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
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
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
© Jeannette M. Hartman 2011