Deep Inside Sylvia Miles' Shrine to Herself

Grande Dame Sylvia Miles chews out our reporter in a whirlwind tour of her apartment/museum.


Some people, it is said, are so hell-bent on elitist nightlife that they'll attend the opening of an envelope. Judging by her social and domestic wonts, Sylvia Miles will not only go to the opening, but she will take that envelope home, frame it, and hang it on a wall in her apartment. "It's a collage of my life," Miles says of her home in her nasally wail over lunch at a nearby restaurant. I have not yet seen the apartment, a place she alternately describes as a museum and a temple. "I need to meet you before I can let you up," she has explained. "I don't like having strangers in my home."

Looking through a couple of back issues of Movieline, Miles checks out previous pieces that have been done on the homes of John Waters and Michael O'Donoghue. With a weird kind of bravado laced with an undercurrent of envy, she observes, "John and Michael are controlled by their collections. I don't collect things for no reason. Everything in my apartment means something."

At 58 years old and with more than 30 movies under her belt - including Midnight Cowboy, Heat, Farewell, My Lovely, Crossing Delancey, and She-Devil - Miles looks like a cross between an aging starlet and an eccentric, bleached-from-gray yenta. She favors fingerless gloves, cowboy boots, and leather jackets. The years of self-mythologizing have apparently taken their toll, leaving her with a perpetual star complex; she requires a good deal of attention and everything needs to be done entirely on her terms. Even my reporting. When Miles finally agrees to allow me into the apartment, the first thing she does is grab my briefcase. "Wait a minute," I say, "my tape recorder and notebook are in there."

"I don't want you walking around in here with that briefcase. You'll knock things over."

"Can't I have the tape recorder?"

"No. Let me show you around, then you'll come back again and can use the tape recorder."

"How about my notebook," I whine, sounding like a little bit of a yenta myself. "I have to take notes."

"Of course."

True to her word, the apartment is a temple, though the resident god happens to be Sylvia Miles. Most of the wall space is covered with painterly gifts from friends (Mark Kostabi, Andy Warhol, Hedy Klineman), posters from her films (Heat and Who Killed Mary What's'ername), and things that contain her name out of context (a street sign for Miles Way and a wood-carving of an S in her foyer). A plugged-in sculpture near the kitchen window spells out "Sylvia" in neon and a matching palm tree lights up the grate of her fireplace. The way she tells it, most of the magazines piled around the apartment contain articles about her, the books that line the shelves just below the ceiling have been written by friends, and just about everything else (right down to the macaroni and cheese in her refrigerator-"My acting partner gave me it") is a gift.

Across from the refrigerator, hanging on a wall above the stove, is a fairly impressive collection of copper pots and pans. I ask Sylvia if she does a lot of cooking. "You figure it out," she says, opening her oven to reveal an equally impressive collection of tools.

She leads me out of the kitchen on a whirlwind tour of her one-bedroom apartment with its million dollar view of Central Park, promising that we'll have a more formal meeting a week later, prior to the photo shoot for this article. We pass what looks like a small sketch by Robert Rauschenberg and Miles gushes, "He gave me that. We were at a dinner and I asked him to sign the napkin. He did, then he looked at me and said, 'Sylvia, you're so cheap.' "

We stop at a closet near the apartment's entrance, and Miles reaches for a purse that hangs from a chain on the doorknob. "Andy gave me this after the opening of The Night of the Iguana," she says. Speaking softly, as if Warhol has an ear to the neighboring wall, she adds, "He thought it was made of iguana but it's really alligator."

Just as I'm about to leave, Miles decides to play a little game. She opens up the closet - which is filled to the brim but immaculately organized - to expose the leopard skin coat ("Those animal people are silly," she says dismissively) that she wore in Wall Street. She turns toward a cardboard box on the floor of the closet. "Look, I'll just stick my hand in here and see what I pull out." She hands me a clipping of her and Abbie Hoffman, then snatches it back. After that comes a photograph of her posing alongside the Andy Warhol imitator Alan Midgett. Next I'm holding a newspaper article. "What's that?" Miles asks. I tell her it's a piece about one of her plays. "Read it." I do, aloud. "Does it say that I was good?" It's more a preview than a review, so it doesn't say anything about the performance one way or the other. "Here, give me that." She replaces the article in her box and hands me my briefcase along with a few of her movies on videotape. "You better bring those back next week or I'll kill you," she says by way of adieu.

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