Tilting At Windmills: The Case Of The Isolated Heir
Published: April 1st, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case of the Isolated Heir

I’m not sure if everyone who lives in a big city gets bitten by the Voyeur Virus, but I certain was. This was a tad challenging after I moved to New York City, as most apartments are on the second floor or higher, and at night, Manhattanites close their curtains or blinds.

After Charlie and I got married and I moved to Brooklyn, however, things vastly improved. On long walks we took in Brooklyn Heights or Carroll Gardens, we would pass stylish brownstones where the owners left their living room curtains open all night, and I could happily gaze upon brocade sofas, oil paintings in ornate frames, mahogany book shelves, brass music stands, and even a grand piano or two.

My Peeping Shelly Syndrome only got worse after we started Charles G. King Associates because, as I often said, “we were invited to all of the best places … but only after they had burned down.”

I already told you about “The Mansion in the Sky” toaster fire. Now it is time to dust off my memories and invite you to the townhouse on Sutton Place.

For those unfamiliar with Manhattan, Sutton Place overlooks the East River, has a beautiful view of the Queensborough Bridge, and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. Over time, it has been home to the descendants of the Vanderbilts and J. P. Morgan. Even Marilyn Monroe lived there when she was married to playwright Arthur Miller. But our client, Rosalind Jourdain, beat them all, as her townhouse was composed of two that had been knocked together, so it was twice as wide if not twice as high.

After experiencing a fire on its fifth floor, the homeowner’s attorney – I’ll call him Bernie – somehow found out about Charles G. King Associates, and Charlie was brought in on the case. In my Watson-to-Holmes capacity, I, of course, tagged along.

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Even now, I’m not quite sure why we were asked to do the investigation, as the cause of the fire was so obvious. Maybe it had something to do with insurance coverage or pending litigation. Or maybe, despite my perception, the cause of the fire really wasn’t all that obvious.

The facts were these: the building in question was owned by Garret Jourdain (as with all of my stories, what happened is true. The names … not so much), who was the only son and sole heir to the House of Jourdain fortune, an off-the-rack fashion empire. Delphine Jourain, Garrett’s grandmother, had started small in France, but moved to New York at the beginning of World War II. It was there during those war years, that she molded her dreams.

Delphine lived long enough to see her company succeed. Her daughter Celine (Garrett’s mother) turned it into one of the most successful fashion brands in the world. Celine married six times but only produced one child, Garrett, a handsome, charming wastrel who inherited all of her money but none of her business sense. Even before Celine died, she banished Garrett from The House of Jourdain, and other than receiving a monthly income, his only association with the company was their shared name.

Which is why, when he died at the age of 56, he was still catastrophically wealthy. Garrett’s current wife Rosalind, (I don’t know how many preceded her), was about 35 years old, fearsomely blonde and statuesque. She might have been beautiful, but I couldn’t get past the icy dismissal of her eyes and the cold immobility of her face when we briefly met as her attorney ushered us into the townhouse through the front door.

I don’t remember much about Rosalind’s attorney, except that Bernie seemed like a nice guy and never tried to influence our investigation. It was as we walked up those four flights to the fifth floor (you could get there by elevator, but we took the stairs) that we got to see some, if not all, of the rest of that townhouse.

Since Rosalind made it clear that she did not care to accompany us, we were free to gawk, and Bernie was free to show his true colors. He was a voyeur, like me! When we got to the second floor, he whispered, “You’ve got to see this!” And led us to the master bedroom. Use your imagination for the thick carpet, silk wallpaper, and framed Renoirs, but I’ll take over for the bed. Not only was it hung with tapestries, like something from Versailles, but staring down from the tops of the four posters was a big, bright, unmistakable mirror.

No kidding.

I looked at Charlie. Charlie looked me. We both looked at Bernie. We all started to giggle.

Onward and upward through thickly carpeted halls and additional living areas until the stairwells got narrower, the rugs less plush, and the rooms smaller. Finally, we reached the almost barren corridor belonging to the servant’s quarters on the fifth floor.

This was where the fire had started and ended, in a room with an ugly fireproof door. It had once been a maid’s room … or, rather, since it had its own bathroom … a maid’s suite. No longer, though, as for many months, it had been the abode of the master of the house and heir to a vast fortune: Garrett Jourdain,

Charlie and I appraised that sad, isolated apartment. Dominating the room was a king sized bed. The wall behind the headboard was blank. No Renoirs up there. To the right were two double-hung windows. The same on the wall opposite the headboard. Beneath all windowsills were bookshelves filled with ornately carved brass pipes, ivory bowels, bejeweled boxes, small African masks, geodes, and so on. On top of the bookshelves were framed photographs portraying a panorama of his life.

Garrett on a polo pony …Garrett shaking hands with the mayor, the governor, the president of the United States … Garrett on a yacht … Garret on a safari holding a rifle with a dead lion at his feet … Garret on another safari looking older and tireder, with a younger Rosalind at his side.

On the wall to the left of the headboard were a walk-in closet and door to the bathroom. Other than being coated in soot, like the rest of the apartment, the bathroom wasn’t very informative, as Garrett’s instruments of self-destruction were not pharmaceutical. They were in a closet off the entryway to the apartment from the hall. Bernie opened its door and pointed to a small Pullman sized refrigerator. Above it were three rows of shelves. All – shelves and refrigerator – were filled with bottle after bottle of Absolut Swedish Vodka.

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We returned our attention to the room. Our fire investigation began and ended on the left side of the headboard, where the mattress met a nightstand. On top of the nightstand were the “witness marks” where the round bottom of a glass, the round bottom of a vodka bottle, and the square bottom of an ashtray had protected the wood surface during the fire.

Fire had burned the mattress side of the nightstand and the nightstand side of the headboard. In the same area, flames had gutted both the box spring and mattress. Blanket, sheets, pillows, bottle, glass, and ashtray had been removed during firefighting operations, but the story that the burn patterns told was unmistakable. It was another case of “smoking carelessness, alcohol contributory. “

As we photographed the wreckage of a wrecked life, Bernie told us more about Garrett’s decline. That he had set two previous small fires in the house before Rosalind relocated him to the top floor; that she’d had the fireproof door installed before he moved in; that he had been to dozens of rehabs and failed them all; that Rosalind kept him supplied with all the Vodka and cigarettes he wanted in his exile, but had also hired a fulltime caretaker (a large, strong male nurse) who occupied the room next door.

Funnily, though, there were no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in the apartment. Nothing that could have set off an alarm before her caretaker actually smelled smoke.

We descended the stairs, thanked Bernie for his help, shook hands, and later sent in our report.

Since then, none of the fires we investigated exposed me to such grandeur. Also since then, I have never ceased to wonder about Garrett’s second? – third? fourth? – wife, Rosalind. And if secluding him up there on the fifth floor of their townhouse had been a way of isolating him so that he didn’t burn down the rest of the house … a kindness to a dissolute man who might drink himself to death.

Or a way of ensuring that he did.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com