Maybe your mother said it, maybe your best friend in college: "My God, your room looks like the Collyer mansion!"
People speak of "the Collyer brothers" without the slightest idea of what the phrase means, except that it's a synonym for pack rat.
Homer and Langley Collyer are part of the language now. They have achieved immortality because they kept a messy house.
The story came to light almost 36 years ago, on March 21, 1947, when Homer Collyer was found dead of malnutrition at 70 in the unbelievably cluttered four-story brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in New York, deep in a once-fashionable Harlem neighborhood.
It took police three hours to force their way into the place with crowbars and axes. All the entrances were blocked by wrapped packages of newspapers, hundreds of cartons and other junk. The rooms and hallways were honeycombed with tunnels through the debris, all of them wired with booby traps that would bring them crashing down on an intruder.
A search began for Langley, the younger brother, who had been caring for the blind and paralyzed Homer. It was thought he might have been the "Charles Smith" who first phoned in a report of a death in the house. Then it was believed he had gone on one of his all-night rambles--he had been known to wander clear over to Brooklyn to buy a loaf of whole-wheat bread for his brother. Finally an 11-state alarm went out for the slight, 5-foot-6, heavily mustachioed man of 61 who dressed in the style of the 1880s.
No luck. Relatives turned up. Authorities delved deeper into the mansion. And the stories ran wild around New York, where for years the brothers had been famous as recluses.
There was supposed to be a million dollars squirreled away in the house. There was supposed to be a car in the basement. A dozen pianos. A tunnel to the house across the street.
The facts were better than the legend.
The brothers' ancestor had come to America on the Speedwell in 1620, a week after the Mayflower. Their father, Dr. Herman Collyer, was a prosperous gynecologist, and they had gone to City College. Homer, after graduating in 1902, had gone on to Columbia, where he took three law degrees and became a successful admiralty lawyer. Langley became an engineer and concert pianist.
After their father died in 1923 and their mother, Susie, died in 1929, the still-unmarried brothers turned reclusive, saying only that they preferred to be left alone. Homer went blind in 1933 and six years later became paralyzed.
It was so Homer could catch up on the news after he regained his sight that Langley began saving newspapers.
In the meantime Langley took care of his older brother, going out every evening to the market for food. With the help of a home library of 15,000 medical books, they treated their ailments themselves. Langley devised a rest cure for Homer and put him on a diet of 100 oranges a week. He rested his eyes by keeping them closed all the time, Langley once told visitors.
The two lived in the house without gas, water, electricity or sewer connections. Mostly they used kerosene for cooking and lighting. But Langley also built a generator from automobile parts for homemade electricity and put together several crystal radio sets for Homer's entertainment.
One time in 1942, when a bank threatened to foreclose a $6,700 mortgage on the house, Langley ventured out, walked the seven miles downtown to the Bowery Savings Bank on Park Row and arranged to pay the money.
After Homer's death, it took searchers weeks to burrow through the incredible collection inside the old house. On April 8 they found Langley, wedged between a chest of drawers and a bedspring. He had been caught in one of his own booby traps hardly 10 feet away from his brother. Rats had gnawed the body. Probably he had died first, of suffocation or starvation, and Homer, unattended, had starved too.
By that time the city had removed 120 tons of rubbish from the house. It included:
Fourteen grand pianos.
Most of a Model-T Ford.
The top of a horse-drawn carriage.
A tree limb seven feet long and 20 inches in diameter.
An organ, a trombone, a cornet, three bugles and five violins.
A car generator and radiator.
Ten clocks, including one nine feet high weighing 210 pounds.
Three World War I bayonets.
Several tickets to a Sunday school excursion of Trinity Episcopal Church dated July 8, 1905.
Dressmaker's dummies, sleds, kerosene stoves, bicycles, pinup pictures, chandeliers, a broken scooter, Christmas cards, a gas mask canister, umbrellas, school desks with initials, a damask linen-filled hope chest, stovepipes, the jawbone of a horse, thousands of books, especially on mechanics and nautical law, and bales, stacks, mountains, rooms full of yellowed newspapers going back to 1918.
. . . And a collarless shirt, size 15, with bright scarlet tie, still in a Macy's box, and a tag addressed to Langley on his 33rd birthday in 1918, "with many happy returns of the day from Pop."
A reporter managed to talk briefly to Langley Collyer on the occasion of his trip to the Bowery in 1942. In fact, it was the reporter who told him about the eviction notice. They talked about the mystery of the house at 2078 Fifth, the rumors of ghosts and skulkers, the vague aura of evil with which the neighbors had endowed the place for 20 years.
He and Homer wanted to live their lives their own way, Langley said. That was all. They had no phone because "Homer can't lift himself out of bed to answer, and there's no one in particular I want to talk to."
He had devoted his life to caring for his brother, entertaining him by day with music, going out at night for supplies, fending off the world.
"I barricade the windows and double-bolt the doors to keep thieves out," he said. "The people in the neighborhood have tormented and abused us for years. The children have broken more than 200 windows, and finally I stopped replacing them and boarded them instead."
The two brothers were buried in the family plot in Queens. The mansion was ordered demolished because it was a safety hazard.
That summer 56 relatives showed up to claim the $36,543 estate and the $92,000 proceeds from sale of some Collyer property on Long Island.