gallery America’s Most Literary Street
Columbia Heights, a short street in Brooklyn, has probably housed more authors, from Hart Crane to Anais Nin and Norman Mailer, than any other address in the country. Evan Hughes, author of “Literary Brooklyn,” supplies a house tour.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Brooklyn Heights
By Evan Hughes
Manhattan has a few serious contenders—Patchin Place, West 10th Street, Washington Square North—but Columbia Heights, a short street in Brooklyn, just might be the most literary street in America. Columbia Heights is the closest street to the water in the quiet, leafy Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, and the authors who have lived there, if they were lucky, enjoyed commanding views of Manhattan’s skyline across the East River.
Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. He lives in Brooklyn. Hart Crane
Crane wrote much of his epic poem about the Brooklyn Bridge,
The Bridge, while living at 110 Columbia Heights in the 1920s. He didn’t know it when he moved in, but by incredible coincidence he would end up living in the very room where the ill engineer Washington Roebling oversaw the completion of the bridge from a telescope by the window. One day, walking nearby, Crane struck up a friendship with a young photographer who would also live on Columbia Heights, Walker Evans. Crane also briefly lived at No. 130 and No. 190 Columbia Heights. John Dos Passos
Dos Passos also lived at 110 Columbia Heights, whose owner had turned it into an artists’ colony of a kind, and his time there overlapped with Crane’s. While there, Dos Passos began work on the classic New York novel
Manhattan Transfer. When Crane was more drunk than usual, Dos Passos would try to talk him into going to bed. Crane would pretend to be persuaded, then hit the rowdy sailor bars on Sands Street, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Norman Mailer
The outrageous giant of 20th-century American lit owned his place at 142 Columbia Heights for the last 47 years of his life. In an eccentric renovation,
Mailer had the roof of the top-floor apartment raised and installed a series of ladders and catwalks leading to a writing loft at the peak of the climb. The author got married in the living room—twice—and hosted some legendary parties filled with blue-chip guests like Jackie Onassis, Woody Allen, and Bob Dylan. The Mailer children put the place up for sale earlier this year for $2.5 million, and it’s now in contract. Betty Smith and Sigrid Undset
revisited Smith’s (pictured left) impoverished Brooklyn youth, but as an adult she spent a more comfortable period at 97 Columbia Heights, at the Hotel Margaret. It was one of a number of hotels in Brooklyn Heights that were well known in their time, including the Hotel St. George, once the largest in the nation, and the Hotel Bossert, where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald sometimes downed cocktails at the bar. The Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset (pictured right), winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, also lived at the Margaret, which was destroyed by fire in 1980. Thomas Wolfe
The 6-foot-6 behemoth who found fame with
Look Homeward, Angel holed up in Brooklyn thereafter, in the ’30s, to hide away and write, at a distance from the highbrow Manhattan cocktail scene he loathed. He struggled mightily with his enormous follow-up novel, Of Time and the River, while inhabiting four disastrously untidy Brooklyn apartments, where he sometimes wrote in longhand on the top of the refrigerator while standing up. His addresses included 101 and 111 Columbia Heights, both just across the street from the Crane/Dos Passos building, and 5 Montague Terrace, an extension of Columbia Heights that was once part of it.
Jerry Cooke / Getty Images W. H. Auden
The English-born poet was already among the best-known writers in the world when he moved to Brooklyn in 1939, at 32 years old. He lived for about a year at 1 Montague Terrace, two doors down from Wolfe’s old place, and bragged of his fireplace and magnificent view. But he disliked the nosy landlady, and after a while he couldn’t swing the rent: $75 a month.
Auden, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, Richard Wright, Gypsy Rose Lee
In 1940, the great magazine editor George Davis befriended young McCullers (pictured left) and hatched a plan to split the bill for a house in Brooklyn Heights and make it a kind of live-in salon. Dubbed February House by
Anaïs Nin, the place wasn’t on Columbia Heights—it was four doors down, at 7 Middagh Street. For several years, it had a leading artistic figure behind every beat-up door. Auden, recruited from down the street, played managing editor, collecting rent and making sure the meals got on the table. The cast grew, as did the all-hours parties—and the gossip. Wright (pictured right) moved in with his wife and baby but left when he decided it wasn’t a home fit for a child. Truman Capote
Just a block from Columbia Heights, Capote lived in a large basement apartment at 70 Willow Street in the ’50s and ’60s. This 11-bedroom 1839 mansion, then owned by the scenic designer Oliver Smith (who had earlier lived at 7 Middagh), still stands, and it can be had for $15.9 million.
Miller owned a lovely red-brick townhouse down the street at 155 Willow, shortly after the seminal Brooklyn play
first appeared. Death of a Salesman