Unstrung Heroes
May 25, 2011
Franz Lidz

Anybody who followed the headlines in March 1947 about the discovery of the Collyer brothers’ bodies in their junk-jammed Harlem row house will recognize Lidz’ Uncle Arthur.

In fact, Franz’s father Sidney used to tell him stories about the Collyer brothers as a warning not to follow too closely in Arthur’s footsteps.

But all five Lidz brothers were a little unstrung: Arthur was a hoarder and collected shoelaces; Danny was paranoid; Sidney was both the designer of the first transistorized portable tape recorder and an obsessive punster; Leo declared himself the Messiah of Washington Heights in 1932; and Harry was a world boxing legend in his own mind.

“My uncles were smelly, screwy, astonishingly scrawny old guys who had abandoned everyday life. The world had packed away in a back closet, like old sweaters,” Lidz writes. “They still managed to pop up at the most inappropriate moments, subverting my mother’s insistence on good manners and personal hygiene, and making a joke out of my father’s cold, scientific detachment. As a boy I happily enlisted in their conspiracy against sanity. Now, as I write about these flickering men, I realize they kept me reasonably sane.”

What just about undid both Franz and his sister Sandy was their mother’s long death from cancer. Diagnosed when Franz was seven, Selma Lidz was given a year to live. She held on for five more years, long enough for her son to have a bar mitzvah.

But they were years of pain, chemotherapy, radiation, frequent hospitalizations and multiple surgeries. Terrifying experiences for children, especially ones with a father unable to be close or share his feelings.

Sidney, struggling with widowhood and single parenthood, charged into a second marriage with a narcissistic woman ill-equipped to parent two grieving stepchildren in addition to her own. Her need for exclusive attention was so great, she resented the letters that Sidney exchanged with his son.

What could have been a grim, bitter tale is touching, warm and insightful in Lidz’s hands. The two uncles he saw most often – Arthur and Harry – were unlikely role models in asserting oneself and one’s world vision against unwelcoming forces.

Lidz’ experience writing for Sports Illustrated, GQ, Men’s Journal, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Observer, AARP Magazine, Slate and the New York Times give him a light touch with a complex and painful story.

His other books include Ghostly Men (2003), about the Collyer brothers, and Fairway to Hell (2008), a memoir chronicling his adventures on golf courses with people like actor Bill Murray, the members of the band Judas Priest and a New England farmer who raised llamas as caddies.

Unstrung Heroes was turned into a movie of the same title, directed by Diane Keaton. Lidz wasn’t pleased by it. The book is entertaining and well worth the read.

© Jeannette M. Hartman 2011

  From Issue:12.05
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
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