Katherine Lanpher: Celebrity From the Midwest Finds a New Life in New York - New Y... Page 1 of 3
February 19, 2006
Habitats | West Village
Celebrity From the Midwest Finds a New Life in New York
By STEPHEN P. WILLIAMS
KATHERINE LANPHER'S middle age began 46 years ago when she was born into a practical and planned existence. She grew up without incident in Moline, Ill. She went to Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. She moved to St. Paul to work as a reporter, and by age 27 was vested with a pension.
She married a man whose work made it impossible to move away from the Twin Cities. They lived in a Prairie-style home with a sun porch and gardens and neighborhood children playing touch football on the lawn. She wasn't bothered that her ambitions would have to be fulfilled along the banks of the Mississippi. She did quite well.
In her late 30's, Ms. Lanpher became a Midwestern celebrity, with a daily public-radio call-in show focused on news, society and culture that was broadcast in five states. She also interviewed authors like Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood in a literary radio show staged at the Fitzgerald Theater, which is home to "The Prairie Home Companion."
She traveled often to Paris. She skied cross-country on the north shore of Lake Superior. She collected pastis pitchers and oak furniture. It seemed that life would unfold with predictable comfort, season by season.
But then, after 10 years of marriage, came the divorce, which uprooted many of the dreams and expectations she had for her life. Suddenly, she was living alone. In the next four years, her career flourished, but midlife was approaching and it occurred to her that perhaps the trajectory she'd set for her life wasn't the only path available.
She was 44 when the comedian Al Franken asked her to join him in New York for the start-up of the left-wing national radio network Air America. A few days later she arrived in Manhattan in the middle of a January blizzard. She had five days to find a place to live.
"I'd never done anything so drastic," she said. '"It was never part of my plan to live in New York. But I thought, if I don't do this I'll wonder about it for the rest of my life."
A friend steered her to a real estate agent named Michelle Barshay, of Barshay Brokerage, whom Ms. Lanpher now refers to as "an angel."
"I had no idea what a person has to go through to rent an apartment in New York — it was very intrusive," Ms. Lanpher said. "But Michelle was veryprotective and guided me through the process.
We're still friends."
After almost falling for the deceptive charms of a ground-floor apartment that opened onto a dark plot of soil, Ms. Lanpher decided instead to rent a light-filled eighth-floor apartment on Charles Street in the West Village.
"The rental form asked me to list my wife's salary — well, I don't have a wife," she said. "I wrote on the form that this was sexist language, institutional misogyny, and they should change it. Michelle very wisely said, 'O.K., that's nice, but we're going to cross that out.' "
She got the place — a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment — although she had to raise her budget to a level she'll describe only as "unaffordable."
The move-in date was Feb. 29, 2004, which explains the title of her memoir, "Leap Year," to be published this October by Springboard Press. In the memoir, she uses her difficult immersion in Manhattan as a frame for telling her life story.
Like many new arrivals to Manhattan, Ms. Lanpher was surprised to discover just how lonely it can feel to be surrounded by millions of people. She'd taken a dining table from Minnesota that could expand to seat 14, but found that it was rarely set for more than two or three. From that table she could see across the Hudson to the faded green Hoboken Ferry Terminal, with its large sign reading "Lackawanna."
"The sign is very F. Scott," she said referring of course to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of "The Great Gatsby," a one-time St. Paul resident who figures large in Ms. Lanpher's literary imagination. As she notes in her book, that word, used by the Algonquin tribe to mean "forks in the stream," can also be broken down in English into "lack" and "want." "I've had my moments of Lackawanna looking at that sign," she writes.
Among the few people she knew when she arrived in New York was the writer Andrew Solomon, the author of an acclaimed book about dark thoughts called "The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression."
"He's actually a wonderful person to talk to when you are feeling depressed," she said.
She also lifted her mood by walking the streets with a newcomer's eyes for strange sights, such as "the undulating lines of pedestrians moving forward like a school of fish through the wet and the deep blue dusk," and the occasional glimpse of a lovely garden or plant sprouting from a sidewalk crack.
But about the time she started to feel as if she might just become a real New Yorker, she faced a new quandary: Air America was floundering and Mr. Franken decided to move the show to Minnesota. Having faced down her Manhattan crisis, she wasn't quite ready to face midlife back in the Midwest. Emboldened by her book contract, and facing a looming deadline, she quit her job at Air America and started hitting the keyboard.
Most mornings Ms. Lanpher writes at a tiny computer station in her bedroom overlooking the multiple terraces of the artist Jennifer Bartlett's home and studio. Dormant rose vines and unusual conifers fill the space below, which in warm weather becomes an elaborate garden. Ms. Lanpher recalls one luxurious night when she sat on her terrace listening to a pianist at one of Ms. Bartlett's parties playing Cole Porter for the guests, who spilled into the rooftop gardens.
Her apartment is not nearly thatglamorous. It's furnished with a cozy if haphazard mix of antiques, clutter and modern furniture that pretty much shouts "no decorator was involved." "People come in and say, 'Oh, how homey' — meaning, I have too much oak," she said. "If I got Great Aunt Kathleen's afghan out of the closet, they'd really have something homey to talk about."
But decorating this apartment would be almost superfluous. The whole point of the place is the view, the light, the Village spread below.
On a late winter afternoon the living room is overwhelmed by light that can be described only as blinding. As the minutes pass into dusk, the apartment is suffused with pink. Out the window, the Hudson turns deep slate before the setting sun.
On a recent afternoon Ms. Lanpher doffed a dowdy apron to cook chicken with 40 cloves of garlic — "the garlic was billed as both purple and French," she said, "so, foodie that I am, I had to buy it" — that would be her contribution to a going-away party for one of her doormen. This perfect use of Midwestern manners in a Manhattan context shows how she's adapted — to a new city, a new job and, now, life in Manhattan without a job.
The second half of her life is unfolding in mysterious ways. And she's letting it happen from a really nice perch.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company Home