A cottage of one's own

Last Updated 15 September 2016, 18:26 IST

Two years ago last April, Gregory White Smith turned to Steven Naifeh, his partner in business and life, and asked, “What’s next?” It was a good question, though those were Gregory ’s last words. Over a 40-year career, Gregory and Steven had written more than a dozen books together, five of which were bestsellers and one of which, a controversial 1989 biography of Jackson Pollock that enraged some critics, won the Pulitzer Prize. They had spent the last 25 years restoring a profoundly decrepit 60-room former Whitney estate in the tiny Southern town of Aiken, South Carolina, a sometimes hapless and quixotic endeavour they chronicled in a 1996 memoir that has been republished this year as A Restoration Comedy: On a Street Called Easy, in a Cottage Called Joye.

And they had done all these things while Gregory battled the brain tumour that he was told he had in 1974, the year the two men met at law school. The cancer, a hemangiopericytoma, was so rare and so deadly, the diagnosis earned Gregory the cover of the New England Journal of Medicine. Yet, he lived decades beyond his terrible medical odds until his passing in April 2014.

Inside the home
On a sweltering afternoon in June, Steven, now 64, led a reporter through their meandering “mongrel” of a house, as Mitchell Owens, now an editor at Architectural
Digest, described the place in an article for The New York Times in 1996. Mitchell said recently that he remembered thinking that the floor plan looked as if it had been laid out by a dog in search of a scent.

Joye Cottage, built in 1835, was at first a farmhouse and then a boarding house, before it was worked over by Stanford White, and then Carrère & Hastings, into a rambling family estate for William Collins Whitney, a voracious house collector, power broker and rake, and his second wife, Edith Randolph. William had extended the house’s footprint into a sort of splayed H- shape, a confounding floor plan for a visitor, but one that humanises its square footage.

Joye Cottage took its name from its first owner, Sarah Joye, and its address really is Easy Street, which seemed like a benediction when Gregory and Steven bought the disintegrating collection of rotting plaster, timber and brick from a would-be developer for $495,000 in 1989. In 1980, the last Whitney owner had been forced to sell the place during a divorce, at which point the elements took over as the new owner’s plans for the property never materialised. In their book, Steven and Gregory described the real estate agent’s tour as a “perverse, reverse sales pitch,” a laundry list of fatal flaws and dire warnings about its leaking roofs and fetid contents.

And yet they were entranced, though even today Steven can’t quite fathom why two workaholics, not given much to entertaining, would want to live in a 60-room house with 12 bedrooms, and spend 25 years restoring it. They even added 10 more rooms, excavating a subterranean space that now houses an art gallery, a library, a screening room and a pool that’s an homage to the Barcelona Pavilion, a modernist underbelly designed by Gregory for a 19th century pastiche. Ranging through these rooms, alone for the first time in his adult life, Steven said he feels as if Gregory has just walked out the door.

Gregory, a soft-spoken Midwesterner, and Steven, the child of diplomats who grew up in the Middle East, met their first week of law school, in a coup de foudre that Steven still marvels over. “Greg was the first really close friend I ever had and the smartest person I ever met,” Steven said. “For someone who’d been a good student and not very social, to have that kind of friend was really powerful.” They started writing books together almost immediately, to pay their law school tuitions. One was a primer on men’s style, even though neither cared about clothes and had realised pretty quickly the law profession was not for them. Still, they earned $10,000, “very fast,” Steven said, “which was a lot of money for us.” Steven was the researcher and Gregory the writer, a symbiosis so complete they would forget they were two different people.

The $250,000 they earned for How to Make Love to a Woman (one of their most successful books) financed both the purchase of an apartment in New York City, the sale of which paid for Joye Cottage, as well as their biography on Jackson, which took 10 years to complete. But the steady financial engine for all their work was Best Lawyers and Best Doctors Inc, a series of peer-reviewed rankings and referrals that they grew into a 50-person publishing company and ran out of a wing of Joye Cottage. In 2001, with their house partly restored, they began another artist’s biography. Like Jackson Pollock biography, Van Gogh: The Life was also a 10-year project.

‘What’s next?’
Meanwhile, they kept at their work in Joye Cottage. Halfway through Van Gogh, the men turned to the ballroom, which they had filled with cubicles for the employees of their publishing company. The room had been created by George Macculloch Miller, who was an artist who was married to Flora Whitney, a grandchild of William C Whitney’s, out of an existing bedroom wing.

When the publishing company team outgrew the space, they moved them to a building in town, and Gregory began puzzling on how to add detailing and flourishes to the gutted space. The finished room, with a tray ceiling embellished with a Greek key design and massive crystal chandeliers handmade in England, now hosts musical performances by Juilliard students as part of an annual residency and festival, Joye in Aiken, started by the two men in 2009.

When Gregory once more asked, “What’s next?” the couple decided to dig down, excavating under their house for a library, pool, screening room and a gallery for Steven’s artwork — these are large scale, precisely rendered geometric abstractions based on Middle Eastern motifs. Making new work, said Steven, whose enormous pieces are being installed in institutions in Cleveland, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, among other locales, and who has a show opening in Waterbury, Connecticut, September 25, is his answer to “What’s next?”

(Published 15 September 2016, 17:03 IST)

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