A Richly Textured Fishers Island Getaway
The island retreat of Grey Gardens filmmaker Albert Maysles.
Iconoclasts don’t necessarily want to be different. They simply can’t imagine doing things any other way. Such was the case with the documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose early works—Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter, made in collaboration with his brother, David—elegantly captured his subjects at close range, relaying their stories without the aid of narration. His movies inspired a generation of documentary filmmakers, prompted feature directors to incorporate more natural action and authentic dialogue into their productions, and served as a template for single-camera mockumentaries like The Office. Maysles’s later films, Iris and In Transit, validated his lasting relevance.
Between assignments, Maysles retreated to a family house on Fishers Island, sometimes with his crew in tow. There was the time he arrived, unannounced, accompanied by 15 Chinese filmmakers. Anyone who has been to “Fishers” would appreciate the potential hazard of the situation: There are no hotels or restaurants on the island, and the only grocery store has limited supplies. Maysles’s wife, Gillian Walker, a willing co-conspirator and gifted improviser, sprang into action, whipping up loaves of bread and vats of ratatouille made from the abundant zucchini in her garden.
The house came to the couple through Walker’s parents, John and Lady Margaret Drummond Walker, who likewise were not bound by convention. They had admired the house, and when the real estate agent refused to let them inside, claiming it was haunted, they watched the sunset from the porch and deemed the setting so beautiful that they bought the place immediately, calling it Will O’Dale in honor of arts patron Chester Dale, a friend who had left the couple a surprise inheritance.
“A lot of the furniture that came with the house when my grandparents bought it is still here,” says Sara Maysles, the de facto family historian. Later additions, discovered at the Fishers Island thrift shop and in markets near the family’s Harlem townhouse, ensure that the home remains a living, breathing testament to their richly textured life. “We find things everywhere, and they just fit in. And when we repaint, we try to stay true to the original colors.” The family’s home movies reveal a kaleidoscopic palette of velvety plum, tangerine, sapphire, and butter still extant today.
Albert Maysles always had a camera going, to which his family was resigned, knowing that filming things was how he made sense of the world. “We claimed he hid behind the camera to avoid household work, but the truth is he loved to help around the house,” Sara recounts. “He repaired everything with epoxy glue, and he loved pulling weeds in the garden.”
Maysles would rebuild cameras as often as he reworked clothing, retreating to an upstairs sewing room to replace buttons with zippers, which made jackets easier to put on and take off during shoots. “He sewed name tags on everything, even on his socks, because he was obsessed with the fact that he never got to go to summer camp.”
Sara and her siblings are all gifted artists who have inherited their parents’ penchant for individualism. On any given weekend, the house is filled with a parade of friends and their growing family, which now includes two toddlers, Albert and Elijah. They take long walks on the beach, foraging for blueberries and rose hips, and play croquet and badminton, a nod to Gillian Maysles’s English heritage. Drawers are filled with art supplies, and on cold evenings they roast pizzas and summer fruits over the living room fire. “Nothing’s planned,” says Sara, “but things are always happening.”
The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Will O’Dale.