After Charlie and I got married and moved to Brooklyn, however, things improved greatly. On long walks we took in Brooklyn Heights or Carroll Gardens, we passed elegant brownstones where the owners left their living room curtains open all night, and I could gaze with delight at brocade sofas, oil paintings, oil in ornate frames, mahogany shelves, brass music stands, and even a grand piano or two.
My Peeping Shelly Syndrome only got worse after we started Charles G. King Associates because, as I’ve often said, “we got invited to all the best places…but only after ‘they burned’.
I’ve already told you about “The Mansion in the Sky” toaster fire. Now is the time to dust off my memories and invite you to the Sutton Place Townhouse.
For those unfamiliar with Manhattan, Sutton Place overlooks the East River, has a great view of the Queensboro Bridge, and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Over time, it has housed descendants of the Vanderbilts and JP Morgans. Even Marilyn Monroe lived there when she was married to playwright Arthur Miller. But our client, Rosalind Jourdain, beat them all, because her townhouse was made up of two that had been pushed together, so it was twice as wide if not twice as high.
After experiencing a fire on the fifth floor, the owner’s attorney – I’ll call him Bernie – somehow found out about Charles G. King Associates, and Charlie was called on the affair. In my capacity from Watson to Holmes, I of course followed.
Even now, I’m not sure why we were asked to investigate, since the cause of the fire was so obvious. Maybe it had something to do with insurance coverage or an ongoing litigation. Or maybe, despite my perception, the cause of the fire really wasn’t so obvious.
The facts were as follows: the building in question belonged to Garret Jourdain (as with all my stories, what happened is true. The names… not so much), who was the only son and sole heir to the fortune of the Maison Jourdain, a ready-made fashion empire. Delphine Jourain, Garrett’s grandmother, had started small in France, but had moved to New York at the start of World War II. It was there, during those war years, that she shaped her dreams.
Delphine lived long enough to see her business succeed. His daughter Celine (Garrett’s mother) has made it one of the most successful fashion brands in the world. Celine married six times but produced only one child, Garrett, a handsome and charming waster who inherited all of her money but not her business acumen. Even before Celine’s death, she banned Garrett from La Maison Jourdain, and aside from receiving a monthly income, her only association with the company was their common name.
This is why, when he died at the age of 56, he was still catastrophically wealthy. Garrett’s current wife, Rosalind (I don’t know how many predeceased her), was about 35, a formidable blonde and statuesque. She may have been beautiful, but I couldn’t get past the icy flash of her eyes and the cold stillness of her face when we briefly met as her attorney ushered us into the townhouse through the front door.
I don’t remember much about Rosalind’s attorney, except that Bernie seemed like a nice guy and never tried to influence our investigation. It was up those four stories to the fifth floor (you could get there by elevator, but we took the stairs) that we were able to see some, if not all, of the rest of this townhouse.
Since Rosalind made it clear that she didn’t care to accompany us, we were free to gape and Bernie was free to show his true colors. He was a voyeur, like me! When we got to the second floor, he whispered, “You have to see this! And led us to the master bedroom. Use your imagination for the thick carpeting, silk wallpaper and framed Renoirs, but I’ll take over for the bed. Not only was it adorned with tapestries, like something from Versailles, but in addition, from the top of the four posters, there was a large, bright, unmistakable mirror.
I looked at Charlie. Charlie looked at me. We both watched Bernie. We all started laughing.
Move forward and up through thickly carpeted hallways and additional living spaces until the stairwells become narrower, the carpets less fluffy and the rooms smaller. Finally, we reached the almost deserted corridor of the servants quarters on the fifth floor.
This was where the fire started and ended, in a room with an ugly fire door. It used to be a maid’s room…or rather, since it had its own bathroom…a maid’s suite. More, however, as for many months it had been the home of the master of the house and heir to an immense fortune: Garrett Jourdain,
Charlie and I appraised this sad isolated apartment. Dominating the room was a king size bed. The wall behind the headboard was empty. No Renoir up there. To the right, two sash windows. Ditto on the wall opposite the headboard. Beneath all the windowsills were shelves filled with ornately carved brass pipes, ivory entrails, boxes adorned with jewels, small African masks, geodes, and the like. Above the shelves were framed photographs depicting a panorama of his life.
Garrett on a polo pony…Garrett shaking hands with the mayor, governor, president of the United States…Garrett on a yacht…Garrett on a safari holding a gun with a dead lion at his feet…Garrett on a another safari looking older and more tired, with a younger Rosalind by her side.
On the wall to the left of the headboard was a walk-in closet and a door to the bathroom. Besides being covered in soot, like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom wasn’t very informative, as Garrett’s self-destruct instruments weren’t pharmaceutical. They were in a closet next to the entrance to the apartment from the hallway. Bernie opened the door and gestured to a small refrigerator the size of a Pullman. Above, three rows of shelves. All of them – shelves and refrigerator – were filled with bottle after bottle of Swedish Absolut vodka.
We returned our attention to the bedroom. Our investigation into the fire began and ended on the left side of the headboard where the mattress met a nightstand. Above the bedside table were the “witness marks” where the round bottom of a glass, the round bottom of a vodka bottle and the square bottom of an ashtray had protected the wood surface during the ‘fire.
The fire had burned the mattress side of the bedside table and the bedside table side of the headboard. In the same area, the flames had emptied both the box spring and the mattress. The blanket, sheets, pillows, bottle, glass and ashtray had been removed during firefighting operations, but the story told by the burn patterns was unequivocal. This was another case of “contributory smoking, alcoholic recklessness”. “
As we photographed the wreckage of a destroyed life, Bernie told us more about Garrett’s decline. That he had already started two small fires in the house before Rosalind relocated him to the top floor; that she had had the fire door installed before he moved in; that he had been in dozens of drug treatment centers and that he had all failed; that Rosalind provided him with all the vodka and cigarettes he wanted in his exile, but had also hired a full-time caretaker (a tall, strong male nurse) who occupied the next room.
Strangely, however, there were no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in the apartment. Nothing that could have set off an alarm before his guardian actually smelled smoke.
We walked down the stairs, thanked Bernie for his help, shook hands, and then sent our report.
Since then, none of the fires we have investigated have exposed me to such magnitude. So since then, I’ve never stopped wondering about Garrett’s second? – third? Fourth? – wife, Rosalind. And if isolating him up there, on the fifth floor of their mansion, had been a way of isolating him so that he wouldn’t burn down the rest of the house… a kindness towards a dissolute man who strength drinks to death.
Or a way to make sure he did.
Copyright © 2022, Shelly Reuben – Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY – evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus and Falcon awards. To learn more about his books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.