In Memory of Mary Bayes Ryan
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
Mary Bayes Ryan, an artist who in the 1970s purchased the former Fire Place Lodge summer camp in Springs, opening it for use by local farmers, pop-up summer camps, and an extended community of family, friends and neighbors, died at home overlooking Gardiner's Bay on Sept. 21. She was 85.
Many from that group gathered in October to remember her, filling the 19th-century oak barn she had moved to the property in the mid-1980s.
“There are times in my life when I meet someone, and I’m aware there’s going to be a long relationship. There’s some spark,” recalled Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm, who farmed the property through the 1990s. “I was completely aware of that happening at my first lunch with Mary.”
“She had a gift for having fun that was absolutely contagious,” said Judith Hope, a former East Hampton Town supervisor. “She was just a joy to be around.”
Ms. Ryan was born in Surrey, England, on Feb. 15, 1933, to American parents, Ross Bayes and the former Marian Hopkins, both of New York City. With war looming, the family returned to the United States in 1939, and she attended the Fieldston School, and then Sarah Lawrence College, from which she graduated in 1954 — and for which she would later serve on the board of trustees. In her freshman year in college, she met the writer J.D. Salinger at a tea. Salinger, 30, offered her a ride home. The two were soon dating, and then engaged.
“We all worked in the theater department,” said a friend, Penelope Hall, “and he was always around. We would want to go to the local greasy spoon. He had this little car, and we would all pile in, much to his horror.”
She eventually broke off the engagement, however, and drove cross-country to California after graduation, intent on pursuing an acting career. Landing in San Francisco, she took a job as an EKG technician at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, where she met a young doctor, James Ryan, whom she would eventually marry in 1960. The couple’s first date was an overnight trip to Slate’s Hot Springs in Big Sur. This made such an impression that they returned to spend summers there in the late 1960s, befriending their neighbors, including the writer Henry Miller, with whom she developed a regular table tennis game.
The couple returned east to New York in 1958, and Ms. Ryan attended the Neighborhood Playhouse acting school, but the arrival of two sons in the late 1960s complicated her acting plans. By then, however, she had discovered painting, which would become her lifelong passion.
Over 50 years, working primarily in oil and acrylic on canvas, she developed a style marked by abstract landscapes done in warm colors, often featuring dreamlike objects or creatures. She worked mostly out of a 900-square-foot studio on East 75th Street, originally rented for $250 — a rent that went up very little over the years.
“We went to see our landlord, Mr. Cardon, toward the end,” recalled Faith Stern, her studio mate. “When we left, she kissed him on the cheek. He was just madly in love with her.”
She showed her work infrequently, though her paintings were well received by the critics and buyers. She was a regular at annual Guild Hall Artist Members Exhibition, and in group shows at Ashawagh Hall in Springs.
“She painted for herself,” said Barbara Groot, one of four women artists who met in the early-1970s classes of the Hungarian artist Victor Candell, and who showed their work together over the years. “Her work was really personal. It was so much her — perhaps more than the rest of us.”
The Ryans first arrived in East Hampton in 1966, joining the Maidstone Club and purchasing a summer house on Dunemere Lane. When the couple separated in the early 1970s, however, Ms. Ryan rented cottages in Sagaponack and Springs, and then began looking for something small of her own. She found something big: an out-of-use 19-acre former summer camp along the water at the very end of Fireplace Road, being sold in two parcels. Captivated by the possibilities, she risked her financial stability to buy the whole property, closing on the second parcel in 1979. It was a prescient bet, paying off not just financially, but opening a whole new chapter in her life. Under Ms. Ryan, the property became host again to farmers and campers, as well as a steady parade of weddings and other events of family, friends, and neighbors.
Paul Hamilton, founder of the Springs Farmers Market, has farmed the land off and on since the early 1990s, first with Quail Hill Farm, and then on his own. He remembers discussing his vision with Ms. Ryan. “She listened, and then she just said, ‘Sure. Have at it.’ It was a handshake. Old style.”
“She was extremely generous,” said Lisa Tanzman, founder of Camp Erutan, which began running a program on the property in 1993 providing a country getaway for kids caught in the New York City foster care system. “She was a gazzillionnaire in the karma bank.”
In recent years, the property has also hosted a summer camp run by the Our Sons and Daughters School of Sag Harbor. One thing the property hasn’t hosted: new houses. Ms. Ryan granted much of the development rights to the Peconic Land Trust in 1996, and the property remains open, and largely wild.
“In many ways she was a mentor to me,” said Idoline Duke, who married her husband, Biddle, on the property. “Showing me how to live authentically among all the trappings of privilege in this place we all call home.”
Ms. Ryan had split her time between East Hampton and New York until 2014, when she moved to Springs full time. In the city, she is remembered as the longtime president of her block association, which she co-founded. “The block association became a popular thing,” said Jim Levett, a neighbor. “It was Mary who gave it its character. She had all of these wonderful people that really, really like her, and she really liked them.”
While she never remarried, Ms. Ryan had two long-term relationships, including more than 20 years with John DePoo, a well-known raconteur of East Hampton and Florida, and Chester Hopkins, with whom she lived for 14 years in New York and Springs.
In recent years, her health had been fading. She suffered from chronic nausea since 2014, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016. Though frail, she continued to love the summer in Springs, and managed to hang on for one more. She developed a cold the day after Labor Day, and died at home of pneumonia just a few weeks later.
She is survived by her two sons, Maxwell Ryan and Oliver Ryan, both of New York, and two granddaughters. She was cremated and the family intends to scatter her ashes on her land. Camp Erutan has established the Mary Bayes Ryan Scholarship Fund, which will support the purchase of art supplies for campers, not just during camp sessions but whenever and wherever they are.