The Captivating Tale of Grey Gardens

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore portray Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale in the upcoming HBO film.

I'll admit that I had not heard of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edie until recently. However, I have been completely fascinated from the moment that I first learned about them. Big Edie and Little Edie, as they were known, were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. They are remembered for the deeply eccentric lives they led. Originally Park Avenue socialites, the pair eventually retreated to their summer home in East Hampton, where they lived out the latter parts of their lives in complete squalor and poverty. The story of how these two women, who shared a fierce mother-daughter bond went from being the crème de la crème of New York Society to social misfits oblivious to the outside world is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

I am sure you have heard that Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are starring in "Grey Gardens", the film by Michael Sucsy about the two Edies, which debuts this Saturday evening on HBO. Watch the trailer here.

The film is an extension of the cult classic documentary of the same name. Shot by Albert and David Maysles in 1975, the documentary "tells the tale of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie," a pair of misfits who lived for decades at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Beginning with newspaper headlines screaming about the estate's unsanitary condition and its condemnation by the Suffolk County Health Department (The New York Post stated that the two were 'living in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 8 cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water'), the movie indulges the viewer with the offbeat and spellbinding lives of mother and daughter Beale" according to a 1998 article from Screen Review.

The documentary was shot when the Edies were in the midst of their dire situation. They were out of money and lived in a world that was all their own. They were fiercely co-dependent, though Little Edie carried some resentment towards her mother's selfishness in wanting to keep her by her side forever. She was never able to fully see her dreams through and Big Edie seemed glad about it. Not because she wanted her daughter to fail, but because she didn't want her anywhere in the world other than by her side. Albert and David Maysles filmed in the house and grounds at Grey Gardens, but the Edies, who were willing to share their story, wanted little screen time.

I have only seen clips of the documentary on YouTube (I have the full version in my queue on Netflix), but what I have seen is at once amusing, disturbing, and heart wrenching. Clearly, neither of the Edies was completely well, psychologically speaking. In contrast, the HBO film explores both the terrible living conditions and eyebrow-raising behavior of mother and daughter Beale as well as the forty years leading up to it, in an attempt to figure out how two women, who seemed to have it all, could end up with absolutely nothing but each other.

Little Edie and Big Edie
Little Edie was once a beautiful debutante full of promise. She lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women from 1947-1952 (click here for images). She claimed to have dated J.Paul Getty and to have been engaged to Joe Kennedy, Jr. Later in life, she would dress herself in eccentric costumes and headdresses to disguise her alopecia.

Little Edie left her fledgling career as an actress, model, and dancer and returned to Grey Gardens in order to care for her aging mother.

An image of Grey Gardens at the peak of its splendor in the 1920s.

"It was truly a gray garden. The soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name... nepeta, stachys, and pinks... clipped bunches of santolina, lavender and rosemary made gray mounds here and there. Only flowers in pale colors were allowed inside the walls, yet the effect was far from insipid....I close my eyes and sense again the scent of those wild roses, the caress of the hot sun on our backs as we sauntered to and fro from our bath and lazy mornings on the beach."—Anna Gilman Hill, former owner of Grey Gardens in her book Forty Years of Gardening

Grey Gardens was originally built in 1894, but Edith Beale and her husband did not purchase the home until 1928. This set, designed by Kalina Ivanov for the HBO movie, depicts the home in its full glory in 1936, the same year that Little Edie made her debut at the Pierre Hotel.

Grey Gardens at the pinnacle of its squalor in the 1970s, as depicted in the HBO film.

On October 22, 1971, inspectors from the Suffolk County Health Department raided the house and discovered that it violated every known building regulation. The house was overrun by an army of feral cats, racoons, and garbage. It didn't even have running water. This of course, became a national scandal since the Edies were relatives of Jackie O who paid $32,000 to have the house cleaned, a new furnace and plumbing system installed, and to have more 1,000 bags of garbage taken away.

Drew Barrymore, as Little Edie on July 29, 1952, the day she returned to Grey Gardens in East Hampton to care for her mother.

In a letter written to her nephew, Little Edie claimed: "When Grandfather died (in 1948), he left $65,000 in a trust. Jack B. ("Black Jack" Bouvier, Big Edie’s brother and Wall Street broker) had only one objective — to grab the Beale trust fund to invest for his daughters (Jackie and Lee) and he did. He was supposed to take care of Mother." Since things did not work out as planned, Big Edie only received $300 per month and the duo reportedly stayed afloat for as long as they did by selling off their Tiffany items piece by piece.

The dining room designed by Kalina Ivanov for the HBO film is here depicted as it was in 1936. Notice the fabulous red bamboo chairs.

The same dining room, shown in the movie as it appeared in 1971.

In 1979, Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post Executive Editor and his wife, author and journalist, Sally Quinn, purchased Grey Gardens directly from Little Edie for $220,000, which was an absolute steal, even then. It is estimated to be worth in the tens of millions now.

The photo above and those below are of Grey Gardens in its present state. Quinn and Bradlee fully restored the home. Evidently, buyers were lining up at its door when Little Edie decided to sell since such a price on Lily Pond Lane was unheard of. However, Edie felt that the house truly belonged to Quinn and surely appreciated her promise not to have the estate torn down, despite the fact that it smelled of thirty years of being overrun by cats and raccoons.

W Magazine recently published a very interesting interview with Sally Quinn about Grey Gardens.

When asked about her first experience seeing the house in the article, Quinn said "We got to the house and my real-estate agent said, 'I will do anything to sell the house, but I will not go inside.' So she waited outside. Well, you had to have flea collars on for one thing. There were 30 cats in there and the stench was beyond belief. And Little Edie opened the door—her mother had died two years earlier—and apparently everyone had made offers because she was asking $220,000 for the house."
An excerpt from the W interview:

"At that time, 1979, was that considered a good price?
That was considered nothing, even then! I mean $220,000 on Lily Pond Lane? But everybody else wanted to tear the house down, which was the obvious thing to do. So I walked in and I said, 'This is the most beautiful house I've ever seen.' You can't believe what shambles it was in. And she said, 'It's yours.' Up to then, she'd refused to sell it to anybody else. But she said, 'I know that this house belongs to you. You're the person who should have this house.' And then she did this little pirouette in the hall and said, 'You see? All it needs is a coat of paint!' So I bought it on the spot. It was one of these magical experiences where everything went right. We had a great contractor, a great architect, and we moved in the following summer."

Quinn did not ask Edie where she was headed after she purchased Grey Gardens from her. Quinn recounts "I said to her, you have a choice. You can leave the house broom clean, which was laughable, that means you take everything out of the house, everything, everything, everything and leave it broom clean OR you leave it exactly the way it is and you leave everything in the house. And she said 'I'm just walking out the door.' And she walked out the door. And when we closed on the house in November I went upstairs to the attic and it was a treasure trove. I was in such a state of ecstasy and exhilaration I was hyperventilating. I started smoking again. I found a trunk of letters which I just recently had an archivist go through and do a lot of the history of the time and get the letters in order." Though Quinn was unaware at the time, Edie moved into a small rental cottage in Southampton. Later, she moved to a studio apartment on 62nd Street in Manhattan where she lived from 1980 until 1983. Eventually, she settled in Bal Harbor, Florida in 1997 where she remained until her death in 2002 at the age of 84.

The lush gardens currently found at the estate are reminiscent of its original splendor.

A Magical Place
When asked by W Magazine if she still feels the presence of the Beales at Grey Gardens, given its "potent history and personality", she says "Oh yeah. I feel them there. In the movie, Big Edie says, "I could never leave Grey Gardens. This is a magical place." It is a magical place so I don't feel the sadness there. I feel the magic they felt that kept them there. There's something that makes you feel good being in the house."

The staircase and foyer were the heart of Grey Gardens and one of the main centers of activity in the Masyles' 1975 documentary. Here, it is shown in its current state after having been brought back to life by Bradlee and Quinn.

The living room, shown here, has been restored and furnished with cozy cottage furnishings.

I suppose that part of the reason that I am so enraptured by this story is the fact that I am fascinated by houses. I especially love grand, old homes and always say that "If walls could talk, I would sit and listen intently for hours." It just so happens that Grey Gardens has a remarkable story to tell. Even more remarkable, though, are the larger than life Big Edie and Little Edie, whose relationship with one another is both puzzling and mesmerizing. If you are as captivated by this extraordinarily eccentric pair as I am, be sure to visit Grey Gardens News, which features a treasure trove of information on the subject. And of course, don't forget to tune in to HBO this saturday evening for the premiere of Grey Gardens.

In the meantime, check out this mesmerizing HBO video, entitled "Grey Gardens: Then & Now", which compares and contrasts the HBO film to the 1975 documentary.

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