Although he’s a city boy at heart, radio personality Bruce Morrow delights in retreating to the rural Ulster County farmhouse he shares with his wife, Jodie
By Lynn Hazlewood, Photographs by Kenneth Gabrielsen
Twelve years ago, when Jodie Morrow first stepped into her country house in Stone Ridge, Ulster County, she saw wide-board floors, deep window sills, built-in cupboards, beamed ceilings, and all the warmth and charm of a 200-year-old home. What her husband, Bruce Morrow, saw was “something out of a Stephen King horror film,” he says. “The place was a disaster.”
Although its spired gables gave the facade a certain charm, the house, known as the Captain’s House, was beyond forlorn. A leaky roof had brought the kitchen ceiling down, leaving debris lying scattered in the gaping hole where the rotted floor had once been. Animals scurried across missing floorboards in the derelict rooms. The plumbing and electrical systems each needed a complete overhaul, and years of neglect had left every surface in need of attention. Perhaps most forbidding of all, the house was set on a parcel of land that rose sharply behind it, adding a sense of dank gloominess. The place was uninhabitable. But Jodie saw the possibilities, and the couple placed a bid.
When Bruce Morrow (better known as radio’s legendary Cousin Brucie) started losing sleep — the prospect of renovating the house was too daunting. As Jodie recalls: “Bruce said, â€˜It’s going to cost a fortune. Are you interested in plumbing? Are you interested in roofs?’ I was only interested in furnishings. So although I loved it, I let it go.” The couple, who at that time had the youngest of Bruce’s children from his first marriage still living with them, put house-hunting on hold and resumed their “hobby” — visiting inns. “We stopped looking,” Jodie says. “But I had it in my mind to have a house from the 1700s.”
In a way, it’s hard to picture Bruce Morrow settling into a quiet, country house. He refers to himself as “true-blue Brooklyn,” and he’s a large man with a big personality whose city-style intensity has been a hallmark of his long radio career. It’s a career he loves to look back on. “I was a shy kid,” he claims, “and an English teacher suggested I study at the All City Radio Workshop. We did drama, news, documentary, wrote, performed, learned how to use music as punctuation…. My hero was Alan Freed,” he says, referring to the ’50s-era deejay credited with coining the phrase “rock and roll.” “He sounded like the music — all that energy.”
After graduating from NYU, where he founded the college radio station, Morrow sent demo tapes to eight stations in warm climates. “I was ready to conquer the world, but I wanted to be in a tropical area,” he says. His first offer came from a Florida station, where the then-magnificent sum of $82 a week turned out to cover equal time on the air and running the car wash component of the station owner’s business.
Morrow accepted the second offer he got, “to introduce rock and roll to the magnificent island nation of Bermuda,” he says. “I spent a year and a half there, developing my skills. The island people called me the Hammer; I was very frenetic.” In the late 1950s, back in the U.S. and working at WINS in New York, Morrow was approached by a woman asking for money, and calling him “cousin.” “We’re all related,” she told him, sparking inspiration. Over the objections of the station manager, who thought the name was too corny for a New York audience, Morrow went on the air the next day as Cousin Brucie — and has been Cousin Brucie ever since.
After nearly five decades, Morrow’s format is still going strong. When his long-running shows on WCBS were cancelled late last year, he was immediately signed by Sirius Satellite Radio (he can be heard on Sirius 6 and Sirius Stars). “I was out of work for one day,” he declares, with a derisive snort for the “bean-counters” who thought his day was done.
Back in 1973, the recently divorced Morrow met Jodie Berlin on a blind date, and the couple were married a year later. Jodie, who grew up in the Rockaways, has been a teacher, and owned an antiques shop and a communications company (“I’m not domestic,” she notes). In recent years, she has worked with those with cranial abnormalities (“facial differences is the politically correct term,” she says). A documentary that she produced called Face: A Portrait was aired on PBS and was also the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation.
Both Morrows lead busy lives in Manhattan. But after Bruce’s daughter Meredith went off to college in the late ’90s, they started searching for a country house again. Says Jodie: “I called the realtor and said we wanted to look at stone houses near Mohonk. And she said, â€˜The Captain’s House is back on the market.’” By that time, most of the restoration work had been done. But the land still loomed behind the house, and Bruce still found it oppressive. The couple almost bought another stone house on beautiful property nearby, but the owner ducked out at the last minute. “Jodie started up again about the Captain’s House,” says Bruce. Finally, the realtor suggested that her husband, a contractor, could reshape the land, and the Morrows went ahead and bought the place.
The stone part of the house was built circa 1780, and the frame addition constructed in the mid-1800s. The oldest part now serves as the living room, with a large paneled cupboard that hides Bruce’s huge flat-screen TV. Jodie prefers the dining-living room, where a 12-foot-long cherry library table surrounded by Victorian chairs fills the space on one side of the paneled Rumford-style fireplace, and a camelback couch and cut-down farmhouse table occupy the other side. Cushions on the deep window sills supply extra seating, while a collection of birdhouses is offset by a poster-sized photograph of a Parisian street scene taken by Bruce. (“Photography is my other great love,” he says.)
Between the rooms, a center hall leads to the country-style kitchen, with its wide-board paneling, terra-cotta tile floor, and French doors opening onto a terrace. Thick bluestone counters on either side of the stove are all that have kept Bruce from upgrading to a bigger commercial version. Cabinet doors are made from black walnut trees from the property.
Upstairs, a hall gives on to various rooms: the master bedroom with its pencil-post bed, fireplace, and bath; Jodie’s Victorian-style bathroom with clawfoot tub, embroidered samplers, and views over the meadows; and two comfortably furnished guest rooms.
Another hallway, lined with more of Bruce’s photographs, leads past “the snoring room,” a bedroom tucked into the eaves that Jodie retreats to when necessary. At the end of the hall is Jodie’s office, where a long table faces a wall of windows that look out at the treehouse and the slope that runs down to the pool — a view that would have been the scrub-covered “mountain” if Bruce hadn’t had it leveled. “I took turns on the bulldozer,” he recalls with relish. “It took all summer. I worked my ass off and had the best time.”
The unearthed boulders and stones were used to build walls and paths. “I’d draw what I wanted on paper napkins,” says Bruce. “I like to plan.” He planned the poolhouse where the old milkshed once stood, and where summer dinners take place on the screened porch. He dreamed his daughter would be married on a bridge over a pond, so he installed one and she obligingly made the dream come true by marrying mid-bridge in the summer of 2004, the minister standing on a boulder to one side.
Other plans included a wisteria arbor, a gazebo, benches and a treehouse, apple trees, and flower beds. “We made a big, wonderful mistake” with the gardens, Bruce Morrow cheerfully announces. “We have red thumbs.”
“We didn’t understand about maintaining,” adds Jodie. “So we bit the bullet and just hired someone.” Now local garden designer Debbie Gray takes care of the grounds. “She brings a crew,” Bruce says. “I’ve counted 10 behinds out there, all bent over doing something.”
The house looks out over cow pastures, with the Shawangunks and Mohonk Mountain House in the distance, a scene that Bruce Morrow has preserved for himself by buying the meadows. “I look out there and think, â€˜My God, that’s mine,’” he says. “It’s a piece of paradise. I love my city life, I love New York. But this is our sanctum. In summertime, it’s magical. I have everything in the world I want.”