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When a Rockstar Sells Your Old Apartment for Millions

I bet she thinks this piece is about her...

By Sharon McDonnell

Idly Googling my old address in New York one day to amuse myself in San Francisco, where I now live, I was electrified to find that the New York Post “Page Six” had written about my beloved apartment  years ago. Musician Carly Simon, of “You’re So Vain” (“I’ll Bet You Think this Song is About You”) fame, had sold my old one-bedroom in the West Village for $2.325 million. (Simon’s original asking price was over $3.8 million.)

That old apartment in an 1844 red-brick townhouse resembled a country house, possessing wide oak-plank floors with nailheads, exposed brick walls in the living room and bedroom, and a wood-burning fireplace so rustic it had no mantel, just an opening in the brick wall. The kitchen, which was shaped like a trapezoid, was its biggest room, where I managed to fit my writing desk, dining table with chairs, and armoire. The building had just one apartment on each of its five floors. So it was always quiet, except for birds singing, as I wrote. When it snowed, as it always did in winter, I sat by my fireplace and enjoyed sheer bliss.    

“It’s like a Woody Allen-type apartment,” one boyfriend had said admiringly, referring to the apartment’s built-in ceiling-high bookcase in the living room and the aura of gentility. 

I Googled deeper and carefully inspected the photos of the place I had declined to buy for $175,000. It seems the rustic-style apartment where I fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming a writer in Greenwich Village, and which I’d thought was so perfect that it couldn’t be improved,  had undergone major improvements indeed.

It was now a duplex — a staircase connected it to the identical one-bedroom one floor below — and my entire apartment had been transformed into a master bedroom suite. A bathtub sat in my former living room. My bespoke brick fireplace sported a fancy white mantel, and looked  like an ordinary fireplace. Carpets covered  the  floors. “Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Aniston should buy it right now and not change a thing,” gushed another article in  the NY Daily News. “The place glows. When you’re in it, you hear music. When you look outside, it could be 1850,” added the writer, praising the apartment  for its power to “rekindle love.” I patted myself on the back for my ability to spot real estate potential that I totally missed exploiting.  

I had always loved walking on Commerce Street in New York ’s West Village, a beautiful two-block-long dead-end street of mid-19th-century homes with one remarkable feature: it had a bend in the middle so the red-brick Federal-style townhouse with flower boxes in the window, sandwiched between the Cherry Lane Theater (seen in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery) and a restaurant, was really at the corner of Commerce and Commerce. Little did I know I’d actually live there someday.

But it happened in 1992. I spotted a “For Rent” sign in the window of that building. The landlords, two married graphic artists, asked for a rent  too high for my taste for the one-bedroom, unbearably charming though it was. I parried with a lower rate, and told them I was going to Europe the next day. I asked them to think about it. Incredibly, they did, lowering the rent upon my return. They didn’t believe in placing ads or dealing with brokers; they wanted someone who knew the block and loved it as much as they did. 

Being a writer in Greenwich Village was an impossible dream for someone growing up poor in Queens. My mother had been evicted for not paying the rent on our $150 two-bedroom apartment, and I often didn’t have the subway fare to Manhattan. When I read writer/editor Norman Podhoretz’ memoir, Making It, and came across the sentence “one of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from certain parts of Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan,” I knew exactly what he meant.

About six months after moving into that sweet pied-a-terre, I decided to quit my job as a senior VP at a New York public relations firm to become a freelance writer. I had just landed a book contract; the time seemed right. Thrilled to be in the literal neighborhood of so many writers and artists, I thought I’d try the writing life for a year or so. It seemed like jumping off a cliff. I was always so conscientious and worried about supporting myself, since there was never a shadow of hope of support from family. I’d paid rent since age 17 for my mother and myself, and never even left one free day between changing jobs. The second half of my dream as a writer in the Village was moving faster than I ever expected.     

“You live on the most beautiful block in New York,” a magazine editor once wrote on my pitch letter, back when we all snail-mailed them. He didn’t want to buy my story, but he envied where I lived.  

The apartment  was around the block from poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home at 75 ½ Bedford Street, which was called “the narrowest house in New York” because it was just nine-and-a-half feet wide. I often lunched on the same block of Bedford at Shopsin’s, which became famous for its irascible foul-mouthed chef-owner Kenny Shopsin, who threw out any customer nervy enough to bring a mobile phone. Calvin Trillin, a writer for the New Yorker, lived nearby and ate there often. Shopsin’s had no phone, and was closed weekends and for dinner, when restaurants usually do the most business. Kenny bragged that  he didn’t need more customers: he was busy enough.    

Because it was easy to shut down a small, dead-end street, movies and TV commercials were often filmed on my block. “Excuse me,” I’d have to say to the director, while clutching my bags of groceries. Then I’d pick my way around his chair and to my front door. One night at 2 AM, a gunshot rang out while I was reading; it was followed by the reassuring word, “Cut!” Later on I learned it was just a scene from Law & Order. Another time, an unholy din unfolded outside. I looked out of my window to see a Chinese dragon dance. I later found out that my block was standing  in for one in Chinatown, in a TV commercial. Once or twice I glimpsed my block in the movies. One hot August day with temperatures soaring into the 90s, I caught two models clad in furs posing on the sidewalk; someone was shooting a magazine ad for a winter issue. Another summer night, I was startled to see it snowing in front of Shopsin’s. The alternate climate was for for a FedEx commercial.  

When my landlord decided he no longer wanted to rent, but sell his apartments, they offered mine to me for $175,000. I was financially strapped so I declined.  I moved to Brooklyn, to a neighborhood also lined with brownstones from a much later era. and eventually bought my first home, a one-bedroom in Park Slope for $112,000.    

Wasn’t it fascinating that the place where 27 years ago I had taken my first fledgling steps as a writer had collided with the housing needs of the daughter of a publishing industry scion (Carly was the daughter of the Simon in Simon & Schuster’s). What kind of kismet was it that meant we’d ended up sharing the same space?

Originally published on November 27, 2020.

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