Burgess Meredith’s son recalls Little Cayman

Burgess Meredith’s Little Cayman house, photographed in the 1960s.

Jonathan Meredith visited Little Cayman only once, but it made an impression to last a lifetime.

Mr. Meredith, the son of actor Burgess Meredith, visited Little Cayman in 1970 as part of a class project. He shared his memories with the Cayman Compass.

Only 17 people called Little Cayman home when Jonathan Meredith visited, and he said his father made only a few visits to the little house he built on the north side of the island.

“I only went there one time,” said Mr. Meredith when reached by phone at his home in California. “Burgess bought the house as an investment. He knew a friend of his that had some land.

“Years later, I think in the early ‘90s, my dad sold it …. I think he would just kind of hang out and relax there. He would read scripts. He was a big reader. And then he had a little glass-bottom boat. I think Olney Scott, who was one of the guys living on Cayman Brac, he kind of showed Dad around.”

The Merediths built that house 50 years ago, and it has recently been mentioned in the Cayman Compass’s Sister Islands District Day pages because of  a story in the paper’s precursor, the Caymanian Weekly, about a skeleton found on the property in 1967.

Jonathan Meredith does not know much about that story, but he remembers the time.

“That sort of came out of nowhere,” he said. “They were building the foundation for the house when they found the skeleton and all work had to stop. Burgess was afraid that he might not be able to get the title. But then they figured out who it was, I guess, and everything worked out OK.”

The younger Mr. Meredith stayed on Little Cayman for three weeks in January 1970, and he immortalized the island’s rustic nature in a 13-minute documentary project for school. The movie is available on YouTube and has been donated to the Grand Cayman archives.

“We didn’t do any scuba diving. We didn’t spend any time on Grand Cayman,” he said. “We just went right to Little Cayman. We didn’t have any equipment. We just went swimming. There in Little Cayman at the time, it was pretty primitive. We had nothing there except for the house. And that was it.”

There was no perimeter road on Little Cayman when Jonathan Meredith visited, and he said Cayman Brac was more readily accessible than Little Cayman. All the travel was by boat, and when Mr. Meredith was dropped off by Olney Scott, he received a shock to the system. Mr. Scott told them that he’d be back as soon as weather permitted, and a tropical storm trapped Mr. Meredith and his friend Bob Banner in the Little Cayman house for the next four days. Mr. Meredith’s documentary shows the whistling wind and bent palm trees that characterized his stay.

“That was the first thing we learned about Little Cayman,” he said during his video for Callison College, part of the University of the Pacific. “The weather governs the whole life on the island.… During these storms, which are quite frequent, no one can use the boats and life comes to a standstill.”

Mr. Meredith said there was no way to get around the island except by foot, and he said that to make it a short way from his house, he had to make a “machete hike” through the island’s dense vegetation. His video shows only one road sign, a marker that says, “Caution: Iguana Crossing.”

There was only one store on Little Cayman at the time, said Mr. Meredith, and all the food and canned supplies that he used on island were brought by boat from Cayman Brac. That clearly made an impression on the two college students, and Mr. Meredith remembers what it was like to live in seclusion.

“We were there just doing our video, and that was it,” he said. “No one else was there, except down in South Hole. We took pictures of the Southern Cross club and pictures of the houses.”

Mr. Meredith said he got full credit for his video, which now exists as a historical document of life on Little Cayman. His father, who famously portrayed Mickey Goldmill in the “Rocky” movies and the Penguin in the 1960s incarnation of “Batman,” later moved to California. He passed away in 1997. The house, which sat in an unpopulated area of Little Cayman, fell off the family radar soon after they moved from New York to California.

“He started it, and then they finished the house, and he went out there about two or three times. Maybe four,” Jonathan Meredith said of his father. “I think there were times when there were squatters there for a while. And they got tired of it and they left …. The squatters kept it up for a little while and then I think it probably fell into disrepair. But I don’t know for sure because I never went back.”

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