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,
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
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
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.