Mutual friends had introduced us. Edith Wharton was in Rome and we were having tea at Babington’s near the Spanish Steps. Edith was not only a writer but also a crusader against the “Thermopylae of bad taste”. Having written a book on interior decoration, she considered herself an expert and was having a grand time critiquing the décor of Rome’s most exclusive tea room. After looking around and shaking her head, Edith turned to me and said: ”Pleasantly proportioned rooms inspire a sense of calm and this room is making me nervous”. I, myself, found nothing wrong with it. Maybe because I was concentrating on the little cake cart that was making the rounds.
Edith was more civil than cordial and dignified to the point of being stuffy. She believed in an elegance that only money could buy and, despite the fact that she had exposed the superficiality of High Society, I got the idea that Edith continued to write about class distinction because she herself could not go beyond it
When World War I broke out, Edith was living in Paris and quickly created employment for the skilled women living in her neighborhood who’d lost their jobs because of the war. She also assumed the responsibility of giving a home to over 600 Belgian refugee orphans and even adopted some of them after the war. So even if she was a snob, Edith had my upmost respect. And I did find her conversation most stimulating especially her descriptions of the New York cultural scene. And when she told me that the Empire State Building had been completed and the Washington State Bridge opened, I knew it was time to go to New York.
It hadn’t been difficult to convince Hugh to go. But crossing the Atlantic had been fatiguing especially for Hugh who suffered from sea sickness. When we finally arrived in our room at the Herald Square Hotel, we took a quick bath then went to bed.
Hugh and I were in a deep sleep when the screaming started. We jumped out of bed to see what was going on. In the hallway was an elderly lady screaming for help saying that her sister was dying. It didn’t take long for hotel security to show up and quickly take control of the situation. After tranquillizing all the guests who were out in the hall, Hugh and I went back to our room to continue sleeping.
The next morning when the maid came to clean, I could see she was animated and anxious to talk. So I discreetly lead her into conversation and learned that her animation was due to the elderly woman whose screams we’d heard yesterday. The woman’s name was Ida Mayfield Wood and she was 93 years old (but had incredible smooth skin because, as I later learned, of the petroleum jelly she rubbed on her face every day). When the hotel personnel and doctors went into Ida’s rooms, it was the first time anyone had done so in 25 years. They were shocked by what they found—a hoarder’s paradise. Boxes and boxes of junk were piled up everywhere leaving little room for moving around. Ida, unkempt and smelly (apparently she hadn’t had a bath in years), immediately started telling everyone just how wealthy she was but people just thought she was just wacko. Lawyers came in and Ida was moved to another room so her own rooms could get a good cleaning. And while the cleaning was going one, the truth of Ida’s words came out. Cash and jewelry were found stashed everywhere— hidden in crumb filled cracker boxes, sewn into dirty night gowns, and stuffed in rusty evaporated milk cans.
It didn’t take long for journalists to learn of the story and go wild with it. Unlike Edith’s Lily Bart, Ida had decided to give her destiny a new direction in part motivated by a gypsy fortune teller who said she was going to marry a very rich man. Ida moved to NYC at the age of 19 with precise intentions: Find a man with money. She decided on the wealthy 37 year old Benjamin Wood, Congressman and owner of the New York Daily Paper. That he was married didn’t bother her at all. Not being a part of Wood’s elite social circle, Ida had to come up with a plan to meet him. She did so by writing him a letter saying that one of his former lovers had informed her that Wood was looking for a new face and that maybe that new face was hers. An appointment was set up and the two met. Wood found Ida, despite her sad eyes, to be quite attractive and immediately engaged her as his mistress. This went on for ten years until Wood’s wife died and he married Ida.
It hadn’t taken an Edith Wharton novel for Ida to understand social bias. So she told Woods that her father was Henry Mayfield, a wealthy sugar planter in Louisiana and that her mother was a descendant of the Earls of Crawford. It was 1931 and the aftermath of the stock market crash could still be felt. People were desperate for money so it’s no wonder that over 400 people showed up claiming to be one of Ida’s heirs. One of the reasons why Ida had so much money was because after Wood’s death, a banker Ida knew told her he was concerned about the American financial situation. This freaked Ida out so she went to her bank and withdrew all her money and hid it in her hotel room. A pity others hadn’t followed her actions.
Then the truth came out about Ida’s true identity. Her real name was Ellen Walsh and she was the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. And maybe this can offer a partial explanation as to why Ida was a hoarder and lived in such miserable conditions despite her wealth. Hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that thrives on acquiring more than you need and the inability to let go of objects even if though you don’t need them. Because poverty is psychologically devastating. And, even if you are no longer poor, the imprinting of poverty never leaves you.
In The Age of Reconfiguration, decluttering is fundamental:
1. Decluttering helps you let go of the past so you can focus on the present and make room for the future.
2. Decluttering helps you gain space you need for personal movement and for the flow of energy.
3. Decluttering helps you gain time as it’s easier to clean and easier to find things once order is established.
4. Decluttering creates a healthier environment as chaos provokes anxiety whereas a pleasant environment is good for the mood.
5 .Decluttering lets you concentrate more as clutter is a distraction and makes your brain work harder.
As an artist, I use recycled and reclaimed materials that take up space. But, as opposed to a hoarder, I need and use these materials and try to keep them under control. Just call me a Baroque minimalist!
Related: The Decoration of Houses by Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton online + The Legacy of Edith Wharton’s “The Decoration of Houses” + history of Babington’s Tea Room + Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” + Ida Wood + Brain Scans of Hoarders Reveal Why They Never De-Clutter + book by Joseph A. Cox, The Recluse of Herald Square on archive.org HERE
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)