If Walls Could Talk, Two

“Can I get a little help here?” I pleaded back in February 2007, as I posted on my blog a picture of our bathroom’s funky old wallpaper.

I wanted to know if anyone recognized the pattern of faux bookshelves stocked with libertine spines: “Sappho,” “The Marquis de Sade” and “Les Fleurs du Mal.”

A few days ago an e-mail arrived that began, “Regarding the bathroom wallpaper in your house …”

Kate Kapust of Newton Centre, Mass., said she remembered it very well: our house used to be her mother’s. Kate’s husband had been Googling Louis Loewenstein, the man her mother, June, had married later in life, and found my query.

“Your piece brought back so many memories of both of them … and of that crazy wonderful house, with its tilted dining room that had the button under the table to call the servants.”
I assured Kate our house still lists to port — some years ago what had been a gardener’s cottage built in 1871 started settling toward the creek. But we have no servants to call.

This began a warm exchange of remembrances. Her mother was lovely, an elegant, plainspoken woman of about 60 when we met. She’d moved from Louisville, like us. She ushered my wife and me into the living room that afternoon in 1988 to sit by the fire and talk about this house she had to sell because her husband had grown infirm.

Louis Loewenstein, more than 20 years her senior, was sitting in a plastic-lined easy chair, speaking in German to his long-dead mother.

For 50 years he’d been the assistant to the general manager of Wanamaker's, I recall her saying. June was his second wife, a millinery buyer, which accounted for those glorious hat boxes in the basement.

Novels by Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald filled the built-in bookshelves. On a hunch, I paged through a few. First editions.

Off by itself was a self-portrait in ink. The inscription, as I remember, read “Louis, thanks for everything. … Cole.”

Kate Kapust told me the story. A few years out of Princeton, her stepfather found himself working in the theater with Cole Porter on Anything Goes, then unnamed.

“After much discussion and no decision regarding the name, Louis said, ‘Just pick something — anything goes,’ and that became the name.” Her stepfather, she remembers, “was a rather elegant man who, before he was ill, always looked 10 to 15 years younger than he was. He always reminded me of Fred Astaire.”

She told me how Louis and her mother loved music, how they’d have drinks in the living room before dinner, blasting “Can Do” from Guys and Dolls on the stereo.

Kate went on about how her mother would have redone the house, and sold off the antiques acquired by Louis’s first wife, Helen, who’d died after years of illness, but how he liked things the way they were.

I shared with her one of my own family stories, how her mother had offered to sell us some of the pieces that she didn’t give to Freeman’s to be auctioned, in particular a towering burled-walnut secretary.

When I opened the cabinet, I found a faded ad from a 1937 Antiques magazine that showcased that very secretary. The New York auctioneer was a distant relation of mine, known, at least in the family, for occasionally passing off reproductions as antiques.

“We’ll take it,” I told June.

I wrote Kate how that wallpaper nearly disappeared when we moved in. My wife bought a smart new pattern that matched the teal sink and bowl. Arguments over re-doing the room have flared up during dinner hour over two decades.

A compromise, where we'd preserve a tiny portion of the faux bookshelf, and encase it in a frame fixed to the wall, was somehow forgotten a few years back.

Even my wife is glad we’ve kept it, I continue to tell myself, if only to hold that picture of Louis and June in the living room, mixing cocktails and dancing to show tunes.