Redecorating With...Susan Lucci
The mistress of the house is known to neighborhood children as Mrs. Huber. When no one is listening, her adoring Austrian-born husband, Helmut, likes to call her Schnickelfritz. (Don't ask; even he can't translate it.) The rules here are simple: no junk mail in the dining room, no food in the living room, and—this one is for the kids only—no shoes in the house. "They bring in pebbles in their sneakers," explains Helmut. "I can wear shoes because I don't wear sneakers."
Welcome to the House at the End of the Block, Garden City, Long Island, 25 miles east of Manhattan—and a world away from Pine Valley, ABC, where for 24 years Schnickelfritz has been known as All My Children's irrepressible Erica Kane. Here the most exciting news is not that Erica has been acquitted of attempted murder (temporary insanity) but that Susan Lucci's 19-year-old daughter Liza, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named the Queen of the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. The biggest eyebrow-raiser is not that Erica's crazed daughter Kendall tried to seduce her stepfather, Dimitri, but that the local schoolgirls never seem to stop calling Andreas, Susan's handsome 14-year-old son.
"No one ever calls us" says Huber, 56, Lucci's husband of 24 years and president of SL Enterprises.
"Andreas doesn't even know he's getting off easy," says Lucci, 44, with a warm laugh. "He thinks girls calling boys is just how things work."
Let's be frank: Ms. Kane would be bored silly here in a suburban spread complete with a dog barking in the kitchen and a lire swinging from a tree out front. But the grandest dame of daytime television—who this week hosts the first daytime Emmy Awards ceremony in 14 years in which she is not a nominee—grew up in Garden City. She left straight out of college, eager for the glamor of Manhattan. But 16 years ago she and Helmut—who met in 1966 at the Garden City Hotel, where she was a part-time hostess, he a chef—decided to move back. It was Lucci who fell in love with the 1927 Georgian colonial house; Huber thought the five-bedroom place was too big. But Susan made him see reason, and so, within its shingled walls, they raised their children and counted their many blessings.
Then early one morning about two years ago, wandering about the house as she likes to do ("It's the only time I can think my own thoughts," she explains), Lucci noticed a strange incongruity: the fancy handiwork in the dining room—a carved mantelpiece and the elaborate ceiling molding—didn't extend into the living room. "Maybe the original owners ran out of money," says Lucci of the apparently abrupt decision to stop work on the interior. "Maybe it was the Depression—or just divorce."
In any case, Lucci decided, the time was long overdue for a change. With the aid of her good friend, Garden City-based decorator Betty Barbatsuly, Lucci set about turning her house into a palace: poring over fabric swatches for the window treatments, scouring New York State antique stores for her favorite Staffordshire porcelain figurines, blow-drying paint strips in her search for the perfect green for the sunroom. And yes, she confesses, escaping with the family to their seven-bedroom beachfront home in the Hamptons last summer while the carpenters, painters and electricians worked their magic.
Today, with Project Palace nearly complete (the kitchen and a few upstairs bedrooms remain undone), Lucci is unabashedly proud. At every turn are touches of the elegance she adores: Herend china from Hungary; Seguso candlesticks from Venice; an exquisite trompe l'oeil hand painted on the foyer walls, in which a pheasant outside an old villa appears to fly away with a strand of pearls.
"Those are mine," says Lucci, pointing to the likeness of the necklace. "For years I wanted pearls, but Helmut always said, 'No, no, you're too young.' And I'd say, 'No, no, I really would love pearls.' And then one Valentine's Day he just pulled out this beautiful opera-length strand from underneath the breakfast table. I was 50 happy. So we decided to incorporate them into our home."
In fact, for all the fancy trappings, it is the personal touches and treasures—and, of course, the stories behind them—that make this house a home. The silver bowl, tucked on a shelf in the kitchen, that Helmut used as a child in Innsbruck, Austria. A poem, written by Liza for her mother, hung in a back hallway. The portrait of Liza and Andreas, painted in 1983, that hangs by the front door.
"If there were a fire," says Lucci, "that portrait is what I would take."
And her husband, what would he take? "The kids," says Huber.
"Honey," says Lucci with a laugh. "The kids are out already."
"Oh," says Huber. He thinks for a moment. "Nothing then, there is nothing I would take."
Huber has no talent for these "what if" games. Susan is the family romantic, eager to talk about, say, the brushstrokes in a landscape painting, while he wants to discuss the electrical options for lighting it. Still, there is very little upon which this couple can't easily compromise. "The big point of disagreement," says Lucci, "is that I like really big scale and he likes very delicate." (Hardly a surprise: "Look who I married," says the 5'2" actress of the man who lowers a foot over her, "and look who he married.") A smaller point of contention: the photographs of Lucci that cover the walls, paying homage to her soap stardom, her Ford commercials, her various miniseries, the line of hair products she now sells on QVC. "Helmut put these up," she says, slightly embarrassed. "I said, 'Please don't do this. I mean it, please.' But he says I should be proud of my accomplishments."
And so she is. This year's Emmy snub, she admits, "makes me sad." But Lucci keeps the slight in perspective: it is nothing that can't be cured by the prospect of zebra print in the master bedroom. Or better yet, the prospect of seeing Andreas and his pals, who, she says, will soon return from lacrosse practice and flop down on the newly covered chairs in the living room. "After they take off their shoes," says Helmut. Lucci grins. She is fond of this husband of hers, this life, this home. Yes, she admits, she might try to coax the sweaty boys out of the living room and into the family room downstairs. But if they end up staying, she says, both she—and the chairs—will survive. "The point of all this beauty," says Lucci, "is to be happy. And I'm lucky: I am."
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