Shelter, a column about New Yorkers and the places they call home, ran in this paper from 1997 to 2006. To relaunch the feature, which will run here online weekly, we’ve assembled five portraits of New Yorkers at home. From “living legend” Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to Australian transplants sharing a 3500-square-foot Long Island City loft. From the 27-year-old homeowner of a 1850s Staten Island mansion to the co-owner of Otto’s Shrunken Head. But first, we begin with the first subject visited 14 years ago, Lois Morris.
Location: Gramercy, Manhattan
Size: About 1,600 square feet, including the backyard
Occupants: Lois Morris (writer), Robert Lipsyte (sportswriter and children’s-book author), Milo (dog)
Say hello to Lois Morris. You may recognize her. She’s been here before.
In 1997, Lois paid “under $1,000” a month to live in a 1,200-square-foot tenement back house where the 1960s-era refrigerator worked, but the brick fireplace didn’t. Nor had a previous marriage, so there was a gaping hole in Lois’s extensive record collection where the Beatles LPs had been—her ex-husband had taken them all, but left behind The Best of the Animals. No matter: Lois still had a recurring feature in the beauty magazine Allure, a country house in the Long Island town Shelter Island, and a black-and-white half-Lab named David Dinkins Rudy Giuliani. And though her circumstances would begin to change drastically the following year, that moment in February 1997 would be preserved indefinitely when she appeared in this newspaper as an inaugural subject of “Shelter,” Toni Schlesinger‘s lodestar column about New Yorkers and their living spaces.
So here we are, 14 years later. It’s February again, on Lois’s half-birthday (this August, she’ll be 68), and she still owns that same Shelter Island refuge. She still writes that Allure column, “Mood News,” now coming up on 20 years. Her Manhattan refrigerator still works, though now a child’s scribbled figures are stuck to the freezer door. But nearly everything else has changed. Instead of Rudy, there’s a doughty cocker spaniel rescue, Milo. Instead of her album stacks, there’s the Internet-radio station Pandora. And instead of that absconded-Beatles void, there’s her husband of six and a half years, distinguished journalist and sportswriter Robert Lipsyte.
For the first time in decades, Lois has a mailing address above 14th Street. “I had a real hard time with that,” she admits, leaning on the grand piano in the Gramercy duplex she shares with her husband. Having retained her East Village apartment for more than 30 years after moving to New York City from a Chicago suburb, she knew everybody on her 5th Street block, loved the rich stoop life, and adored having that uniquely New York “melting pot that everybody talks about” right on her sidewalk. “Going above 14th Street was against my whole philosophy of life,” she says. But then she met Bob.
The authors met in 1998 on Shelter Island, where they both split time with Manhattan. Bob lived in this Gramercy building for years and even sits on the co-op board. Lois and Bob tried sharing her place in the East Village for a spell, but it didn’t really fit—him.
“He, ah, just wasn’t an East Villager?” Lois offers, her eyes consulting him from across the room. “Can we say that?”
“I don’t know if that‘s true,” Bob clarifies. “But I like it better here.”
So much so that they exchanged wedding vows in the backyard garden. Lois never had kids, but Bob, whose son is novelist Sam Lipsyte, already had grandchildren. After six years together, the couple married in 2004 so that, Lois says, “I wouldn’t be an unwed grandmother.” The chief chaplain of the NYPD, Rabbi Alvin Kass, presided over the ceremony. World-class Chinese opera singer Hao Jiang Tian, with whom Lois co-authored the book Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride From Mao to the Met, sang “One Enchanted Evening.” (A recent New Yorker Talk of the Town about a Peking duck dinner at Tian’s house quoted Lois.) Comedian Marc Maron, a friend of Sam’s, performed at their reception. (“He talked about ending suicide bombers through marriage,” Bob recalls, mimicking Maron mimicking a nagging wife: ” ‘What? You’re going out again? With those things on your chest? No way!’ “) The New York Times announced the nuptials; a framed copy, trumpeting that Bob’s three previous marriages had ended in divorce, rests on a shelf in the downstairs office.
Lois misses the East Village. A lot. “You took me away from the place I loved most,” she teases her husband.
Speaking of marital concessions! When they first met, the byline “Robert Lipsyte” topped a 1995 column in the New York Times City section headlined, “I Don’t Love Dogs. Here Are My Reasons.” (Illustrative quote: “Many of the people who keep dogs in little city apartments all day so they can kiss their muzzles at night should not have dogs; they should have therapists.”) Yet David Dinkins Rudy Giuliani was still alive and Lois was kissing his muzzle nightly. “I couldn’t understand why Rudy was in bed with us,” Bob recalls. “And she would say, ‘Well, we don’t understand why you’re in bed with us.’ “
Eventually, Bob accepted Rudy as his stepdog, but never really warmed up to Lois’s feline rescue, Asia. (The kicker to his dog-disgust treatise: “I have only one more thing to say. I don’t love cats.”) Yet this wasn’t out of habit: Asia was, by all accounts, “terrible.” She attacked them both so ferociously that Bob ended up on antibiotics four times; she was only nice to Rudy, the dog, when he fell ill. “She celebrated briefly after he died,” Bob remembers. The pets’ caretakers did not, and spread Rudy’s ashes among the foundation when they renovated.
Their current dog, Milo, who is named for the protagonist in Sam’s most recent novel, The Ask, has more beds around the house than Hugh Hefner—like the one upstairs in the living room, the one in their bedroom, and the one in Bob’s office that’s decorated with mementos of his extensive writing career: a photo of him and his breakthrough subject Muhammad Ali, a bound galley of his upcoming HarperCollins memoir An Accidental Sportswriter, a 1988–89 Emmy for The Eleventh Hour, a nightly public-affairs show he hosted on local PBS affiliate WNET. There’s also a photo of Ronald Reagan at a podium; a much younger Sam sits in the foreground. Nearby, tacked to a corkboard by Bob’s computer, are the phrases “THAT’S YOUR CAPE,” “IGNORE THE WIND,” and “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.” Oh.
Know a New Yorker with an interesting living situation? E-mail us your “Shelter” suggestions here.