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A Trashy Read / Hoarding hermits? A typist's true tale

When he first gave this book-writing thing a try 12 years

ago, Franz Lidz assumed - like many naive authors - that his publishing company

would do everything possible to promote its newest product. "Unstrung Heroes"

was a wonderfully unique, heartwarming piece of writing; a memoir of Lidz's

youth with four bizarre uncles that, surely, the public would lap up.

Yet, to his dismay, his publisher's idea of a publicity campaign was

sending out "WOULD YOU LIKE TO INTERVIEW THE AUTHOR?" postcards. Nothing more.

As a result, Lidz got one personal appearance, and it was "The Campbell's Soup

Hour" radio show that aired only in Doylestown, Pa. "I asked the host if there

are even any bookstores in Doylestown," says Lidz, a senior writer at Sports

Illustrated. "He said, 'I don't think so.'"

Obscure, ignored and miffed, the author took action. As a boy growing up in

Valley Stream, Lidz would dig through the local phone book and make prank call

after prank call, ordering furniture and impersonating doctors. This time, he

decided to create his own public relations guru. Using the name "Larry Talbott"

(the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in "The Wolf Man"), Lidz invented

"Wolff & Mann Management" and went on the offensive. Thanks to repeated pitches

by Mr. Talbott, "Unstrung Heroes" was reviewed by multiple television stations

and newspapers. ("Astonishing, hilarious, angry, poignant, always pointed,"

wrote The Village Voice.) By 1995, it had become a major motion picture,

starring Andie MacDowell and John Turturro. (A funny side note: Though Lidz was

irked by what he thought of as the Disneyization of his book, a contract

prohibited him from bashing the film. When reporters asked his opinion of the

script, he said dryly: "It was very neatly typed.")

While Lidz thinks of his ol' chum Talbott from time to time, he has decided

that Wolff & Mann Management need not promote his latest book. Released

earlier this month by a new publisher, Bloomsbury, "Ghosty Men" is the

strange-but- true story of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, legendary Harlem

junk hoarders from the early 20th century. When Lidz was a boy, his father,

Sidney, would spin yarns about old New York City, featuring its odd characters

and unbelievable happenings. Little Franz hung on every word, especially when

the subject was the Collyers. "It stuck in my mind," says Lidz, 52. "You had

these two old guys who built tunnels under junk. I always thought there was a

book to be written. This isn't about making money or getting publicity. It's

just something I've wanted to do."

Lidz began researching the brothers in 1980, but was met with indifference

from publishers. Last year he rediscovered his pile of Collyer clippings and

again pitched the idea. Fourteen publishers said, "No, thank you," before

Bloomsbury, which has an ongoing Urban Historical series, bought in. The result

is 161 pages of stranger- than-fiction gold. Nearly too weird to be true,

"Ghosty Men" goes into everything from the brothers' nightly sweeps of Harlem

Dumpsters to the 140 tons of garbage (including bags of excrement, used as

booby traps to ward off intruders) found in the family abode upon Homer's death

in 1947.

The Collyers first became part of New York lore in 1938 when the

World-Telegram profiled their off-centered way of life and dubbed them "Hermits

of Harlem." Crammed with pianos, bicycles, old clothing and hundreds of

yellowed newspapers, their four-story brownstone on Fifth Avenue and 128th

Street was something out of "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Still today, New York

City firefighters call junk-jammed apartments "Collyers."

And yet, while they were thought of as freaks by a gossip-hungry New York

public, Homer and Langley actually were intelligent and well-educated. Both

attended Columbia, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. Slowly,

however, the brothers turned into hermits, rarely leaving the house, holding on

to any money and dressing 40 years behind the times. "They were," says Lidz,

"as unique character studies as one can find." As a result, "Ghosty Men" is as

good a read as "Unstrung Heroes," if slightly more offbeat in nature.

Then again, one should expect nothing less from Lidz, who has long seen the

world through a different type of looking glass. Several years ago, Lidz made

a pilgrimage to novelist Gore Vidal's Italian villa, talking his way in by

saying (with a straight face), "I'm on a world tour of the homes of everyone

I've seen on 'The Merv Griffin Show.'" That was almost as impressive as the

time he appeared on David Letterman with his two pet parrots, Peter Rabbit and

Mrs. Falbo. The birds were supposed to sing into a blender, but choked in the

spotlight. Both are long dead.

Although he calls himself a "New Yorker at heart," Lidz lives on a six-acre

farm in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley with two llamas (Edgar and Ogar), two

dogs (Huck and Ella), three cats (Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Mr. H) and nine

chickens. He and his wife, Maggie, have two daughters. One is named Gogo, the

other Daisy Daisy.

At Sports Illustrated, Lidz has covered everything from baseball to boxing

to "Jeopardy!" He refuses to classify himself as a sportswriter or, for that

matter, a writer, period. He prefers a description Daisy Daisy, now 15, came up

with while still in preschool, when a teacher asked what her father does for a

living. "He types," she said.


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