Meeting Albert Maysles March 9, 2015

A brief encounter with a lovely old flirt. This was in 2004 at the Banff Television Festival, as it was then called. I was hanging out with my friend Judy Gladstone, who knows everyone, and she suggested we take Albert Maysles to a party. Leaving me at a festival karaoke night with a couple of friends, Judy went to find him.

maysles realAlbert was in Banff promoting his latest documentaries, maybe financing the next ones. He would have been 77 at the time, and I don’t know which films he was promoting. He released four that year, and together they provide a good sense of his range: The Jeff Koons Show for TV; A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary;, In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith and Capital: Impressions of Early Empire. He would go on to make 28 more films for an astonishing total of 74. Reports say he was still working when he died last week at 88.

Eleven years ago, I felt awed knowing that I would be meeting Albert Maysles, even if I wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce his name. (It’s MAZE-uls.) I’d seen Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter and other brilliant documentaries he had worked on with his brother David, who had died in 1987.

I was also afraid he would be arrogant and knowing.

But when Albert and Judy came to meet us, he proved to be an entirely relaxed and happy-tempered man, very comfortable with himself and instantly comfortable with strangers, able to put us at our ease with a quick laugh and flirtatious eyebrows. Well, he was a documentary maker and charm was part of his job, but he didn’t turn it off at night. He seemed to think of himself as the same age as the rest of us, in our thirties and forties, never the faintest acknowledgement of the fact he could have been our father. Nothing inappropriate either, although he certainly liked the pretty women in our group, especially the petite ones like Judy, not being all that tall himself. Photos show he was dark and good looking when he was our age, and he  had a handsome older face framed by plentiful white hair.

We rode the elevator to the ninth floor of the Banff Springs Hotel, then took the private elevator up to the penthouse, where the party was being held. Somehow Albert knew that Marilyn Monroe had stayed in the presidential suite while filming in the Rockies, and he wanted to stand in what had been her bedroom looking out the window past a roof that was like the prow of a ship cleaving the mountains. Night was slowly falling, the mountains greening to black, their peaks lit orange by the setting sun. Below us the silvery Bow River was bending off into a long dusk. It was 11 p.m. and so close to the summer solstice that the light would linger until almost midnight.

Albert said he’d met Marilyn Monroe in 1955 when his brother David was working as a sound man on one of her movies. He had just ridden his motorcycle across the USSR after making his first documentary about psychiatric hospitals in the Soviet Union. Albert spoke of the air being full of pro- and anti- Soviet propaganda—the Cold War—and said he wanted to make a documentary about the common man. He used the phrase without irony, and I remember thinking that it had become a historical term, a historical attitude.

In fact, his subject was the common man as seen in a psychiatric hospital. Albert told me he’d done his degree in psychology and had practiced as a psychologist for a few years afterwards, and that Marilyn Monroe asked him very acute and well-informed questions about both the Soviet Union and psychiatry. “She was a smart woman,” he said, looking out the window. Perhaps it was a story he often trotted out, but he didn’t make it sound like that. It seemed as if the hotel suite had called it back, and he was telling the story to himself as well as to everyone listening, everyone hanging on his words. Here was someone who had met Marilyn Monroe. Now we all had one degree of separation.

A group of us went out onto the balcony. The suite was rather garish and over-furnished, with peach-coloured walls in a faux finish that had recently stopped being fashionable. Yet the view from the balcony was superb and timeless and the air cool and very clean. Suddenly a vent blasted hot air that puffed up my full taffeta skirt. Everyone laughed as I gracelessly tried to bat it down in an unconscious imitation of the famous Monroe photograph. Understanding the coincidence, I started to play it up.

Albert Maysles laughed and didn’t say anything particularly memorable, no tie-off line, although his flirtatious eyebrows grew active. He had a good long run of it. May he rest in peace.