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Re-creating a lost time

Steven Kurutz, Nov 30, 2012, New York Times News Service
The dining space. (PHOTO: Laure Joliet/NYT)

Robert Greene, the author of books like ‘The 48 Laws of Power’, ‘The 33 Strategies of War’ and ‘Mastery’ is a walking reminder that writers often lead very different lives off the page.

Upon learning that the author makes his home in Los Angeles, one imagines a ruthless power broker, peering down at the city from one of those modernist dwellings high above the Sunset Strip, the architecture all hard surfaces and empty rooms.

But Greene’s home, a one-story Spanish bungalow on a quiet street in the Los Feliz neighbourhood, doesn’t conform to the image suggested by his books. Greene, 53, may be fascinated by power, but he prefers to live much as he did when he was growing up middle class in Los Angeles in the 1960s. “I want a one-storey house that has the same kinds of dimensions,” he said. “To me, my house is always re-creating what I lost in youth.” His domestic set-up, in fact, is modelled on a lowly figure in the Hollywood food chain. Many of the early film studios were nearby, he said, and he imagines his current abode is the kind of place a scriptwriter might have toiled in. He and his live-in girlfriend, Anna Biller, a filmmaker, have decorated the rooms with vintage Heywood-Wakefield furniture and new couches and chairs upholstered to look old. As Biller put it, “We retro’d it out.”


In the living room is a Chinese art deco rug and a piano, an ode to Greene’s grandfather, an accompanist for Judy Garland and other golden-age stars. In a front room is Greene’s office, which he said was modelled on Sigmund Freud’s in Vienna, with the same day bed and furniture configuration, although it is smaller in scale and more mid-century in feeling.
Where the psychoanalyst had priceless antiquities on his bookshelves, Greene has fake fossils made by his artist sister, Leslie Green. Still, on the page, Greene’s themes remain big and ambitious. His new book purports to explain how to become a leader in any given field by examining the masterly qualities of luminaries as Mozart, Einstein and Santiago Calatrava, a well-known Spanish architect, one of nine “living masters” that Greene interviewed. “Calatrava was the ultimate to me,” he said, praising the architect’s ability to mix traditional building techniques with a modern aesthetic, and “be not just old-fashioned and not just some idiot who thinks about the present but to combine the two.”

When tackling home renovations, he likes to surround himself with masters. “We have someone who does work on our house, a carpenter,” he said. “This guy is so obsessed with making things well. Almost to the point where it’s a little bit irritating. Come on, just build it. I’m fascinated by it.”

Greene’s home improvement project was redoing the back porch, where he spent the past 10 years writing surrounded by cracked and ugly ceramic tiles from the ‘80s. Greene and Biller drove to weird tile places in the San Fernando Valley and then hired a mason, a Guatemalan-born contractor named Hector Garcia, who turned out to be another master, a Calatrava of terra cotta tile. He arrived with his son, Wilson, who has a degree in architecture, and took a seat on the newly tiled porch, appraising his work.

Garcia, it turned out, had been waiting 35 years for someone to ask him about the construction trade, which, in his telling, was more than a little Machiavellian. In Guatemala, Garcia explained, he fell in love with building but had to overcome opposition from other masons who were fearful of competition and secretive about their knowledge. Living in Mexico, where he said blueprints are put under lock and key, Garcia devised a clever strategy. “What I did, I make one of the architects very friendly with me, we played soccer,” he said. “He trusts me, and then I say: ‘Can I open up the plans? Can I ask you a question?”’ In California, where he moved in 1989 and started over at the bottom, sweeping floors, Garcia once again seized his chance when hung-over workers didn’t show up at the site one day. “You have to be very smart,” he said. Greene looked pleased. He chuckled and told Garcia, “You’re following a lot of the things I wrote about.”

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