Monday, January 18, 2010

Grey Gardens

"Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring, I mean for too long a time."
- Edie Beale -

A portrayal of one of the strangest and most riveting local, true-life stories won deserved recognition last night at the Golden Globes. Drew Barrymore won for her portrayal of "Little" Edie Beale in HBO's Grey Gardens, which also won for best mini series/movie. 
I had never heard of the Beales or Grey Gardens until I moved to New York. But it was a mother and daughter story so complex and sad and wonderful that I had to find out more.
Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie bought Grey Gardens of East Hampton in 1924 and together with her daughter lived here for over 50 years. Most of that time, they lived in utter squalor and total isolation. When the house was built in 1915 it looked like this:
By the time the Beales left it looked like this:
Thankfully due to the much-needed restoration by the new owners in 1979, it now looks like this:

The Beales were infamous in East Hampton well before the general public learned of them, due to the total disrepair of the house and the stench that emanated from it. In the fall of 1971 and throughout 1972, their living conditions were brought to light in an article from the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York magazine after a series of inspections (which the Beales classified as "raids") by the Suffolk County Health Department.
With the Beales facing eviction, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, stepped in - quietly - to provide the necessary funds to repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet Village codes. 

The Edies' story and living conditions became the subject of a mesmerizing now-cult documentary, filmed in 1976 by the Maysles Brothers. Shot in a house overrun by cats, mice and raccoons, with junk and rubbish piled so high in the garden it is hard to find the house, the two Edies seem to live in a fantasy world completely oblivious to their surroundings. The documentary has fascinated and horrified audiences for nearly thirty-five years. How could two women related to American aristocracy have fallen so far, with such little regard for their living conditions? 

One of the most remarkable aspects of the documentary is the naked vulnerability of its subjects, the blithe openness of people living in a fantasy world. With Little Edie doing most of the talking, you cobble together the life of a privileged woman who was once a singer and dancer, feted by society and pursued by many men, until her mother pulled her away from life in New York to come and look after the cats at Grey Gardens. From there, life became a series of memories in an increasingly squalid way of life. The constant struggle between artistic mother and flamboyant daughter is certainly based on a dysfunctional relationship, but it is underpinned by a strong love and need for each other.
This is an early image of Edie from a beauty contest:
And this is Edie at Grey Gardens

This story and its characters have become legendary. Little Edie's kookie fashion (she lost all her hair throught either stress or a self immolation action, depending on what you read) including a jumper wrapped around her head or leotards and a long silk scarf to go swimming in, was updated and seen on the catwalk to coincide with the launch of the Grey Gardens mini series. Her philosophical sound bites from the documentary - "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted" - show there is more to this woman than a bitter and strange eccentric. Whatever the reason, the Beales and Grey Gardens add a texture and color to an otherwise sometimes bland world.

"Big Edie" died in 1977 and "Little Edie" sold the house in 1979. She died in 2002 at 84 of a heart attack in Florida. She wasn't found for five days.
If you want to read a first hand account of the Beales, there is a wonderful story in the 1972 edition of New York magazine. It is written by a neighbor who became a regular visitor of Grey gardens.  
In 2008, Little Edie's niece published a book on her life. Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures is full of letters, photos, drawings and scrapbook pieces, putting together the life of a fascinating, privileged and once beautiful woman.

Images: USA Today, Grey Gardens,  Duke Magazine, HBO, East Hampton History, Amazon


Cathy Whitlock said...

Wonderful post on an addictive, engaging and haunting movie! Enjoyed your insight.

Aussie New Yorker said...

Thanks Cathy! I respect your cinematic knowledge (and blog) enormously, so your comment is most appreciated!