Six Degrees of Stephen Sondheim

Ian Fisher

Ira Fielder could never be certain, but he chose to believe that their son Rónán had been conceived on Saint Valentine’s Day 1992, in the library of their weekend home at 606 Bookends Road, Deep River. The house, built in 1796, was not the first Ira and his wife Nessa had contracted to buy; the first two deals fell through. Third time’s the charm.

Like many Wall Street professionals, their quest for respite from the city’s roar and grime, particularly during stifling summer months, had begun by poking the point of a compass into map coördinates of their coöp on the Upper West Side and drawing a circle with a one-hundred-mile radius. That way, assumed many of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed twenty- and thirty-somethings, it would be possible to arrive by car in about two hours. Most neglected to acknowledge the most significant variable of weekend escape from New York: traffic.

Not for Ira or Nessa were any of the in-vogue hamlets of The Hamptons. Ira and Nessa were not socialites; they preferred to spend free time solely in each other’s company. This antipathy towards The Hamptons was confirmed to them when, at the behest of a client of Ira’s, the couple braved weekend gridlock from Manhattan to spend an afternoon at the Southampton summer home of the industrialist who owned a Berlin-based start-up the client was angling to acquire. The client had neglected to warn Ira that the charming entrepreneur Ira would be negotiating with was the son of one of the Nürnberg Trial defendants sentenced to death by hanging.


The first house Ira and Nessa tried to buy was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—the countryside of Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s casting—about ninety miles away. Nessa was acquainted with a woman who lived there, and Ira was attracted by the prospect of skating on the Delaware Canal, which flowed past the house. He imagined situating a celadon-painted wooden bench next to the front door, lacing up his hockey skates there, taking several steps in snow, and gliding like Hans Brinker across the frozen Canal. During the first pilgrimage by Ira and Nessa to inspect the house, each chair and chesterfield had a small cedar ball seated at the centre of each cushion. When Ira and his best friend and personal lawyer Harry “Rocket” Rostow began to negotiate the purchase and sale agreement, they learned the house had an astonishing septic tank problem; it appeared the only solution would be a costly connection to the public sewer system. The deal fell apart. Besides, the Bucks bumblebees were the size of Ping-Pong balls.

Next up, Killingworth, Connecticut, about one hundred miles from the Upper West Side: a sixteen-acre redoubt featuring dashing, dancing, and prancing deer (Ira and Nessa had not yet learned that deer carry ticks transmitting Lyme Disease, named after Old Lyme, sixteen miles southeast from Killingworth), vegetable gardens, an old red barn, and a basement fallout shelter constructed on the advice of President Kennedy about one year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Killingworth property presented with a price tag about twice what Ira and Nessa should have considered. On this deal, the barn’s leaky roof became the battleground for Ira and Harry. The owners’ daughter, a freshly-minted Juris Doctor, fancied herself a worthy negotiating adversary, but she was no match for the duo. They invented a market value clause, empowering an architect chosen by Ira and Nessa and an independent expert to opine if any aspect of the property could diminish its market value. The bespoke clause would give Ira and Nessa the option either to adjust downward their purchase price or walk away without penalty. Ira and Nessa submitted their signed offer with a short time fuse that expired on Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when worldwide stock markets crashed together with the Killingworth deal.


In early 1988, Ira and Nessa got back into the real estate chase. In their sights, the seaport village of Essex, Connecticut, and surrounding towns. This time, having been burned twice, they worked with a buy-side agent: the stalwart mother of one of Nessa’s closest friends, Nessa Abington. After walking Ira and his Nessa through a half-dozen prospects one glorious spring Saturday, the mother unveiled to them 606 Bookends Road.

That house, 109 miles from Riverside Drive and 79th Street and close to perfect (two decades later, the film Revolutionary Road would evoke the house to Ira and Nessa), had been built around the time of George Washington’s farewell address and John Adams’s Presidential victory over Thomas Jefferson. Wide pine-plank flooring. Separate living and dining rooms, each with a fireplace. A library with a larger fireplace and in-wall cook stove. The kitchen resembled the one in Nessa’s former flat in London, with a screen door to a bluestone patio and garden. There were three upstairs bedrooms, an attic, a long landscaped lawn, and a detached two-car garage. Behind the house was a towering tree-covered hill, its view from the redwood deck worthy of John Muir. And a swimming pool with adjacent changing room and outdoor bar with sink.

This viewing coincided with an Easter visit to New York by Nessa’s sister Bronagh and her seven-year-old daughter Mackenzie. The two visitors from Big Sky Country accompanied Ira and Nessa on their weekend of house inspections and overnight stay at The Griswold Inn. At 606 Bookends Road, Mac ran around flashing two thumbs-up signs at Bronagh and Nessa that Ira feared were detected by the seller. The seller was a recent divorcée who was, Ira imagined, mentally dividing expected net sale proceeds by two and spending her share on a Porsche, Tiffany jewellery, and younger boyfriends. Non-plussed, Ira tried to appear underwhelmed by the house, although he loved it and surmised Nessa did as well.

The next morning, Ira, Nessa, Bronagh, Mac, and Nessa Abington and her mother dined at The Gris’s renowned Hunt Breakfast, which dated back to the War of 1812. They reviewed the previous day’s menu of possible houses. Ira and Nessa told Nessa Abington’s mom they were interested in submitting an offer for 606 Bookends Road, at a price 15% below the ask.

Early the following week, Ira’s secretary—he called her “Dot” in homage to the muse in a recent Sondheim musical aired on PBS—buzzed him on the phone in his office at the World Financial Center. “Georges, are you available for Nessa?” (Dot called Ira by the name of that same musical’s French protagonist, played by Mandy Patinkin.)

“Sure, Dot. Thanks.”

Ira pressed the blinking green call-on-hold indicator.

“I’ve got great news,” Nessa said.

“What is it?”

“Nessa’s mom says if we come up just a bit the house is ours!”

“How far up?”

“Well . . . up to the asking price.”

Ira had learned early in his relationship with Nessa that if she made a decision—a Broadway show, vacation, marriage—it was likely the only deterministic variable was time. And he had understood, from the moment they laid eyes on it, that Nessa had resolved to live in 606 Bookends Road. Everything he had done and said related to that property was designed to accomplish this objective at the lowest possible cost. Shaking his head, he said, “Are you sure we have to go that high?”

“I’m sure. . . . And, please, please, no take-it-or-leave-it clauses from you or from Harry. I want this: work with yourselves.”


For the record, the rest was going through the motions. Ira and Harry restrained their relentlessness on the contract: they insisted only that the pool be cleaned and filled. It was smooth sailing until one week before the proposed closing date, which was the day after Memorial Day.

“Georges, are you available for Nessa?”

“Sure, Dot.”

Ira pressed the blinking green call-on-hold indicator.

“We’ve got to move in on Friday,” Nessa said, in a swivet.

“What are you talking about? The closing is next Tuesday.”

“But I have to plant my arugula seeds before then.”

“She’d be crazy to let us in there before we own it. And her lawyer will tell her that too. What if we move in on Friday and burn the place down? She would still be the owner. What if one of us drowns in the pool? It would still be her pool, and she would be liable. Ain’t gonna happen.”

“I have to plant my arugula seeds this weekend,” said Nessa, as if she hadn’t been listening. “My Mom insists that arugula be planted always before Memorial Day.”

And so Ira and Nessa probably made real estate history: they moved in to 606 Bookends Road on Friday, May 27, and closed on its purchase on the following Tuesday.

During the intervening holiday weekend, Nessa planted her arugula seeds.


A few Saturdays later, Ira was reclined and reading, on a brand new inflatable float, in the only swimming pool he ever owned. Also floating around the pool (although sunbathing seriously, sipping vodka stingers, and talking, not reading) were two overnight guests.

A white picket fence separated the lawn and garden between the house and the pool area from the stone stairs and pathway from the street to the house’s main entrance. And a ninety-degree angle stone pathway from the main entrance pathway led to the lawn. It was therefore possible for someone to access the pool area without going through the house, simply by lifting the latch of the gate in the white picket fence, walking about ten yards across the lawn through an opening between two magnolia trees and stepping on to bluestones surrounding the pool.

“Hello there. Welcome,” said a tall stranger, staring down at Ira from the pool’s edge. To Ira, the man appeared distinguished, like the actor Dean Jagger from Executive Suite, Elmer Gantry, and one episode of Columbo. “I’m Wil Lydon. I live right across the road.”

“Hello, Wil. Ira Fielder. This is Nessa Abington. And Nessa Carlisle. And now walking towards us from the kitchen is the lady-of-the-house: Nessa Bumgarner.”

“Do you have to be a ‘Nessa’ to be invited to this house?” said Wil Lydon.

“Well, in actual fact, one of them’s a Va-nessa.”

Wilford Lydon, seventy-six years old and recently widowed, was a retired pharmaceuticals executive from New Jersey and salt of the earth.

Wil invited Ira and Nessa across the road often: barbeques, Thanksgiving Dinner, and to show off his antique bathtub. He introduced Ira to the ecological utility of an electric coil fire starter for a charcoal briquette pyramid, and shared his techniques for stacking and seasoning firewood. He hosted Ira and Nessa at his exclusive (no ticks allowed) beach club in Old Lyme. He bought Rónán tartan baby overalls.

Wil regaled the couple with anecdotes about a twentysomething Barbra Streisand’s spending an evening at 606 Bookends Road after a fundraiser appearance, with Henny Youngman and Art Carney, at Bill Hahn’s hotel in bordering Westbrook; two decades after that, Streisand had recorded The Broadway Album covering seven Sondheim songs.

When Orenthal J. Simpson stood accused in the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, Wil told Ira and Nessa about interviewing O.J.—Wil said O.J. had been ‘overly familiar’—for a golf club membership. Wil’s then girlfriend worked with Dr. Henry Lee, chief criminalist for the State of Connecticut, who was a key forensics witness for O.J.’s defence team.

Six degrees of separation: serendipity, probability, or allegory?

By the late nineties, Wil moved west to be closer to family and lived out his days in Santa Barbara.


Ira and Nessa—to Rónán’s chagrin—sold 606 Bookends Road in 2004. But they preserved its memories.

The pastel pink paint of the living room and the flowered wallpaper of the master bedroom and bathroom. The custom-carpentered dining room table and chairs for twelve. The variegated projects: wild-flower carpeting to supplant pachysandra, the shady trellis breezeway to the pool, and the leaking ceiling in the dining room that required replacing the redwood deck off the third bedroom. That was the bedroom where Ira had assembled the crib to greet the weeks-old Rónán on the baby’s first trip from New York to Deep River.

Nocturnal comings and goings by assumed drug dealers at the decrepit white house of a neighbour Ira nicknamed The Manson Family. Invasion of the Fielder lawn by a peregrinating raccoon and its capture and release down the road. The moonless night that a baffled radio-car driver from Manhattan, delivering a draft board presentation for Ira’s blue-pencilling with a Blackwing soft pencil, overran the driveway onto the same snow-masked lawn.

The drive up there—Rónán not yet four months old—on the last Friday of February 1993, mercury in the low twenties. That was the afternoon of the terrorist truck bombing in the garage of the North Tower, killing six and injuring one-thousand-plus. The drive took three hours longer than usual.

And those many pursuits by Ira with a dry fly of Oncorhynchus mykiss, rainbow trout that were holding in deep dark cool pools of nearby purple yellow red waters.

There were the random celebrity sightings in streets, cinemas, and restaurants: Morley Safer, Dominick Dunne, Katharine Hepburn: she, a petulant weekday next-door neighbour of Sondheim’s in Turtle Bay. Ira and Nessa once overheard Kate muttering, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” while exiting an Old Saybrook screening of the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping with the Enemy.

Playing early morning tennis in summer, and late afternoon pick-up pond hockey in winter. And myriad Thanksgiving dinners, sometime visits by friends and extended Fielders and Bumgarners, and twilight strolls with their Golden Retriever Princess Leia into the woods.

Ira recalled Friday evening, Saint Valentine’s Day 1992 as a champagne-and-caviar valse sentimentale in the cherry-wood panelled library of 606 Bookends Road in front of a stone fireplace, its crackling fire fed by wood sawed and seasoned from trees felled from their hill behind the house, with a hand-painted sign—Black Swan, White Swan, Ye Old Swan, or Something Else Swan: he could visualise the image, not the words—hanging over it. Ira imagined that pub sign the purloined prize of a halcyon English evening that Nessa, while working in London, celebrated with the sort of friends in whose company Diana Spencer might have lingered.

And, Ira recalled, the room hummed: on VHS tape played ‘A Weekend in the Country’ from the NYC Opera revival of A Little Night Music.

The years have raced by; now, the Fielders are three thousand miles Westaway. But on some Saint Valentine Eves, maybe even the most recent one—when the fragrance of wood smoke ascends the library’s chimney into the frigid night, when the moon and stars are bright enough to cast shadows of the hill’s trees against the scintillating snow, and when the only sound is a solitary doe munching on the evergreen hedges lining the stone pathway from Bookends Road to the 606 entryway—the centuries-old house aches with nostalgia for the occupation of the three Fielders: Ira, Nessa, and the scion Rónán they may have, in a fragment of the Day, conceived there.

Ian Fisher

Ian Fisher's first byline appeared in his birth notice—‘Boy Arrives at Fishers’—that for more than 90% of his life hung framed on a pine-panelled wall in Montréal, and now hibernates in an L.L.Bean tote in a hall closet in Pacific Heights. Ian's newspaperman father had borrowed the name he gave Ian as his own 𝑛𝑜𝑚 𝑑𝑒 𝑔𝑢𝑒𝑟𝑟𝑒. Nowadays, when not working or otherwise engaged, Ian is reading Mavis Gallant, watching Denys Arcand, or listening to Leonard Cohen.

Back to Issue

More from

No items found.

More from

No items found.