House on a String

"Man on the flying trapeze and his brother,” “rock the baby,” and “walk the dog” are all yo-yo tricks for those talented enough to compete in the World Yo-Yo Contest. For me, however, the most basic yo-yo move—up and down—is tough enough. In my youth, I had three yo-yos: one green, one opaque, and one purple. At one point or another all of them ended up with tight knots that prevented any motion. Attempts were made to revive them, but inevitably the yo-yos found their way to the back of a desk drawer that got emptied out into the trash to make room for old Gameboys. Eventually, the drawer was emptied a final time because we were moving for good.

Two weeks before moving, I learned that the “inventor” of the yo-yo, Louis Marx, had lived a few blocks away from my then home. Although he didn’t come up with the idea for the toy, Marx found a way to make the product cheaper and more efficiently than anyone else. Accordingly, he’s been credited with the mass production and popularity of the yo-yo (playsets and dollhouses, too).

Listen: The story goes, as I heard it from my friend, that Marx made it through the Great Depression with his own toy company. He was friends with Dwight D. Eisenhower and many other generals who no one mentions because everyone remembers them less. Supposedly, Marx was called the “toy king.” He read the dictionary for fun and had the words “live it up” stitched into the ties he gave as presents. On Halloween, he’d have kids from the neighborhood over to his mansion where he gave out his toys (laid out on in the dining room) and money ($1 each).

Here I would like to assert that I was one of the first people in my town to know—and by this I mean think—about the unoccupied mansion in years. I’m willing to fight whoever challenges that, depending on size. It was a spontaneous late-night drive one night during those two weeks before we moved; a friend showed me his favorite spots in some neighboring towns—a train station overlooking the Long Island Sound, a park with an old ampitheater, a gazebo with a view of the George Washington Bridge. We didn’t stop at any place for too long. Just a pause, Velvet Underground still playing, and then we’d move to the next.

Driving the route back to my house, he turned down a road with 29 identical houses that I hadn’t known existed. He didn’t need to point out the eighth one down on the right. Unlike the others—stout, asymmetric—this one, situated further back from the road, did not require proximity to confirm that it had stood there for years. Even in the dark, four white tall columns, deep red brick, and a stone frieze compelled my friend to lower the volume on music he had recently rediscovered from the sixties.

Marx, he told me, had owned the whole street. Where the 29 houses now stood, there had only been lawns before—nine children and 13 dogs, a four-car garage and a paddle court. Without someone to attend to them, the grounds had become overgrown; I had the feeling that before we arrived that night, no one had paid attention in 25 years. From where we stood outside the mansion flanked by oaks, I could see that one of the floors was sunken in. Many of the windows were broken and boarded up messily with planks of wood. We walked on the other side, out back, and saw that one of the columns, meant for holding up the unoccupied home, lay in the grass.

I thought of my own home. Rooms had fallen into disuse for the first time in 13 years after my dad moved out and my brother and sister had left for college. Dust had accumulated, showers had broken, a tree had fallen on the roof after a storm. Baseball in the backyard and movies in the basement were cloudy memories that now resembled my damaged home less than the century-old mansion that bent before me.

Months later, I saw the first pictures on Facebook of girls posing by the mansion’s exterior (pouting by some of the columns) and interior (draped on an elaborate staircase). A classmate bragged about having a party there. All the while, the floor was sinking even lower. The legend of the mansion became about beers that had possibly been drunk and hook-ups that had probably never accumulated.

When the string that kept the Marx house in use began to fray is unclear. Throughout time, the story of Louis Marx and his home has gone up and down, dipping in and out of awareness. Wound in the early 1900s at the house’s construction, the story was finally released, decades later, when Marx rose to fame. When he died, the story and the home zipped into hiding until my generation. Maybe that motion caused friction that began the break.

Years before, the home had been declared a landmark. Now, the mansion is past salvaging attempts. In February the current owners were reportedly given permission to tear it down.

My old home, in contrast, found a new owner. Instead of throwing the house out or leaving it at the back of the drawer, a family with four young children (two are twins) fixed it up and used every room, taking out the knots, and replacing the string.

After all, that’s the thing about houses, stories, and other seemingly transient things: Even when they seem to be lost, too far gone to save, they never really are. Things that matter aren’t forgotten that easily.

—Libby R. Coleman ’15 lives in Kirkland House. She is a lover of construction work and that food place near Tommy’s.

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