FOR THE NEARLY 20 YEARS I OWNED IT, I often called my East Sacramento home “Stately Goldmanor.” It was a gag, not a brag: a rather obvious play on my surname. But it was also a wink at the old Batman comic books (and spoofy 1960s TV series), in which any reference to the estate of the caped crusader’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, was always preceded by the adjective “stately.”
Located on 40th Street between J and M streets, the house, which I sold this past Thanksgiving Day, is a thoroughly revamped California bungalow that the owner before me—a talented architect named Russ Wall—turned into a 4,800-square-foot mini-mansion. In around 1989, the once-humble cottage re-emerged as a three-story-plus-full-basement, art deco-inspired home. It now had five bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, a long kitchen reminiscent of a bowling alley and exterior decks jutting out from all three floors.
We first saw the place after my wife, Jane, and I had lost a bid to buy another, more traditional home, also on 40th Street. The seller had moved his family back to Chicago, evidently hated it there—this all occurred in the winter, which I think may be a significant clue—and moved everyone right back to Sacramento.
Disappointed about the deal falling through, Jane and I drove to 40th Street one afternoon to see if there was anything else in the area that we could (barely) afford. We saw a For Sale sign farther down the block. Empty for a year and a half, the place looked almost antebellum from the outside, with tall, decorative white pillars and, because of some severe angling, a semihidden, 10-foot-tall front door. The home all but begged us to walk up the front steps, press our noses against the windowpane and have a collective, open-mouthed gawk.
What we saw was an open-architecture home with exposed staircases, cruise-linerlike windows and railings, and enough white walls to cause a mild case of snow blindness. “Oh, wow,” Jane said, squeezing my arm as her voice trembled a little, “it’s a *&$#@* art gallery!” (As her friends would attest, Jane tended to the salty at emotional moments. Also in daily speech. It always took people by surprise when this elegantly dressed, lanky woman, a former news anchor with merry sky-blue eyes, swore like a dyspeptic longshoreman.)
Well, it wasn’t quite an art gallery yet. But once we bought it and moved in, the art collection we’d been amassing during the first 19 years of our marriage—which we’d crammed into the 1,400-square-foot home near McKinley Park we’d bought from public relations goddess Jean Runyon 13 years earlier—flew onto the walls and floors and built-in credenzas in the first two weeks we were there. Spread out on vertical expanses that in some places climbed as high as 35 feet, the paintings finally had breathing room, while the sculptures had enough floor and shelf space to be appreciated rather than stumbled over and skirted around.
For the next 10 years, we hosted fundraisers, dinner parties, lectures and even small concerts in our living room, with some attendees, wine glasses in hand, walking up a few stairs and dramatically draping themselves over the banister as though ready for their close-ups in a lifestyle publication. In fact, our home and our art collection became the subject of photo spreads in, among other publications, this very magazine.
A Tragic Subtext
But the lively canvas of our home and lives had a sad undercoat.
A year after we bought the place, Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer. While we continued to have as much of a social life as her condition would allow us, we spent the next nine years riding a roller coaster of remissions and returns until she died in January 2007. She was 56 years old; we had lived together for 29 years and four days.
At that time, people asked me if I planned to sell the house, make a fresh start and so forth. One semifriend accosted me at a deli and solemnly announced, “It takes a year.” “What does?” “To properly grieve,” she instructed me. I guess I haven’t been doing it properly because I’m still grieving, more than a decade, a remarriage and a few relationships later. I told anyone who asked me about moving that no, Jane had loved the place—and the one thing I’d learned from prior tragedies was to not do anything hastily.
Unfortunately, that didn’t extend to my remarrying only a year and two weeks later. My new wife wasn’t crazy about the house. While raised in a large home herself, she had grown to favor smaller living spaces as an adult. I, on the other hand, had spent the first eight years of my life as one of a family of five in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in the southeast Bronx section of New York City, where my parents slept on a foldout sofa in the living room. I loved living in a home I could ramble around in. So we stayed in Stately Goldmanor. The marriage failed and I still stayed, now with just the company of a cat, Osborn the Magnificent, a tubby tabby I’d inherited in the divorce, and, as I try to put it chivalrously, an occasional special guest star.
Eventually, things caught up with me. While I continued to make money as a writer, the Great Recession had hobbled my more lucrative consulting business—and for the first time, when I was in the basement and wanted something I’d left on the top floor, I didn’t find myself bounding upstairs, two steps at a time, to retrieve it. Instead, I found myself bargaining with me: “How much do you really need those eyeglasses, man? Just squint at the TV.” An emotional and physical inertia had begun to set in. After a few failed romances (they all loved the home), I spent more and more evenings at home with Osborn, reading, playing my piano and wondering what, exactly, I’d miss if I sold the place.
The only sweet memories I had recurrently were of dancing in that bowling-alley kitchen with wives and, later, lady friends—and of my needing to sleep on the floor in the hall outside my daughter’s bedroom for the first two weeks we lived in the house. Jessica had just turned 11 (she’s now 31) and was used to her mom and me sleeping in a bedroom just a few feet from hers. Now we were one flight up—and even though it was almost the same distance from her room as before, I’m sure it felt to her that we were light-years away. So, with our Jean Runyon house still on the market at the time, I took Jess there one day so we could measure the difference in footfalls. That seemed to satisfy her and I was able to return to my own bed that night.
A bittersweet memory I carry with me is of the day that Jessica was married in the backyard, more than five years ago. Jane had always hoped that our daughter’s wedding would be at home, and so it was—nearly five years after Jane died. My son-in-law, Joshua Laskey, used his background in theater to arrange the folding chairs into a small outdoor auditorium, including aisles, allowing 150 guests to witness the celebration.
It should have been a joyous occasion but, once again, it had that undercoat of sadness. Not surprisingly, my new wife and I separated a few weeks later.
The Campaign Begins
Once I decided to sell Stately Goldmanor, I went through two real estate agents—the second one resigned a day after we signed the contract, saying he was “too OCD” to handle my rather unique property—before making the call I should have made at the start: to Polly Sanders, somewhat of a real estate legend in East Sac, whom I had met briefly a few years earlier.
Sanders, 68, is a tall, friendly woman with the same short, distinctive hairstyle and overall “look” that she’s had for decades: glamorous but not intimidating. She knows the importance of brand consistency. Her business partner, Elise Brown, who’s just 33 years old, dresses for her age: semifunky, semicasual but, like Sanders, seriously into snazzy shoes. The added kick is that Sanders has been Brown’s stepmother since Brown was 4 years old; it gives their back-and-forth some generational edge but, to my mind, also warmth and mutual respect.
Because I had consulted with a number of real estate developers throughout the years (I had helped market the Serrano country club community in El Dorado Hills during its first few years, and more recently came up with the tagline for the downtown Sacramento community The Creamery at Alkali Flat), I had thought my instincts would guide our campaign to sell my home.
I’m not sure how many ways there are to say that nearly everything I knew was wrong, but I promise to keep trying.
First, Sanders and Brown convinced me to drop my asking price by more than $200,000 since I was selling the home “as is” (even though I would end up spending a few thousand bucks to address some deferred-maintenance issues). Sanders instructed me to remove everything from the tops of cupboards, tables, counters and credenzas, which I dutifully did. She also told me to “edit” my art collection—“If you have all these sculptures and paintings, people won’t be able to see the architecture and envision their own decor,” she said—and, well, I kept meaning to but never did. She told me to be religious about cleaning Osborn’s litter box (I obeyed) and refrain from smoking cigars in the basement at night (um, moving right along . . .).
I think it took fewer than 11 days for a buyer to emerge. The day after the offer was made, countered and accepted, Sanders left for Hawaii for two-and-a-half months. But with her working from there constantly (“just with a better view,” she joked), and Brown’s turning out to be as busily determined as a border collie, I never felt as though I was underrepresented. Quite the opposite.
A day or two after selling Stately Goldmanor, Brown showed me some town homes in Campus Commons she and Sanders had scouted for me, based on what they now knew about my preferences. I bought the second home Brown showed me one morning: About a third of the size of the home I’d be leaving, it had been owned by two women whose tastes in art and decor nicely mirrored my own. The only challenge is that it has an elegant “island” that runs most of the length of the kitchen. But I think if partners and I shimmy around it just right, we’ll still be able to dance there. Here’s hoping.