The Vivian Maier Story


In August, 1896 in the French-Alps in a community with few hundred inhabitants called Saint-Julien en Champsaur a farm boy rapes the 16-year-old Eugenie Jaussaud. Marie was born from this unwanted occasional affair in 1897. Eugenie becomes a cook in Gap, the neighbouring town with ten thousand residents, then in the far New York, which was home to 3,5 million at that time. She travelled there with 32 dollars (= about 870$ today) in her purse together with other youngsters from Gap in 1901. Her daughter became a maid in a small Italian town.


In 1914 she followed her mother to New York, where 5 million souls lived at that time. She got on the boat already knowing she would work at Louise Orio Heckler as a maid. Nine days after her arrival the newspapers were filled with the story of Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince was shot to death in Sarajevo.

Where are you from? Modern – was answer to the question of the immigration officer in Ellis Island by Wilhelm Maier, a 47-year-old German butcher. Maier arrived from Modor, a little town with five thousand residents, in Pozsony County, Hungary. At the time Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Maier told the German name of the city, which in Hungarian Modor. The town’s name today is Modra, it’s in Slovakia. The letters of an emigrated friend his urged Maier to decide to start out with his family in 1905. They came to shore with 230 dollars (= about 6070$ today) in their pockets in the world’s third largest German city. Only in Berlin and Vienna had more Germans than New York. They settled in Upper East Side, Manhattan. Maier became a gardener in a hospital, his wife a homemaker, their 17-year-old daughter Alma became a nurse in an orphanage, their son Karl was 11 years old. They arrived in time to see the construction of the 6855 ft long, 120 ft wide, 336 ft high Manhattan Bridge with 2 stories, 7 lanes, 4 subway tracks, bicycle- and footway.


Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur is a town with about 1500 inhabitants in the French-Alps. In 1893 monsieur Bertrand, the city’s the road inspector with his wife and 4 children arrived to America imagining that they could just pick up dollars from the kern. You just have to bend down! But there is a big jostling. 5-10 000 immigrants come every day just to New York. The Bertrand family settled in Torrington, an industrial city in Connecticut with 6000 inhabitants. Jeanne was born in 1880, worked in a needle factory. There is „nothing but the four brick walls and then the bossing.” She finally quit the job on April 1, 1898. She took her photo and went to the studio where it was taken. She would like to work here, she would do anything she can. But there’s no work now. But if something comes up, he will call her by all means! And he called her. She got a job. And not only she became the right hand of the owner, who tought her photography, but also by the time reached 21, she’s became one of the best portrait photographers of New England region, which contains six states. By that time she was all alone already. Monsieur Bertrand, unable to adapt to the local mentality, fell mortally ill from it and died in 1900 loathing anything that’s American. After his death his family moved back to France in 1901. They cursed the minute when they set foot on the land of the new world. Later Jeanne Bertrand moved to New York and opened a studio.

Charles (Karl) Maier works at a grocery. He gets acquainted with Marie Jaussaud, who goes shopping regularly there. They get married on May 11, 1919 on Marie’s 22nd birthday. In 1920 a boy, in 1926 a girl, Dorothy Vivian Maier is born.

How did Jeanne Bertrand and Eugenie Jaussaud meet each other? 1. Jeanne Bertrand doesn’t believe her eyes. Eugenie! No. It’s impossible. But there she is. They were schoolmates, they were 13 the last time they saw each other. 2. Eugenie Jaussaud saw the name on a photo studio or in a newspaper advertisement: Jeanne Bertrand. It rings a bell. At least, after all a Frenchman. She goes in. 3. The young couple, Charles and Marie would like have a photo. They go to the nearest studio.

1929. The Great Depression. Charles Maier is a mechanical engineer at a candy factory. He was. His marriage is in crisis too. They separate. Marie moves to Jeanne Bertrand with her daughter, her son moves to the paternal grandparents, who live within 5 minutes walk from Bertrand’s apartment. No data about the father, maybe he stays in the rented flat. In 1932 Miss Bertrand, Eugenie Jaussaud, Marie Maier and her six-year-old daughter flee from the crisis, get in a boat and go home to France, straight to the clouds. Marie and Vivian feel so good there, they decide to stay years. There are some photos remaining of there stay there. These were made by Mrs. Maier with her own camera. In the summer of 1938, maybe because she feels what’s approaching, but rather for her 18-year-old son’s sake she decides to go home. But where to? St. Paul Hotel, 59th street, Manhattan – this is the address she gives for in the passengers’ list of Normandia – for the lack of better. And the Maier family lives together again soon in the 64 th street, Manhattan.

Vivian Maier, who attended school in France and almost totally forgot the English, learns the language again from films and plays, while working at a sweet-shop, then at a clothing store. In 1950 she is back in the French-Alps again to take over her heritage. She stays for a year, goes through the countryside by bicycle and takes photos. After her return she becomes a nanny, purchases a Rolleiflex camera and goes through the city and takes photos.




In 1956 she moves 800 miles further to Chicago. She looks after the three sons of the suburban upper-middleclass Gensburg family. „When she arrived, she almost looked the part of Mary Poppins. Under a heavy coat, she wore sturdy shoes and a long skirt with a lace slip, and she carried an enormous carpetbag.” She talks little about herself, but she can talk to you about anything. On her days off she takes a spin on her moped or goes to the movies. She didn’t have friends (or at least none the family knew about). She converted her private bathroom into darkroom. The children adore her. She organized programmes, games, excursions, even once brought home a dead snake for the boys. And they waited for her go back. In 1957 she travelled to South-America, in 1959-60 took a half-year trip to USA, Philippines, Thailand, China, Egypt, Yemen, Italy and France. In 1965 she went to the Caribbeans, and was several times in Canada too. The travels were probably paid from her inheritage. Maier stayed with the family until 1972, but the contact didn’t break.




In 1987 a maths professor of Chicago University needs a nanny. She applies for the job. – You need know I come with my life, and my life is in boxes.
– Having a large garage, they weren’t worried.
But then there are 200 boxes, they are put in a storage.

In the early 90’s the economic crisis took a heavy toll of the nanny industry too. Maier put her boxes in storages and for the sake of cheapest house rent she moved to Cicero. She was on the brink homelessness when the Gensburg boys found her, bought her a nice apartment in Rogers Park, Chicago, and payed her bills. They were also worried about her, because Maier had long late-night walks in the less fortunate parts of city, chatting with the homeless, giving advice or directing them to a shelter.

In 2007 John Maloof, a real estate agent and amateur historian goes to an auction where the content of the unpaid storage boxes are being sold out. He buys a box with 30 000 negatives for 400 dollars hoping to find pictures for his book about a Chicago’s territory. There aren’t any. But as he sees the pictures, he starts a search for the other buyers who bought the other boxes of negatives, and he buys them. Besides the negatives he finds undeveloped rolls, cameras, sound and film records and countless clippings from press. But nobody knows whose.


May 1979

He finds an envelope of a photo laboratory in one of the boxes. There’s handwritten name: Vivian Maier. He googles it. The result: “Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all who knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.”

Around Christmas in 2008 she slipped on the ice and knocked her head. She was given the best medical care, but she never recovered completely. The Gensburg sons moved her to a nursing home in Oak Park, where they visited her after work. She died in April 21, 2009. Only a few days before Maloof found out her name. The Gensburgs scattered her ashes in the forest where she used to take her sons to pick wild strawberries.

Nobody saw her pictures – the only exceptions may be Jeanne Bertrand who died in 1957 and the Gensburg boys, who saw some – until 2007. The first but still anonymous Maier picture was published on the internet in 2008. Her first exhibition opened in Denmark 2010. Her first album was released two years ago. A film is currently in production about her life.


ps: The numbers of the population in the text show the inhabitants at the time of the story.

Thanks to Lolita Fatjoe for the translate.


Maloof Collection     Vivian Mayer Facebook     Goldstein Collection

 Maier’s photos are from the Maloof collection.

Magyar változat (Hungarian version)

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