Home Thoughts for Fall

By Stuart Mitchner

As someone who grew up in Bloomington, “the Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana,” I know something about fall colors. Even for a kid with limited aesthetic awareness, there was no ignoring the splendor of the leaves. I walked to school splashing through puddles of gold and red, and since bonfires were allowed in those days, the air always had a hazy, mysterious quality. Whenever I think back to that time of year, I’m in seventh grade and we’ve moved from graduate student barracks on the outskirts of town to a large two-story house five blocks from the University campus. Suddenly my parents had a veritable mansion to furnish with enough space for a grand piano, sofas, easy chairs, coffee tables — this after four years in the equivalent of a four-room cabin with a pot-bellied stove in the living room. 

Although I had no interest in how people furnished their homes — how many adolescents do? — it was hard to ignore the fact that my parents were busy doing just that. At the same time, I was being exposed to other people’s living rooms during my brief career as a babysitter, which I also associate with the fall, having spent some uneasy Halloweens alone in strange houses. People would say “We’ll be home by midnight,” but they never were. When you’re stuck in someone’s living room for hours while your charges are sleeping, you start making comparisons. My clients were all faculty people, so while the couple in the sociology department kept things clinically neat and the only books I could make sense of were the ones I read to the kids (who were not that much younger than I was), the English professor’s house across the street was always in bookish disarray, with the latest works by writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck attractively in evidence. Then, as now, books are the element of decor I’m most responsive to. That said, the house that made the most powerful impression on me belonged to an artist, with the living room opening into his studio. There was no way not to be interested in clutter that seemed to have a purpose, since most objects in view had either been sculpted or crafted or painted by him, the hardest to ignore being an enormous pastel nude of his six-foot-tall wife, who would hand me my money when I left as if there were nothing especially remarkable about the presence of her unclothed self looming in the background.

Into the Red Hills

Needless to say, I was reminded of my visits to the artist’s house when looking through Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses (Abrams $50), co-authored by Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez. In one photo, she’s even standing under an Alexander Calder mobile like the ones made by the artist I babysat for. The front cover features a fittingly autumnal-toned oil painting of the famous Ghost Ranch (The House I Live In, 1937). There are photographs of O’Keeffe (1887-1986) at home throughout the book, along with quotes like this one: “I feel at home here — I feel quiet — my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills as I did last night — my cat following along like a dog.”

From Brooklyn to Hollywood

Home: The Best of The New York Times Home Section: The Way We Live Now, edited by Noel Millea (Rizzoli $50), begins with the Park Slope home of Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode and ends in the Hollywood Hills with the “crazy shining castle” belonging to Moby, the “King of Techno.” Easily my favorite of the 26 homes in Home and not just because the Rolling Stones once hung out there and Aldous Huxley lived across the street, Moby’s Norman chateau fantasy has a turreted gatehouse and what he calls the “penultimate” Hollywood view. The castle needed major work, the roof leaked, the floors had been painted black (hey, the Stones lived there!), and the wall above the Gothic fireplace was covered in shells. Moby says he “basically went through the house and found all the original details from the ‘20s,” which meant getting rid of  “everything from 1945 on.”

New York Living

A “literary and visual feast” is promised in New York Behind Closed Doors (Gibbs Smith $35) by Polly Devlin, with photographs by Annie Schlecter. A look inside the homes of 24 New Yorkers, artists, designers, and writers, and “social influencers” who live in small spaces with art, books, collections, treasures, and “fabulous, sometimes funky furniture,” it features Devlin’s in-depth interviews with the homeowners and critiques of their spaces that are “at once delightful, bold, and irreverent—and always lively and opinionated.”

At Home with Annie Hall

Diane Keaton’s The House That Pinterest Built (Rizzoli $40), with photographs by Lisa Romerein, opens as the star of Annie Hall recalls being read to at age 5 by her mother. The book was The Three Little Pigs. Keaton never forgot what the Big Bad Wolf did to the homes of the first two little pigs because, as her father put it, “they didn’t use their noggins.” When all the BBW’s huffing and puffing failed to bring down the third pig’s house, Keaton says, “I knew I was going to live in a brick house when I grew up.” In fact, she lived in all sorts of houses, beginning in New York, where she moved when she was 20: “I imagined eating breakfast while I watched the sun rise from the top floor of the Chrysler Building.” She graduated from studio apartments with “toilets down the hall and bathtubs in the kitchen” to a two bedroom on East 68th; following the success of Annie Hall, she bought a tower apartment in the San Remo on Central Park West. After that it was a beach house in Laguna, a rambling desert home in Arizona, and a Frank Lloyd Wright in the Hollywood Hills she found irresistible because of the “green copper stamped deco motif lining the circumference.” When that proved to be more a party house than a family house, she bought “an old Wallace Neff-designed fixer upper” in Beverly Hills. “Thus began years of Spanish Colonial Revival restorations.” She was on her way to being “a full-fledged flipper” and eventually the builder of the dream house inspired by Pinterest.

Tea with Reese

Given Reese Witherspoon’s relation to Princeton’s most esteemed president and Declaration of Independence signer (“a first cousin nine times removed”), it would be remiss not to mention her lavish new book, Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love & Baking Biscuits (Rizzoli $35). According to the star and producer of the HBO hit Big Little Lies, the title comes from a saying of her grandmother Dorothea’s, that Southern women were like whiskey in a teacup. “We may be delicate and ornamental on the outside,” she said, “but inside we’re strong and fiery.” According to Cosmopolitan, “OK, so you can’t party with Reese Witherspoon, but you can party like Reese Witherspoon — thanks to this part memoir, part guide to Southern living from Elle Woods [of Legally Blonde] herself. The gorgeously shot book features tips on entertaining, as well as recipes, beauty hacks, and totally random but necessary lessons like how to catch a frog with your bare hands.”