the place barely matters. The house in Orlando, Florida, where Jack Kerouac lived for less than a year between 1957 and 1958 now hosts a writer’s residency, and the project freely admits on their website that the house wasn’t exactly seminal in Kerouac’s life: “Few people knew exactly where in College Park he lived, and nobody seemed to be aware of the historical significance of such a place. In fact, none of Kerouac’s biographers had even mentioned the house.” Legions of Harry Potter fans, again myself included, have visited the coffee shop in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling wrote part of one of her books, even though there’s nothing left of her presence and nothing to do but buy a scone. (At least from a price perspective it’s a steal; she wrote the last Potter book in a suite in a luxury hotel.)
The truth is that writing is a peripatetic job and few writers can afford a grand house or multi-million dollar apartment in which to write all their masterworks. The reality of writing life is cafes and residencies and rentals. Even if a writer did primarily work in one place, how much would that place really matter? Writing isn’t a kind of transcription of your environment. Great writers can conjure the sea from a desert tent. Even when writing in situ, you can’t write with your eyes staring out the window; writing is what happens when you look down.
Even if a writer did primarily work in one place, how much would that place really matter? Writing isn’t a kind of transcription of your environment.
But the appeal of these places is the harmless fiction that a great writer might leave something behind in the atmosphere, like the invisible yeast that hangs in the air and turns out delicious loaves of sourdough bread. For $130 a night you can stay in the house in Montgomery, Alabama where the Fitzgerald’s lived while Scott was working on Tender is the Night, and I would love to go and sip whiskey under the magnolia tree on the front lawn until the world felt suffused with a kind of melancholy romance. If that makes me a sappy fan I don’t really care because his books mean something to me.
That’s also why hyping up Philip Roth’s apartment and trying to sell it as a place where literary genius happened doesn’t bother me at all. It’s rare for the public to focus on the writing process, so an interest in where and how authors work is a step towards legitimizing writing as a career endeavor, and if someone can stand where he stood, under his map, near his fax machine, and feel inspired, then why sneer? Besides, there is something hilariously Roth-ian about someone paying 3.2 million dollars for the space where Roth experienced what he called the “daily frustration, not to mention humiliation” of writing. Books may be dying, but at least they can come back as real estate.