What I Love: Amor Towles, a Gentleman in Gramercy Park

What I Love: Amor Towles, a Gentleman in Gramercy Park

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What I Love | Amor Towles

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Amor Towles lives with his family in an elegant Victorian townhouse near Gramercy Park, a circumstance his fans would, no doubt, find eminently fitting. After all, Mr. Towles’s 2011 debut novel, “Rules of Civility,” takes place amid the haunts of cafe and Nescafé society in 1930s Manhattan. With its beautifully restored staircase and moldings, its marble fireplaces and French doors, its adroit mix of antique and Art Deco furniture, Mr. Towles’s home could have been one of the soignée settings for his best-selling book.

It was, at the very least, a muse. One of the small objects on the mantel in Mr. Towles’s study, a cocktail dial with recipes for smart-set drinks like a Sidecar, a Palm Beach and a Metropolitan, makes an appearance in the apartment of a principal character in “Rules.”

There are many such items in the house: a vintage silver trump marker for high-toned bridge players; vintage cocktail shakers and jiggers; antique millinery irons that were used to make silk leaves; and a top hat and a shoe made of tin, so-called whimsies that were given as 10th wedding anniversary gifts in a gentler era.

Sometimes in this era, too. A decade ago, Mr. Towles gave his wife that tin top hat as a 10th anniversary gift. “We like well-crafted things, even things that are obsolete and useless,” he said. “We can imagine how they were used, and that entertains us.”

Name: Amor Towles

Age: 51Occupation: Investment banker turned novelist On Buying Art: ‘‘Somewhere along the way it became clear that you can buy a beautiful 19th-century painting at an antique furniture store for one-tenth the price you would pay at a gallery that deals in 19th-century paintings. That’s how I got several Fauvist pieces. They’re hanging in a furniture store as part of the look and you ask, ‘Is that for sale?’ and they’re like, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Another treasured possession, an etching of imaginary Russian buildings, was the inspiration for a minor character in Mr. Towles’s new novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” published by Viking. It centers on a charming and resourceful aristocrat who is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifetime confinement in the city’s grandest hotel.

Mr. Towles has been a gentleman in Manhattan since 1989, when his two-year fellowship to teach for the Yale-China Association was canceled on the first day of orientation in New Haven because of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” recalled Mr. Towles, 51, a former principal in a boutique investment firm who decamped four years ago to write full time. “I called a childhood friend to say I wasn’t going to China, and he said, ‘What a coincidence. I’m in a sublet in the East Village and I need a roommate.’ So I moved that day to Third Street, next door to the Hell’s Angels. It was a great place.”

In the early ’90s, when it was time to move on, Mr. Towles relocated to a gutted loft in a walk-up building on Bleecker and the Bowery. He met his future wife, Maggie, now 46, mid-renovation, “so the bachelor pad never became a bachelor pad,” he said. There the couple remained for 15 years.

They managed fine with their first child, a son, Stokley, now 14. But when their daughter, Esmé, now 11, was born, “it was difficult being in a walk-up with the strollers and everything,” Mr. Towles said.

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William P. O’Donnell/The New York Times

They wanted a townhouse and reflexively began looking in the same general neighborhood as their loft. But at the time, 2007, TriBeCa didn’t have a lot of services, Mr. Towles said, and the West Village was too expensive. Their broker importuned them to consider the Gramercy Park area, telling them they’d be surprised and delighted by what was on offer. They were.

“When we saw this place, we couldn’t believe what we were getting relative to the West Village,” Mr. Towles said. “It was more space, more grand space for the same price. So we took it and renovated it.”

What had been a plaster-walled bedroom became Mr. Towles’s office. The mahogany paneling, leather chairs and mid-19th-century Irish writing table give the room the air of a gentlemen’s club.

The wall between the dining room and the galley kitchen came down to give the first floor an airier, more informal feel, and to create the family’s chief gathering place. Out a door is the back garden. Nineteenth-century French cabinets on either side of a fireplace hold china. A bench made by Mr. Towles’s uncle Randy Taplin, positioned next to the island, often holds the children. That is, when they’re not occupying the matching armchairs upholstered in a blue-and-white botanical print. “We live in the kitchen,” Mr. Towles said simply.

But the living room, which is painted a warm yellow and highlights the couple’s fondness for Deco (mahogany bar cabinet; Austrian armchairs), is almost equally inviting. “Our friends say that the house is not only aesthetically well done, but it’s done in a manner that is clearly lived in,” Mr. Towles said. “You can build a place that is beautiful, but nobody feels comfortable sitting in it, and the kids aren’t allowed to go into many of the rooms. Or a place can look lived in, but it doesn’t please the eye.”

He added: “We’re good at walking that line.”

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