Writer, artist Gretchen Allen passes away at age 74

Gretchen Allen called Cayman home for more than 35 years. – Photo: Submitted

If anything, Gretchen Allen was a writer. Those who knew her best remember a woman overflowing with poetry, stories and musings about life.

The term writer only captures a fraction of who Allen was, however. Through a life of travel and adventure, she also found herself in the roles of newspaper journalist, broadcaster, photographer, actress, artist, equestrian, scuba diver and race car driver. The list goes on.

A resident of Cayman for more than 35 years, Allen, 74, died Monday at Cayman Islands Hospital.

Friend and caregiver Dezrine White said Allen had been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, but that the loss felt sudden for her.

“We were so happy Sunday night. She was laughing and telling me the things we needed to do,” White said.

In the short time White knew her, assisting with errands and medical appointments, she said she grew close to Allen and felt like a daughter to her. “We would sing and pray with her and she would sing. She loved the song ‘Amazing Grace,’” White said.

Long-time friend Irene Gut said Allen loved music, dancing and dressing up.

Allen was so stylish, in fact, that in 2010, she won the award for ‘Most Breakfast at Tiffany’s-Inspired’ look at The Ritz-Carlton’s Little Black Dress Party.

“She was positive, always fun and thinking of everybody,” Gut said, recalling the poetry and letters that her friend would write to her.

“She always said she was a princess. Somehow she believed in this, that she was a princess and that she was something special.”

In that sense, Allen’s life at times did resemble a sort of Grimms’ fairy tale, rife with enchantment and tragedy.

Friend John Burnett, who grew close to Allen in the last five years, said she had been an orphan before her adoption by an affluent family in Chicago. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and went on to pursue journalism and writing.

Gretchen Allen was known for her love of fashion. – Photo: Submitted

Over the years, she reported for the Caymanian Compass, Associated Press and Dallas Morning News, among other publications. Her varied interests and passion for life resulted in a diverse writing portfolio, including news, travel and food reviews, and celebrity interviews.

For a time, she taught writing at an artists’ colony in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

When Hurricane Ivan struck Cayman in 2004, Allen reported on the category 5 storm for the Associated Press, even as she was sorting through the devastation it had left in her own life.

She described the destruction of her home as a “miasma of muck, mud and mire”, according to the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.

Her expansive photographic collection, documenting her professional and personal life, was destroyed by the storm. As she attempted to salvage the images, their colours dripped from the prints, washing away a life of memories.

Those photographs remained stored away for many years, until Allen found the courage to revisit them in 2017, to find a convergence of ink and colour had transformed her photographs into abstract art.

Gretchen Allen, left, smiles with friend Irene Gut at the opening of ‘Through Ivan’s Eye’, in 2018. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

She displayed an assortment of the images at the National Gallery in 2018, in an exhibit titled ‘Through Ivan’s Eye’.

On the opening night, Allen told the Compass, “I am a writer. I never expected to have an art exhibit and I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the terrible effects of Hurricane Ivan, which so many of us went through. … Despite that, Ivan left a very surprising gift.”

National Gallery Director Natalie Urquhart said her team was fortunate to work with Allen on the collection.

“The moving exhibition sought to highlight the beauty that can be found amidst destruction and the championing of the human spirit over adversity. Ms. Allen was a very talented writer and photographer, and her contribution to the Cayman creative community will be missed,” Urquhart said.

Ivan was something Allen never fully recovered from, Burnett said. “All that was left was what she turned into her art.”

Allen served as social secretary to former Governor Alan Scott, who served from 1987 to 1992, and his wife Joan Hall Scott.

June Williams said Allen was an astute woman who was good at spotting opportunities. A talented equestrian, she offered to help care for Joan Hall Scott’s horse, Williams said. That position was a stepping stone to her role as social secretary.

Susan Mycko recalled the success of the singles club that Allen organised in the 90s.

Gretchen Allen with John Burnett

“She told me she had always wanted to start a ‘singles’ club for people living on the island alone, but hesitated. I said, ‘Why not? Pick a date, let’s do it,’” Mycko said.

“With the help of many restaurant venues, we met twice a month. It was so successful, and continued even after I left the island.”

Barrie Quappe remembered a luxurious night at a ball with Allen 15 years ago in New York City. When Quappe arrived in New York, she did not yet have a gown for the Caribbean Tourism Association gala. As she eyed potential dresses in the fashion district, a familiar voice chimed in: “That would look stunning on you, Barrie.”

“I spun around to see the smiling face of Gretchen Allen,” Quappe said.

“We spent the rest of the day shopping and lunching at one of New York’s iconic restaurants … We shared so much that day, and we have talked of it since – it was meant to be.

“That night, Gretchen turned up with a very handsome date, who hosted her like she was the queen at the ball.”

In recent years, Allen kept her friends and followers entertained with her musings in ‘The Gretchen Daily’.

“This was an email publication she did a few years back. She was writing again, and it was a treat to get these from her,” Quappe said.

Williams keeps a dog-eared copy of a ‘Gretchen Daily’ book compilation, filled with poems and stories aimed at entertaining friends and bringing them a smile.

She likened her friend to American poet Dorothy Parker. “The poems just poured out of her,” Williams said. Often Allen would write poems to her friends, honouring their birthdays, anniversaries and milestones in their lives.

Burnett described Allen as a compulsive writer and a great mind.

With her many talents came a darkness, however.

“She was a colourful character and there will be a loss of colour without her, of course. But in that colourfulness is the unfortunate side that came with it as well,” Burnett said.

He described caring for her as both rewarding and horrible, due to her struggles with alcohol.

He lamented the many more great things she could have done with the proper support.

“Gretchen was born with the gift of artistic expression, making the world more colourful for all who knew her. Many gifted artists experience their art consuming them in a way they have no control,” he said.

“Often alcohol is the only substance available that can enable some artists to have freedom [from] emotional anxiety, with unhindered artistic expression.”

Despite her complexity and contradictions, he said Allen was an exceptional woman that he wishes he could have married.

He shared one final poem from her, titled ‘Epitaph’, as an example of her humility:

I am but
a candle
a flame
inside my head
the wax
of my life
melting down
drip by drip
until
at last
I am extinguished
and I am
dead