PAPER
on the front lines of cultural chaos since 1984.
Legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) and his awesome wife Gillian Walker, a family therapist and professor of psychotherapy, live in an amazing brownstone in Harlem. The house is chock-full of memories of their life, which has so far been quite an extraordinary journey, and, above, photographer The Selby takes inside their incredible residence.

The rest of the Selby's series on Albert and Gilian will appear on his website, theselby.com,in the coming weeks (see also his photos of George Lois and Vladimir Kagan's homes for PAPERMAG). Until then, you can get a sneak peek here. Below, the couple answer a few questions for us about the place theycall home and why they love living in Harlem.


What do you love the most about your home in Harlem?

Albert Maysles: There is so much to see and, with all the clutter, somehow it's all the more comfortable. Strangers enter and immediately feel at home. They'll keep discovering a model sailboat by the window which houses a royal family of dolls from Rajistan, my infant shoes on the shelf above the fireplace (there are two working fireplaces on each floor), a cornet on the wall in the kitche and paintings from my son Philip and daughter Rebekah. Everything a reflection of my wife Gillian's good taste. The garden, the swimming pool, etc.

On the streets, you experience a feeling of community and courtesy. Recently I had just arrived home from the airport and as I was walking up the stairs to the front door a local passer-by cautioned me to be careful to tie my shoe laces, that I might trip over them. Where else but in Harlem would this happen?

Tell us a bit about your home and the neighborhood that you live in.

Gillian Walker: When our children were grown, Al and I moved from a Victorian building on the West side to a brownstone on Doctors Row in central Harlem, to a house whose woodwork was almost exactly the same style and period as our previous apartment. Across the street was St. Martin's church, whose Sunday bells brought back my memories of a childhood in England when the bells rang out in triumph after five years of silence during the war. I also grew up in a neighborhood in Washington D.C. that was predominantly African American until I was a teenager, when I watched gentrification rapidly drain the life out of it. I grew up with the same churches and Gospel music as well as a Nation of Islam Mosque which held torchlight parades. We had similarly courteous and generous neighbors. Our Harlem neighborhood is just that -- a place  that has  friendly neighbors, the liveliness of street merchants, African sacred drumming, Gospel music pouring out of the many churches, venerable jazz clubs and a wonderful farmers' market recently established in Marcus Garvey Park.  When our beloved Milly Addolarato, who co-raised our kids, would, aged  87, every day ride her scooter through Harlem, everyone helped her. When she died this summer I found tucked amid her collection of memorial mass cards, a card for the Sho Enuff Beauty Parlor where the young beautician had finally achieved a perfect recreation of Milly's  pale-yellow fifties beehive hairdo. .

There is also poverty in Harlem and an occasional shooting, or a street fight, which sometimes is more theatre than deadly. We mourn the displacement of long-time residents as people like us move in and developers torch beautiful old buildings to make way for glitzy hotels and the like. Out of respect for the venerable history of Harlem, we built a community space, a cinema and film education program to serve our neighbors and show our gratitude for the great joy and honor of living here.

What style would you call your home?

G.W.: Memorial. Almost everything represents gifts from friends, family. Books represent many paths taken and are too precious to part with (although they overflow all available space).  In bookcases, on tables, every possible surface there are photographs and mementos of our beloved dead as well as recordings of events of our lives, mixed with images of our heroes: Chavez, Malcolm X...

Explain a bit how you furnished your home.

A.M.: Victorians loved strong colors so to honor the spirit of the house, the first thing was to get the wall colors right. An artist friend, Josie McKee, worked hard to get the flow of the main floor from lavender to rose, to apple green to a frescoed pink kitchen. The halls are golden, our bedroom the glowing blush on a peach. Some basic furniture came with us from our old apartment but, by and large, anything we needed came from thrift shops and eBay, with a few beautiful old Tibetan chests thrown in amid cheaper Chinese-Tibetan knockoffs. In the apple green/blue and white dining room our friend Rachel Jacoff gave us a beautiful blue Chinese deco carpet with clouds and forests which her father had left her. The house rejoices in the colorfulness of painted Tibetan furniture, which is covered in turn with suzanis bought in the heyday of eBay's forays into Uzbekistan. We are far too old for the humiliation of the gym, so we put in an exercise machine and an endless pool, the kind that, represented in an omnipresent mysterious small ad in the New Yorker, had made Gillian, since childhood, dream of owning one. Swimming in it at night you can see the  sky, stars and the windy trees.

Tell us about your kitchen.

G.W.:  I wanted it to be central to where we hang out and I wanted it to be pink, rough stucco so the light would always be changing. I wanted to have built-in bookcases for my cookbooks, a narrow table where we could eat as a family and a Victorian comfortable chair to read in, reminding me always of its beloved former owner. My daughter found me a bare-bones restaurant stove with two ovens, which I have surrounded with a collection of art nouveau flower tiles. On the walls hang Al's father's cornet, a huge painting of a lily by my daughter Rebekah who designs for Anthropologie, a tangka given to us by visiting Tibetan professors, a Giorgione cut out by Mimi Gross, a Peter Schumann BREAD poster and an Indian scroll of fish given to me by my friend Kathryn Walker. Looking at this art, watching sun light fall through my collection of coloured bottles, growing deep blue streptocarpus as my mother did, listening to NPR, WBAI and classical music, remembering the dead who have taught me so much, are the vital precursors to cooking a good meal..     

A.M.:  When I am in the kitchen,  I often remember a moment with my father which took place when I was eight. For years before, my father and I would go to the big closet and we'd both try on parts from his First World War uniform. I always noticed a shabby leather case at the far end of the closet but remained silent because I felt there was something taboo about it. This time my father noticed my looking at it and pulled down the case, opened it, and took out a cornet, put it to his lips, fingered the valves, and without playing it, returned it to its case, and stored it away. Years later my mother explained that he used to play the coronet with his brothers, Sam the violinist, Joseph the percussionist and George with another instrument. When George died before I was born, my father didn't have the heart to play anymore.  Several years ago I happened to have the cornet in my studio, and when Wynton Marsalis came to screen the film we had just made of him, I brought forth the cornet to tell him the story. Immediately he put it to his lips, moved the valves, and played it for 5-10 minutes. And now the cornet, revitalized by the great Marsalis, shines down from our kitchen wall.  

What is your favorite chair to plop in?

A.M.: My favorite chair is the dining room couch. I can sit and read at one end or have one or two people sit next to me.

Tell us about all the art you have around your home

G.W.: Our artist children Rebekah and Philip have made the most moving paintings for our formal living room. My father left me a painting of Pittsburgh, his hometown, and my uncle left me one of his favorite Morris Graves watercolors. We have been blessed with gifts by painters such as Mimi Gross, Judith Murray, Robert Yasuda, Christo, Candace Lin,  Billy Lewis and Marco.  We have prints which I collected when I was a graduate student (when cheap prints were to be discovered in cramped stores around the British Museum) and prints my father collected  as a student in prewar Berlin. The other day my friend, the painter Nancy Haynes, gave me for my birthday a meditative painting of hers which I could never have afforded but  which I had adored when I saw it in her show. Al is a wonderful still photographer and we are lucky to have some of his gorgeous prints as well as photographs by Marianna Cook, Cartier Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Kathryn Walker and  Robyn Brentano. I feel such gratitude for the generosity of many artist friends who have made it possible for us to live surrounded by such beautiful work.

And your garden?

G.W.: I designed a magical, mirrored garden with Luis Barrigan pink walls and a small fishpond, which reflects ripples of sunlight onto the walls. I longed for an English flower garden, but the reality of the neighbor's trees resigned me to the exploration of  bringing color to light shade. Heuchera, hellebores, camellias, dicentra, columbines, occasional lilies --  not too bad. And I do have masses of climbing roses in the spring before the neighbor's leaves thicken. At night we eat out by torch light which is heaven amid the smells of honeysuckle, jasmine, nicotiana sylvestris and occasional lilies which remind me of the thick sensuous scents of Italy where I have also lived. My passion for gardening goes back to age six when I went to stay for long periods with my grandparents in post-war England. Food was rationed and my uncle immediately set me to work in their market garden. From their garden you could hear church bells and on Saturdays we set out for the farmers' market as I do now. xfAs the Jesuits say, "If you get them before the age of seven you have them for life." Certainly that is true for me of gardening, farmers' markets and bells.
 
Your house is so warm and you love to cook for and welcome friends to come by and eat and stay.

G.W.: We have always had an open house and a huge extended family of friends. Al often meets people on the street and when I get back from work, there they are. Years ago I remember coming home to find Vanessa Redgrave sitting with Al at our table with a collection of radical newspapers spread out before them and an alarm clock set to remind  her when she had to leave for the theatre. Al and she were obviously deep in intense political conversation but as I came in the alarm went off and she was gone. Al is just as likely to ask a neighbor or passerby whom he has never before met, to see his house. He tends to get so engrossed in conversation he forgets to offer visitors anything to eat or drink. Once he invited two volley ball teams he found in Central Park for dinner without telling me before hand. When I came home from work an hour or so later I found them settled in the living room, obviously ravenously hungry and thirsty.  Somehow I found enough wine and concocted  enough pasta  and salad to satisfy them.

We are always having visiting artists to stay because we created the Maysles Cinema which shows documentary films from all over the world. As a result we get to meet Tibetan filmmakers and professors, friends from Haiti, the Congo, musicians and filmmakers from everywhere. I make assorted crepes for breakfast on weekends for the numerous and random sojourners. Sometimes guests insist on cooking their national specialties. Holidays are open house for whomever wants to join us. People bring their special dishes, and my four children are wonderful cooks and each contributes to the feast. There are as many people who can squeeze in -- the dining room table seats as many as twenty-four. Then there is the kitchen table which seats six more  and many couches and easy chairs. As a result, Thanksgiving is our favorite time of year. No religion to contend over --  just celebration of the wondrous,  precious and fragile bounty of the earth which belongs to all of us.   

Any favorite stories about your house?
G.W.: The other day we had a home birth in our top floor apartment. A blessing, a christening of the house.

RELATED:
The Selby and the PAPERMAG Present: At Home with George Lois
The Selby and the PAPERMAG Present: At Home with Vladimir Kagan

 
 
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