(This essay appeared in my essay collection Lake Forest Moments.)
One of the very best things to do in Lake Forest is to go on a home tour. Home tours are held frequently – you could probably go to one every couple of months or so – and since they are always presented under the auspices of raising money for a philanthropic cause, you never have to feel guilty about the fact that basically you are there to snoop around someone else’s house.
After nearly ten years of going on home tours here, you’d think it would get a bit repetitive, but there is an amazing and unique aspect to Lake Forest that strikes you when you are deciding whether to sign up for a home tour. I have rarely toured the same home twice. Which means that basically there must be an unlimited number of fabulous homes to visit. As my friend Diane and I like to sigh, “So many mansions, so little time…”
The overwhelming majority of home tour aficionados are women. You see the occasional male spouse now and then, but he always looks as though he’d rather be having dental surgery. And who can blame him. Just like women don’t see the value of, say, ice fishing, men just don’t get why you would want to pay to walk around and look at someone else’s stuff.
Which makes perfect sense when you think about it; after all, home tours often leave you feeling two distinct emotions, neither of them very positive: depression and envy.
The depression part comes in when you realize that your husband will never be a bond trader who makes $150 million in one year. And that there are a surprising number of people who have garages bigger than your house. (They have to, to hold those twelve luxury cars!) Not to mention the valuable art masterpieces carefully collected during trips to Italy with their decorator, the 18th century French antiques culled from a summer of antiquing in Provence, or the exquisite, Old World Persian rugs that scream shabby gentility.
I know logically that envy is not a charitable or laudable emotion to feel, but during a house tour I feel that a person should be allowed to wallow in it for a few moments at the very least. To recover from this inappropriate envy try to remember that this is not “real life” as you will ever know it – that there are people living in their cars who will certainly never be concerned with having European wallpaper at $190 a roll.
There is a certain element of excitement in getting to enter someone else’s home, and by extension, into their life and lifestyle, if only for a moment. Not that you are snooping through closets or opening drawers… (Although on one memorable tour, the homeowner, a stunning blonde with a museum-quality collection of Judith Lieber handbags, encouraged us ladies to spend time in her enormous walk-in closets looking at her extensive array of party and ball gowns. And, I admit, I may have felt envy at that moment…)
It is amazing what you can deduce about a person by seeing what books they have (unless the books are only there for their red leather decorative covers, purchased by their decorator), family photos displayed (why is the husband always with famous Republican politicians?), and just the overall feel of the place (the locked Judith Lieber handbag display case comes to mind once again). I’ve learned that a home can be exquisitely appointed, but there is nowhere in the entire estate where you could sit down, put your feet up on the coffee table (certainly not on one from Marie Antoinette’s maid’s boudoir!), and enjoy a bowl of popcorn.
One of the main reasons women give for their addiction to home tours is that they want to “get ideas,” As if decorating ideas from a forty-three room Italianate villa on three acres on the lake are going to transfer over to your fifties Dutch colonial. Yeah, right…
I once went on a home tour of a home that was so incredibly grand, I went home feeling a little depressed and envious. Woe is me… I’ll never have a baby grand… Don’t I deserve my own private bathroom with a sauna, whirlpool and a Matisse… You know, stuff like that. A few weeks later, after I’d long ago gotten over it, I noticed an item in the Police Blotter. The husband of the woman whose home we had toured had been arrested for domestic battery. Instant reality check. Or as any of our mothers would say, “You never knows what goes on behind closed doors.”
Even if they are massive wooden doors with lions-head door knockers flown in from a castle in the Cotswolds.