Mimi Turque gave an excellent quote to the New York Times for a story that ran last October. “If you’re me, things have histories,” she told New York Times reporter Constance Rosenblum. “I can get sentimentally attached to a dust ball if it hangs around long enough.”
When Turque, an actress who appeared in 11 Broadway productions, saw the story, she was scandalized. She had no problem with the “dust ball” quote. What bothered her was the context: She’d been jammed into a story about the difficulties of selling the properties of hoarders, people with a “complex emotional disorder defined as a fierce need to acquire combined with a paralyzing inability to get rid of things,” as Rosenblum described it in her piece, which was titled “Selling a Hoarder’s Home: The Trouble With Stuff.”
“At no point did she tell me the article was going to be about hoarders,” recalls Turque. “I was truly blindsided.” (Attempts to contact Rosenblum, who recently retired from the New York Times, were unsuccessful).
Nearly 10 months later, Turque managed to undo the association. An editor’s note dated July 30 reads:
An article on Oct. 13, 2013, about the difficulties brokers face selling apartments that have been occupied by hoarders included an example of a two-bedroom prewar co-op on the Upper West Side. After publication, editors received more information and concluded that neither the owner, Mimi Turque Marre, nor her apartment belonged in the article; they should not have been included.
The apartment in question had 45 years to accumulate stuff. In August 1968, Turque and her husband moved in and raised two children there. Turque has moved to other locations in recent years but held on to the place, with the intention of moving back one day. She even hired painters to freshen it up. But then a broker approached her with a proposal to place the apartment on the market. She agreed, and it sold within five days, she says. “I don’t even see how I could have sold it within that amount of time if it was a smelly, disgusting apartment,” says Turque. “I didn’t have seven dining room tables and dead cats and garbage all over the floor.”
The adjacencies in the piece were not flattering. In writing about the scourge of hoarding, Rosenblum recounted the horrific story of the Collyer brothers, who “died in their impassable New York house in 1947,” notes the story. Another thing that outraged Turque was the sentence that preceded her “dust ball” quote: “Ms. Turque Marre does not describe herself as a hoarder, but she acknowledges that she has a tendency to hang onto things that matter to her.”
Says Turque: “That makes you sound even sicker than somebody who kind of acknowledges a reality.”
After the story was published, Turque contacted Rosenblum, who she found “defensive instead of responsive,” says Turque. “She didn’t say ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘I told you what it was about.'” Turque also reached out to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor. An automatic reply came back, she says.
As to whether Rosenblum had alerted her, Turque forwards these words from an e-mail that Rosenblum had sent prior to the story’s publication:
I don’t want to mislead you. My article will focus on people who have accumulated a great deal of stuff in their apartments. If you’re reluctant to let me use your name, I understand and will quote you anonymously.
However, I think that accumulating a great many things in an apartment is far more common than people realized, especially in NYC, and that it’s an important subject for the Times to explore. if you were comfortable letting me use your name with the quote, as I hope you might be, I can send it to you to make sure I’m quoting you accurately.
Just let me know and many thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Is that fair warning? Turque opines via e-mail: “I don’t think Connie intentionally deceived me although the letter she sent claiming it was about people who accumulate stuff over the course of many years was if not deceptive, mind bendingly euphemistic.” Turque does recall an e-mail from Rosenblum in which she’d used “hoarder.” “Connie sent me a potential [passage] in which she used the word,” notes Turque. “I felt punched in the stomach. I shot back an email saying her quote was untrue and insulting.”
Carla Cantrelle, a professional organizer and declutterer, wrote a letter to the New York Times in January vouching for Turque’s spatial sanity: “I’ve worked with hoarders, and Ms. Turque Marre is certainly not one,” wrote Cantrelle, who was brought in to deal with Turque’s belongings before the apartment changed hands. More from Cantrelle:
When…I began work, everything she owned had been pushed into the centers of the rooms, closets had been emptied and their contents stashed in among the piled-high furniture. But Ms. Turque Marre hadn’t done this — her painters had, and then vanished before moving things back into place. After I gingerly unpacked the piles what I discovered was simply the accumulation of belongings of anyone who’d lived and raised a family in a space for over 40 years. On top of that, she hadn’t actually considered selling until she had a chance meeting with the realtor, so she had done no prep work. Then the apartment sold so quickly she had a nearly impossible deadline to meet — which is why I was brought in.
Unlike a hoarder, Cantrelle wrote, Turque was “willing to shed” her attachment to items from her past.
The appeals to the New York Times didn’t yield much. In fact, Turque likely would have had to simply eat the article’s claims, if not for her familial connections to the media elite. She is the aunt of Washington Post staffer Bill Turque, who is married to Washington Post writer Melinda Henneberger. This past spring, Henneberger paid a visit to Mimi Turque. “I was staying with Mimi and realized how upset she still was,” says Henneberger, who says she would never hang out in the home of a hoarder. “Everyone she knows reads the New York Times.”
Henneberger renewed the push against the paper, contacting Sullivan. She got a response, and over the course of much back-and-forth an editor’s note got banged out.
New York Times associate managing editor for standards Philip Corbett writes in an e-mail:
As I understand it, the person cited in the story did raise a concern with the reporter right after publication, but the issue did not go any further. In recent weeks, someone who knows the person in question contacted the public editor, who relayed the query to the real estate editor and to me. We reviewed the matter in more detail and decided the editors’ note was warranted.
Henneberger: “She keeps a perfect house. That is the irony.”