Grey Gardens

Photo by Laura Maestri on

I’ve always had a thing for documentaries. I’m up for watching even the ones that don’t appear to be particularly exciting or interesting. I usually learn something new no matter what the topic might be. Some of the stories stick with me for days like a little worm moving around in my brain. After the viewing I find myself googling for more information, a deeper understanding of what I have seen. I think about the issues and the people long after I have watched the accounts so carefully crafted to command my attention in today’s world of twenty four hour news, podcasts, and human interest programming. So when my daughter told me about Grey Gardens, a film from an earlier time that had somehow eluded my attention, I had to find out for myself what had so fascinated her.

Way back in nineteen seventy five when I was a very young mom running after my pre-school aged children Grey Gardens premiered in New York City with great fanfare. It instantly became a cult classic as well as a model of filming for future documentarians. It focused on two women, an aunt and a first cousin of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The two had become the object of curiosity when the story of their downfall from high society broke the news mostly because of their connection to their famous relative. The once well known socialite ladies were living in squalor inside a twenty eight room mansion in East Hampton, an enclave for the rich and famous. 

A news story depicting their predicament and noting their relationship with the former first lady revealed that dozens of feral cats were roaming freely through the rooms. Holes in the roof and the walls attracted raccoons. There was no electricity or running water and every nook and cranny was piled high with refuse, empty cans of cat food, and feces. Paper and household items were strewn everywhere. The once lovely gardens had become like the briar patch in the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty. The mother and daughter had themselves become a conundrum given their backgrounds. It was difficult to know whether they had somehow become mentally ill or if they were simply and exceedingly quirky. They became fodder for gawkers. 

Eventually Jackie O and her sister Lee rescued their aunt and cousin by helping to restore the home to a somewhat sanitary state of its former self. Crews came to repair the roof, the plumbing and the wiring. They removed the animals and the trash. They patched the holes in the walls and painted the rooms. Both Jackie and Lee lovingly visited with their Aunt Edith and cousin Edie, known fondly as Big and Little Edie. Lee also contracted with a film crew to document the quirky duo as part of an effort to create an historical record of the Bouvier family. The result would be different from the initial plan as the brothers realized that in the footage of the interesting mother and daughter they had the makings of an astounding documentary. They called it Grey Gardens and it took on a life of itself, attracting the attention of artists like Andy Warhol  and Calvin Klein. It was an instant classic and model for documentaires to come.

Edith Bouvier Beale was a beautiful woman who married a wall street lawyer and lived a life of privilege and luxury. She had three children including her eldest daughter, Edith Beale, who attended finishing schools and came out at debutante balls. Both women were beautiful, but the younger Edith was particularly striking and is said to have been offered proposals of marriage from Joe Kennedy, Jr., J Paul Getty and Howard Hughes. She was a stunning blue eyed blonde haired beauty who longed to be an actress, much to her father’s sorrow. Her love of singing and dancing and acting seemed to come from her mother, Big Edie, who fancied herself a woman of great musical talent. 

Little Edie lived in New York City as a young woman while her mother stayed back at the elegant home in East Hampton. Eventually Big Edie received a telegram from her husband informing her that he was filing for a divorce. His settlement would be to leave her the house and a stipend of one hundred fifty dollars a month, which was actually rather generous given the times. Sadly Big Edie had no idea how to run a household on her own, especially one that was so large and eventually she enticed Little Edie to return to East Hampton to help her. The two women would spend the next many decades in obscurity and poverty becoming more and more isolated from the world. 

Their story is a mix of contradictions. They developed a love/hate kind of relationship in which Big Edie dominated Little Edie who longed to be independent of both her mother and the house. They quibbled constantly but also seemed to enjoy each other immensely. Little Edie lost her lovely golden locks of hair and out of necessity created coverings for her head out of whatever fabric she might find. As her figure changed she fashioned quirky clothing out of tablecloths and recycled and reconfigured skirts and dresses. She had a flair for fashion and even though she had aged somewhat prematurely, her beauty was still apparent as was her creative bent which had never been adequately satisfied. 

Big and Little Edie were women of their times and stations, trained from their youth to be beautiful extensions of wealthy men. They had grown up in a gilded age of servants and opulence. When all of that was suddenly gone, they struggled to survive on their own, but somehow managed even in terrible conditions. They both lived in a kind of time warp of fantasy punctuated by reality with Big Edie insisting that life had always been good and Little Edie longing for the freedom that she believed had been stolen from her. 

The story of these two women is so fascinating that I watched the documentary and also the television movie of the same name that featured Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. I found myself haunted by their story because it was so indicative of the fate of women in their era who had to fulfill their obligations as wives and caretakers first and foremost without allowances for their own dreams. They lived well or horrifically at the whims of the men in their lives. Remaining true to their own personalities was difficult given the dependency on men that most women of the times had to patiently endure. Both Big and Little Edie struggled to maintain their identities but never totally gave in to the demands that had been made of them. Along the way they became caricatures of themselves who seemed comical but were actually quite strong.

Big Edie died a year after the documentary premiered and Little Edie eventually realized her dream of entertaining by performing in a Greenwich Village cabaret. She finally sold the house known as Grey Gardens and toured the world. Later she settled in Florida where she lived well into her eighties celebrating her life her own way just as it should always have been. The house where the two Edies once lived has been beautifully restored by powerful women, artists who were allowed to be themselves and succeed. Somehow the circle of the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith Beale and Grey Gardens has been completed just as it should always have been.


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