By Alex Tresniowski
September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

ON ONE OF HIS FIRST TRIPS TO JOYE Cottage, a historic but dilapidated 60-room mansion in Aiken, S.C., Steve Naifeh fell right through some rotting floorboards. He did not, however, fall out of love with the five-acre, turn-of-the-century estate once owned by financial tycoon William C. Whitney, who died in 1904. “All those rooms and wings and Georgian detailing,” he says. “It was delicious.”

Bruised but undaunted, Naifeh, 44, along with life partner Greg Smith, also 44, plunked down $495,000 and bought a dream. Seven years and $650,000 later, Joye Cottage is a sumptuously renovated smorgasbord of Ionic columns, elliptical arches, beamed ceilings and, to Naifeh’s particular delight, sturdy heart-pine floors.

How a pair of New York City writers of relatively modest means came to own and overhaul a 20,000-square-foot fixer-upper is explained in their new book, On a Street Called Easy, in a Cottage Called Joye. The true-life tale of comically inept contractors and nosy Aiken neighbors ends happily, with Naifeh and Smith fleeing Manhattan to live luxuriously—and alone—in their sprawling southern Xanadu. “When we arrived, the name Joye Cottage sounded like a cruel joke,” says Smith. “Now it fits perfectly.”

The refurbished Joye Cottage, which Naifeh and Smith have bequeathed to Manhattan’s Juilliard School in their will, represents the fulfillment of two destinies. Naifeh, the son of U.S. Foreign Service officers, lived in 48 different homes around the world but dreamed of one day having his own exotic palace. Smith, whose father was a motel-restaurant owner and whose mother was an executive secretary, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and “lived in an interior world” as a child, he says, spending hours drawing detailed blueprints—sketches now framed in his Joye Cottage bedroom.

They met at Harvard Law School in 1974. “We were two lost souls in the dining hall wondering what in the hell we were doing here,” says Naifeh. After graduating they ditched the law for writing, teaming up on the 1979 handbook Moving Up in Style. The book sold well and led, incongruously, to their 1982 bestseller, How to Make Love to a Woman, for which Smith and Naifeh enlisted a friend to serve as a surrogate author. “We realized there would be publicity problems with us as authors,” says Smith, “since we obviously didn’t have that much experience making love to women.”

Their royalties financed a biography, Jackson Pollock, which won a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. They have also written a popular series of reference books: The Best Doctors in America and The Best Lawyers in America, issued by Woodward/White, their own publishing company, now housed in Joye Cottage.

Their research skills came in handy in 1986, when Smith was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. “The doctors said, ‘Sorry, you have three months to live,’ ” he remembers. “It was truly a death sentence.” Ignoring the grim prognosis, Smith and Naifeh tracked down medical experts who offered alternative treatments. A risky 12-hour operation at the University of Virginia in 1992 removed much of the tumor, and daily hormone injections ever since have stopped its growth. Their next book, Making Miracles Happen, will explain how Smith and other patients beat long medical odds. “The common quality among all of us,” says Smith, “is that we have aggressively taken control of our illnesses.”

Smith’s other unlikely success story began on a rainy day in 1988 when he and Naifeh, then living in New York City, pored through real estate brochures at Sotheby’s auction house. “We wanted to get out of the city,” remembers Smith, who noticed a listing for the 19th-century “cottage.” A week later they headed for Aiken and weren’t discouraged by the asking price of $1.7 million; instead they waited out a desperate owner (the house had been listed for 10 years), eventually paying only $495,000. With $525,000 from the sale of their Manhattan co-op, they bought Joye Cottage and moved to Aiken, which has, to their surprise, embraced them. “Except for a couple of drive-by hollerers,” says Smith, “no one has seemed to care that we’re gay.”

Their publishing revenues and royalties have financed ongoing renovations, though Naifeh and Smith have resisted suggestions to open a bed-and-break-fast, preferring to live in Joye Cottage by themselves. “We’d feel criminally self-indulgent,” says Naifeh, “if we weren’t giving it to Juilliard.” For now, though, Joye’s glorious wainscoting and expansive veranda are splendid but private spoils. “One of the themes of our book,” says Naifeh, “is that what keeps people happy is caring about something and working at it.” If that’s true, new ecstasy awaits: There’s this slightly rundown, 120-room house in Massachusetts the men now have their eyes on.


MEG GRANT in Aiken