Carol Prisant's thoughts keep going off-leash. Her new book, "Dog House, A Love Story" (Gotham Books, $22.50), is ostensibly about the many wonderful homes she's lived in alongside her many, many pets. But like her dogs, Prisant's memories have a tendency to get loose and wind up in strange places.
As the book begins, the author's childhood canine encounters keep going sweetly sour thanks to her primly perfectionist mother. As Prisant points out, "Dogs don't do immaculate." So newly married and living in Florida with her Cape Canaveral-based husband, Millard, Prisant decided her first dog (or as she puts it "pseudo-dog") would be a monkey. It didn't end well. After only one day in her care, the disoriented creature attached itself to her husband's leg and remained there, firmly fastened, while the long-suffering Millard shaved, dressed, breakfasted — and drove back to the pet shop.
"The book became an inadvertent memoir," admits Prisant, who's also penned two Antiques Roadshow books and for the last twenty-two years has been the US editor of London-based World of Interiors magazine. Her doggy portfolio includes everything from a much-loved Jack Russell, Cosi, who developed a rare disorder leaving him covered in bald spots, to a Lurcher (a border collie/greyhound cross) named Juno who Prisant fondly concedes was a "super drooler."
"The sofa is silk and the drools show. But I don't care, it's only upholstery," she says. "Now a dog…a dog is wonderful." Prisant cops to loving them so much she can't pass one on the street without stopping to introduce herself. "I'm besotted with any kind of dog," she moans, "Even a pit bull. I'm not discerning. I love their little faces and luckily living in Manhattan is like living in a permanent kennel."
Before you dismiss Prisant's book as some treacly Lassie Come Home rewrite, please note: she's a largely disastrous dog owner, and her mishaps and acknowledgement of such are hilarious. From poorly chosen breeds ("I'm not really a good Jack Russell owner") to ridiculous international treks to breeding kennels (England's Lake Country for the Lurcher) to dog behavior so outrageously inappropriate it seems impossible she ever talked her husband into getting another one.
Prisant says her mother never forgave her for the rust-colored stain left by her first "he-followed-me-home" acquisition — female dog urine apparently does not come out of wool carpets — but after decades of interiors stories and countless stubborn stains Prisant knows better than to do wool. She claims her own floors are completely dog proof, "They're just painted plywood. If a dog has an accident it's easy to clean. But best of all you can see it before you step in it!" Her version of plywood floors are a far cry from ice-fishing hut décor though — they're a sophisticated checkerboard of oversized squares painted in off-white, pink, and sandstone.
As practical as those pale shades might be for canine accident detection, there's a bit more going on.
"I decided I wanted everything to be Greek and Roman; this is my girly temple," says Prisant who, after losing her beloved Millard, downscaled from a 24-room house on Long Island to this 1500-square foot Manhattan apartment. She also decided her style and color touchstone would be the Nubian Temple of Dendur exhibit, the massive assemblage of sandstone and hieroglyphs that anchors a full wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "That's not too much to ask, is it?" she says laughing.
Prisant admits to being "a little theatrical." Her default look is a pair of pants and the 'pirate-sleeved' blouses she buys online from a Parisian costume shop. But she's also universally respected for her eye for interior design and, as usual, her instincts are unerring. Her apartment is a covetable mix presided over by the elegant companion in her life, a rescued track greyhound named Ajax. "Ajax is my dream dog," Prisant confides, "It's not so bad to have a big dog in a small apartment; it's like having a man around." And aside from a tendency to occasionally tear around Prisant's bedroom like he's caught sight of the racetrack rabbit, Ajax is a quiet respectful roommate. Maybe because there are so few rules for him to break.
The same can't be said of the furnishings. Take the kitchen sconce Prisant designed herself —sheathed in Swarovski crystals in the shape of a Roman victory wreath — or the large collection of busts and porcelain left over from her long career as an antiques dealer.
And hopefully any scratching at the bedroom door — an intricate faux-painted copy of a Pompeian entryway — would elicit a sharp "bad dog!" though knowing Prisant that seems unlikely.
In the bathroom a life-sized print of a woman covered head-to-toe in flower tattoos, a blown-up copy of a 16th century watercolor, is another surprise. "When I moved here, I missed my garden," Prisant explains simply, as if the astonishing installation were equivalent to scattering a few bouquets around.
As for life on the Upper East Side, Prisant says she and Ajax are still adjusting. Ajax apparently finds all the other dogs around somewhat disconcerting and skulks out for his walks "like it's seventies Gotham and he's waiting for a mugger." And for her part Prisant says she still dreams of lawns and roses and old houses, and her idea of paradise — a place "where good dogs, and good men — have golden tales."
Carol Prisant's tips for living with dogs:
Consider the floor. Or don't. "Wood or tile floors in every possible room make clean-up a cinch (although with tile, you do get those grout parts). On the other hand, there are at least 30 carpet stain remover products. Buy carpet and stimulate the economy."
Embrace a new standard. "My furniture covers are silk. I kind of like the way they look covered in dog hair and drool. My clothes, too."
Just bark it out. "If you have what's euphemistically called a good guard dog, try to live where you have no neighbors."
Share your crumbs, guard your steaks. "Should you be lucky enough to be doing over your kitchen, be sure to put in very deep counters, say two feet. That way, if you ever have a big dog, you'll never have to worry about losing the family's dinner. Small dogs, on the other hand, make very good Hoovers."
Never sacrifice style. "Color-coordinate your dog beds. Brown corduroy isn't terrific in a pink satin bedroom. (Which isn't terrific, either)."
Let love lead. "And truthfully, what's the point of beauty if it can't include a dog?"