Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Grey Gardens

A friend lent me a copy of the 1976 documentary Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles, which I'd heard of but never seen before. It tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter Edith ("Little Edie") who lived for 50 years in the filthy and crumbling mansion of Grey Gardens in East Hampton. Surrounded by cats, plagued by fleas, and with no running water, the two women lived in almost total islolation.

The most remarkable thing was that the two women had once been wealthy socialites, who had drifted into obscurity and financial ruin. Big Edie (seen above in her wedding photo) was born Edith Ewing Bouvier in 1895, the daughter of a Major Bouvier, a successful attorney. She had twin sisters and two brothers, one of whom, John "Black Jack" Bouvier III, was the father of Jacqueline Bouvier, who later became Jackie Kennedy.

Edith had an amateur singing career, and in 1917, at the age of 22, she married Phelan Beale, who was a lawyer at her father's firm. The couple lived in New York, and had three children. Edith (known as Little Edie) was born in 1917, followed by two brothers, Phelan and Bouvier. This photo (courtesy of Life magazine) shows mother and daughter in 1922, when Big Edie was 27 and Little Edie 4 years-old.

In 1923 the Beales purchased Grey Gardens, a 28-room mansion in East Hampton, just one block from the ocean. You can see the house here in 1922, when it was still in good repair, and before the garden became overgrown.

Little Edie had a privileged upbringing, attending the Spence School (a private girls' school in New York) followed by Miss Porter's School (an elite girls' boarding school in Conneticut for grades 9-12), graduating in 1936. Her mother apparently removed her from the Spence School for two years when she was 11 and 12, for unspecified health reasons, although she was well enough to accompany her mother to the theatre and movies almost every day, and also to go on a shopping trip to Paris. The bond between mother and daughter was suffocatingly close even then. In her diary at the age of 11 she wrote "I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it?".

This photo shows Little Edie modelling a dress at the 1938 East Hampton Fair. Strikingly good-looking, at age 17, Little Edie was a model for Macy's in New York, but her father hated her being on display. She tried to run away from home three times, once to New York to learn interpretive dance. She allegedly dated Howard Hughes and always maintained that both Joe Kennedy Jr. and J. Paul Getty had proposed to her, but she turned them down. In her 20s, Little Edie's hair began to fall our, causing to adopt her trademark turbans. By the time she was 30, Little Edie had moved away from home and was trying to make a life for herself as an actress in New York.

Meanwhile, Big Edie was suffering financially. Always rather eccentric, her husband became less and less tolerant of her bohemian ways. She would play the piano and sing for hours, hated going to boring social events, and would Phelan and Edie had separated in 1931, and he divorced her by telegram from Mexico in 1934. Major Bouvier advised his daughter to sell Greg Gardens and stop singing at clubs, but she refused. When Big Edie turned up at her son's wedding dressed like an opera singer, her father cut her out of his will, leaving her with a trust of $65,000 which was to be handled by her brothers. She could no longer afford to send her daughter grocery money, and Little Edie came home to Grey Gardens in 1952 to look after her mother and her multiplying cats.

The two women drifted into obscurity, as the garden grew wilder and wilder, and once-beautiful house began to decay. In 1971, building inspectors ordered the Beals to cut back their overgrown garden. When they did not comply, members of the Suffolk County Health Department forced their way into Grey Gardens. The state of the place was appalling, with cat shit everywhere, a five foot pile of empty cat food tins in the dining room (pictured above), crumbling walls, raccoons in the roof, and apparently human fecal matter in the upstairs bedroom. Facing eviction and the demolition of Grey Gardens, the Beales were saved by a $32,ooo cheque from Jackie Onassis. Despite having new plumbing and heating installed and 1,000 bags of garbage being removed from the house, by the time the Maysles brothers made their documentary in 1976, the house was again in an unsanitary state, with the filmmakers being forced to wear flea collars around their ankles!

Big Edie died the year after the documentary was made. Little Edie continued to live at Grey Gardens for another couple of years, before selling it to Ben Bradlee, the then executive editor of the Washington Post and his wife, the writer Sally Quinn. A condition of the sale was that the house was not to be demolished, and the couple have restored it at great expense. Cote de Texas has a wonderfully comprehensive post focusing on the house, with floor plans, and pictures of it before and after the Beales lived there. Edie moved to New York, and then to Florida, where she lived quietly, writing poetry and corresponding with her fans, until her death at the age of 84 in 2002.

Despite their lonely (and unsanitary) lifesyle, the Edies come over as fantastically eccentric and larger-than-life characters. Far from being exploted by the documentary makers, they flirted with them, danced, sang, and generally had a ball. There are moments of despair, but they seem resigned to their life, and even enjoy it. "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted." says Big Edie. It's also worth watching just to see Little Edie's wonderfully inventive outfits, including aprons and sweaters worn on her head, tablecloths for skirts, or bathing suits with fishnet tights. A movie about Grey Gardens with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lang playing the Edies was made last year, so I'm going to track it down.

Gail Sheehy met the Beales in the early 70s, and wrote a fascinating article for the New Yorker which can be found here. She then wrote a follow up article in 2006 which is here.


  1. Wow where do you find this stuff? It's utterly fascinating! Love it :-D

  2. wow, fascinating! Love the bit about the flea collars. Makes me so much happier about my lack of housekeeping skills! M