In 1978, at the top of their career arcs, my parents bought a house.
Dark Shadows had ended its run several years before, but it had established them. They had gone on to greater successes, my father as headwriter of One Life to Live, first with Gordon Russell, his writing partner on Shadows, and then alone. My mother had spent the ‘70s doing less television and more live theater, including noted productions of Genet’s The Screens, and, on Broadway, The Leaf People and the Brecht/Weill musical Happy End.
They had never had a house. I grew up in a rental apartment in Manhattan; my parent’s careers had been, in the early years, a bit rough. But they had come through the fire, they had made it, and they rewarded themselves by purchasing a house in Rhinebeck, New York.
Not just any house, either— the most fantastic house I had ever seen.
There are, in New York State, a few large houses, many of them quite grand, that were built by members of the Livingston family, a clan whose connections with the Hudson Valley go back to land grants in colonial days. Wildercliff had been built on a bluff overlooking the Hudson by a Livingston daughter in 1799, and is the only south-facing Livingston house I know of; the others align with the river and face west. In essence a three-story farmhouse that had been added to over the years, it was large enough to be called a mansion without looking like it had ever intended to be one. It had well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms, an ample country kitchen with an enormous built-in wood-burning stove, and the world’s finest porch, a simple covered platform that ran along the back of the house and looked south over a long swath of lawn and a huge downriver vista of mountains and water and sky that seemed virtually infinite.
I was working on a newspaper in Tucson* the summer my parents moved in. My mother told me later of the joy they had felt, their first night, just the two of them sitting on the steps of the porch and drinking wine and looking out at the night and the stars and the river.
I remember driving back from Arizona, arriving at this fantastic home— 48 acres, an enormous barn, and eventually a swimming pool— and realizing how this was the culmination of all my parent’s dreams. And the fundamental emotion I felt was pride— pride in them for working so hard they’d been able to achieve this, make it their own.
Antiques were purchased. Decorators were hired. One wall on the second floor, found to be buckling, turned out to be made of mud mixed with horsehair. Sadly, it was torn down and replaced, though we all hated modernizing it. My mother and father had always been adventurous about color— many Dark Shadows-era interviews mention the Pompeian red living room in our New York apartment. This house offered them endless opportunities to experiment and explore. One room’s floor was painted to look like marble. Another had fake shafts of sunlight appropriate to the room’s windows— always slightly unnerving at night. The interior doors had four inset panels framed by molding— the door, the inset and the molding each painted a slightly different shade of white.
The master bedroom, on the second floor, shared a wall with the guest room. The first time my parents had weekend guests, they served an elaborate Friday night dinner, and wine flowed freely. Later, as my mother and father were preparing for bed, they heard their guests through the wall: “Ugh, is all the food this weekend going to be so heavy?”
Confronted by this, my parents could have rethought their approach, reconsidered their standard dishes, changed their menu choices. Instead, after the guests left, they found a company that blew soundproofing insulation into the walls, and carried on precisely as before.
My parents were both inveterate shoppers— I am not, really— and they both had taste. The three-story house was soon full of odd, beautiful pieces, unique chairs and tables and paintings and mirrors and weird little objects that reflected the madness of their sensibilities. The furniture and fixtures in that house came to express as unique a personal vision as the experimentation in colors.
Parties were thrown: cocktails on the porch and dinner parties around the circular table under the chandelier in the dining room, and full-blown house parties where guests came early and stayed late and mingled in a crush with drinks in their hands. There was always music— showtunes, mainly, and jazz singers, mostly female. Cooking was a huge part of that house— Mexican and Chinese and risotto and fresh corn in the husk, soaked in salt water and jammed into barbeque embers to roast, and black bean/mango salad and vitello tonnato and Indonesian rack of lamb and a million other things. Roaring fires in winter, white wine and wicker on the porch in summer. One year we hosted the Hudson Valley Film Festival final party— a tent, bartenders, caterers. A storm roared up and took out our electricity. We found candles and lit them, rain lashing the house, and people slept everywhere and stayed until it was safe to drive the next day.
Architectural Digest photographed the house in January, 1983. Mom died in 1985; Sam never remarried. Hell, he never even dated.
We had that house for 34 years. Sold it in 2012; Sam, fully inhabiting his 90s, had not been able to keep up with the constant maintenance an old place like that needs, and by then his joints were such that the stairs presented a painful challenge. As for me, I couldn’t take it over— I’ve had success, but not hedge-fund-level success, and that’s what it would have taken, given the changed economy from the ‘70s to now, to really make the place work. Sam took a rental, also on the river, and lived his remaining days in a lovely little house with a porch and a view.
But Wildercliff— well, there’s only one of those. And we had it, and we loved it.
And no one can ever take that away.
*This experience later became Nightmare Logic, my first novel, a thriller published by Bantam in 1989. Long out of print, and deservedly so.