NEWARK, NJ - The house at 81 Summit Avenue in Newark's Weequahic neighborhood is otherwise unremarkable expect for a sign attached to its faux flagstone facade noting that the home has been designated a historic site -- the childhood home of celebrated author Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at the age of 85.
There were no crowds outside the home to pay homage to the prolific author who spent a lifetime writing about the city he grew up in.
But inside, two sisters -- Roberta Harrington, 88, and Mary Ann Davis, 83, both retired nurses -- reminisced about the times Roth visited their home. Roth who was born in 1933 spent 17 years of his youth in Newark.
“I was here the first time he came,” said Davis. “We were coming back from church. There were two buses here, Philip, the mayor. He came, and he was like a little boy.”
Harrington, who said she has owned the Summit Avenue home since the 80s, said Roth showed up with a book club and made a few appearances at the residence over the years.
“He was a nice man. He was getting ready to write another book,” Harrington said of meeting Roth years ago. “He was excited to see that people were in the home he had lived. He was looking around in the backyard and everything like that.”
Harrington said when there was a request from the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee to turn her home into a historic site she agreed because she said it didn’t bother her and, “they gave me the courtesy of coming and telling me what they wanted to do.”
Harrington said she had just returned from the doctor and that she was unaware of Roth’s death until Wednesday.
Harrington said that people stop and take photos of her home, often from across the street, but that she doesn’t mind the attention. Harrington had few but all fond memories of meeting Roth.
“I talked with him,” Harrington said. “He said he was raised in this house. He said he graduated from Weequahic High right down there. Most of the boys he went to school with were in this neighborhood.”
Roth’s connection to his birthplace is undeniable as it is the setting time and again throughout many of his works. Roth was a wildly celebrated author and won many honors including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (twice), and the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times).
In Goodbye, Columbus one of Roth’s character’s muses, “Sitting there in the park, I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection.”