Abigail McGrath’s Renaissance House offers respite for writers

Abigail McGrath is the daughter of Helene Johnson and the niece of Dorothy West, writers of the Harlem Renaissance. — Lynn Christoffers

Abigail McGrath bends in closer, peering over the frame of her glasses and smirking. Eyes darting from left to right, and an eyebrow raised as if she’s making sure no one will hear her. Like the truth will get her in trouble. Her wisdom’s laced with a shameless, playful energy. She has a way of saying things that sneak into your mind unsuspectingly, staying long after she’s gone.

She’s the daughter of Helene Johnson and the niece of Dorothy West — writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The women moved to New York City in the early 1920s, becoming landmark writers. They raised Ms. McGrath. She recalls their all-consuming jobs to keep themselves, and Ms. McGrath, afloat in New York.

“My image of [my mother] is always her sitting at a desk with a light on, typing on an old-fashioned typewriter,” Ms. McGrath said.

Writers need time. They struggled to carve out those inestimable moments to devote to their craft. Her mother said, “In order to create, a person needs time in which to do nothing. To simply stare out a window and let thoughts come to them.”

Time became a luxury — one Ms. McGrath gives to others in her aunt and mother’s memory. She created the Renaissance House in Oak Bluffs to give the gift of time. As she puts it, it is a place to put forth energy into works, which take the backseat in an everyday world: “Our [writers] are working-class people with two or three jobs. You come, relax, and don’t do anything but write. We are trying to stay true to that.”

At the beginning of the two weeks writers stay at the Renaissance House, Ms. McGrath asks when each person finds time to write. The men tell her they write when they want to write; the woman say they wake up early or stay up after their kids have gone to sleep.

One mother worked as a rental agent,, and when she first arrived at Renaissance House, she did not consider herself a writer. She wrote a few poems, she said, but nothing serious. Or so she thought. Her weeks at the house solidified that nagging question inside her of whether or not she was really a writer. And she went home and quit her job. Ms. McGrath says she’s a “bigtime” writer now.

“Oh, the stories people tell you. One that really got me — my son has a friend who works in the hotel industry. The friend called me up and said, ‘Abby, I think I have someone who’s good for your retreat.’ I said why, and he said, ‘Well, she’s a maid in the housekeeping department, and instead of having lunch, she locks herself in the bathroom and writes poetry.’ That’s a writer,” she said.

She runs two other houses, one in New York and another in California, but the one on Martha’s Vineyard is different, and the most difficult to maintain. The cost of housing on the Island has her reaching into her own pockets to keep the program alive. And you don’t do that unless you really believe in something.

“Everyone says this is a magic Island,” she mocks. “But it is, in a funny kind of way — it is different. Ineffable I guess is the word. I can’t replicate it in other locations.”

Though it is a retreat, the writers come to work. At first, she puts all of the writers in a room for three hours, and nobody does anything else but write. And there’s an energy that comes from that space — one that can be difficult for writers to come by organically.

“There’s something that happens in a room full of people who are all working together in the same way. Nobody is painting, nobody is playing music — they’re all writing. It simply works. You work better and solve problems more eloquently simply because people around you are filling the air with intelligent thoughts.”

She’s hosted people in their 80s and people as young as 17 — a kid who had already published two books. She says it’s safe. You don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself.

Abigail McGrath during her “tub” days. — Courtesy Abigail McGrath

Ms. McGrath’s family has been on Martha’s Vineyard for six generations. Ms. West’s cottage sits in the Highlands. Not on Dorothy West Avenue, as one might assume.

“The road in front of my house is exactly the same as when my great-grandfather was there. My aunt wrote this book, ‘The Wedding,’ about me and my husband. And Oprah picked it up. When Oprah saw the dirt road, she turned around and got back into the jet,” she laughs.

“The Wedding” was her aunt’s best-selling novel, which Oprah Winfrey produced as a miniseries starring Halle Berry. Ms. West’s main character, Shelby, was inspired by Ms. McGrath and her marriage. Set on Martha’s Vineyard, the story centers around Shelby, a woman of an elite community, and her marriage to a struggling white jazz musician, and how it awakens tensions within her family: “My Aunt Dorothy, when she started talking, would never stop, but would hold the room in her hand.”

Ms. McGrath, a playwright, filmmaker, and author herself, wrote “Three Little Women,” a novel encapsulating three generations of women living on Martha’s Vineyard — and a story intended to pick up where “The Wedding” ended, inspired by the lives of her aunt, her mother, and herself. It drops you into worlds stretching from the pre-Civil War South to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Ms. McGrath modeled for Andy Warhol in his film, “Tub Girls.” Her friend Susan Hoffmann called her one day, asking for help finding unusual bathtubs. Warhol wanted to make a film. And she agreed to help, but under the condition she could be one of those girls in the tub. Susan said yes. So she got in the tub.

“‘Tub Girls’ didn’t get distributed very well in America, but it did in Sweden. Andy was a little light on pay. I also modeled for Salvador Dali; he was living in the St. Regis Hotel — they have a way of looking at something and not talking, just thinking.”

She trailed off into another story about her time in New York:Working as a hatcheck girl, she met Lou Reed from the Velvet Underground.

“So he wrote this song about me and the girl that used to work with me, Nawana. And Nawana and I would be talking about how weird the people were at Max’s Kansas City [where we worked]. And the song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was about the people from small towns who came to be seen at Max’s Kansas City.”

The girls stood at the hatcheck talking and laughing about this restaurant with its performance space known for attracting the peculiar. “And Lou Reed came over to us and said, Can you girls please be quiet? You’re talking over my set.”

She waves her hands. “‘And the colored girls go doo doo doo doo doo’ — he was talking about me and Nawana. And Nawana kept saying, He should have paid us for that,” she laughs. “When you do something, you don’t recognize it will be memorable. And 40 years later, people talk about it.”