Inside the City’s Last Silent Place

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“I wish there were more drama,” said Alexander Rose, “but it’s convivial and collegiate. There’s no Norman Mailer trying to kill his wife in here. No tension, no melodrama.” Mr. Rose, author of American Rifle: A Biography, was taking a break from his work to tell the Transom about the Allen Room, a hush-hush space on the second floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (formerly the New York Public Library “main branch”) on Fifth Avenue. Founded in 1958 as a tribute to Frederick Lewis Allen, the historian and editor of Harper’s Magazine, the room serves as a workspace to a rotating group of authors. Rubberneckers take note: The door is locked at all times, and access is restricted to those who have book contracts, a photocopy of which must accompany requests for a key card. “It’s like Aladdin’s cave,” Mr. Rose said of the room, which he heard about through the literary grapevine. “I looked it up, and it actually did exist.”

There is nothing like a locked door to stoke curiosity. In a 1971 essay for New York, Avery Corman described the Allen Room as “elite stuff,” a place where “Saul Bellow probably couldn’t get in.” Six years later, Noemie Emery spun an Allen Room tale of sex and insanity for Publisher’s Weekly, counting among the room’s residents a German countess who wrote of her helicopter rescue from an asylum and the granddaughter of a famous psychiatrist who spent her library hours investigating lesbian witches in Staten Island. Betty Friedan, who wrote a portion of The Feminine Mystique in the room, was known to drive people nuts with her noise. Recent alum Mark Lamster, a historian who wrote Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens in an Allen Room cubicle, describes the book-contract clause as a “healthy barrier” to a room with “an exclusive air.” Mr. Lamster is the creator of the “I Wrote My Book in the Allen Room” Facebook group, of which there are 24 members.

Despite the room’s privileged aura, gaining entrance is a fairly simple operation. Although there are only nine cubicles, Allen Room liaison Jay Barksdale told the Transom that 40 to 50 people hold key cards at any one time, and if a term of access officially ends after one year, many people request (and receive) extensions. “We don’t want to create obstructions,” he explained. When the Transom stopped by last week for a tour, any remaining visions of shifty-eyed cronyism evaporated upon our admittance into the modest, sunny room. Susan Jacoby, an emeritus who has written six books in the Allen Room over the past 30 years, describes the room as a place whose primary virtue isn’t its roster of literary celebrities (including Robert Hughes and Mike Wallace, both of whom still drop by), but rather its lack of Wi-Fi. “Going on the Internet when you’re stuck is about as valuable as eating ice cream from the fridge when you’re stuck,” she told the Transom. “Which I also do-eat ice cream. But anyway, here I’m not tempted to go online and watch Sarah Palin cut the head off a turkey.” Although the rules ban food, water and cell phones, Ms. Jacoby doesn’t blink when a calypso ring tone punctures the silence. She does allow that the original Allen Room, a gloomy first-floor den, was “looser.” “None of the usual rules applied,” she said, refusing to elaborate.

The contemporary Allen Room is a startlingly bland space, with a few shelves of reference material (1999 World Almanac; Notable American Women: The Modern Period) and a north-facing view of the Jamba Juice storefront on 42nd. But the blandness shouldn’t come as a surprise. Writers need neutral rooms in which to work, not spaces that burden inhabitants with the pressure to generate anecdotes. “You hardly ever see anyone else’s face-quite literally,” said Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful. “That sensory deprivation trains the imagination.”

Novelist Jennifer Vanderbes notes, “An exciting week at the Allen Room is when a non-member rattles the door handle trying to get in.”

For his part, Mr. Rose admits to the occasional nap but specifies that he doesn’t snore. Even Mr. Barksdale, the keeper of the flame, calls the Allen Room a “workaday place, not very glamorous.” But, he added, “it might be the last place on earth where silence is respected.”