“This is the revolutionary costume. I’d never wear this in East Hampton. You can’t be too careful.”
Edith Bouvier Beale, was the pin sharp former socialite and one of the subjects of the Maysles brothers 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens.” A former debutante and aspiring cabaret star, Little Edie lived with her mother Edith (big Edie) in a ramshackle oversized house in East Hampton, Long Island. Grey Gardens, formerly the Beale family home, was where the once well-connected and wealthy family would host society soirees, and lavish dinners for their similarly well-heeled circle.
Decades on, and on a reduced income, Grey Gardens and its two remaining inhabitants had descended into something far removed from its former glories. The walls and roof space had become a home to raccoons, while dozens of pet cats had free rein around the almost derelict 28-room property.
The Edies, without either the money, or it would seem the inclination to make any repairs, lived together in one of the upstairs bedrooms. With just the cats and each other for company, other useful items such as their fridge and food, had also been moved into the bedroom, whilst the cats and the disgarded cat food tins occupied the rest of the house.
Local criticism of the untidy pair reached fever pitch in 1971 and, following complaints from the neighbours, the Suffolk County Board of Health threatened them with eviction for allowing the house to fall into disrepair, failing to deal with litter and for a “violation of local ordinances”.
“They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday” – Edie
The two Ediths along with their decrepit, animal infested abode, were not the most popular neighbours on the block. However with last minute financial help from the extended Bouvier and Beale families, including a well publicised photo-op tidying spree by first cousin Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the case against them was dropped, and they were left alone once more.
In 1975, in an unexpected twist, the Beale’s allowed documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles inside Grey Gardens. The Maysles brothers had recently started to shoot a documentary about the wider Bouvier family with particular reference to Jackie, but lost interest in the original project after encountering the two Edies. The resulting footage was released as the now cult documentary “Grey Gardens”. The Beales themselves provide the only spoken commentary in the film, as the story of their day-to-day lives inside their extraordinary house, unfolds.
With no care for their own or their neighbours opinions or property prices, both Big and Little Edie don’t just survive inside the falling down house, they actually seem to thrive in the decay and disorder of their own making.
Their stipend from family members was not used to fix the roof or plumbing, but was spent on huge tubs of ice cream, tuna fish, and cat food. They would also purchase sliced white bread for the resident raccoons, a thoughtful side order to compliment the racoons main meal, which was the house itself. The Maysles didn’t seem to mind either, although they both allegedly wore flea collars around their ankles while filming indoors.
Little Edie might just be one of the most remarkable people to have ever appeared on screen. Eccentric, endearing, charming, outspoken, and inventive. Curating outfits from things found around the house, even combining upside down garments with curtain ties or swimwear, to make something new. Each one includes her ever-present headscarf, which covers her alopecia stricken scalp, which is never mentioned by name. With failing eyesight due to cataracts, she reads books through a giant magnifying glass, or in the case of the bathroom scales through binoculars. Yes, the Edies bicker, as any mother and daughter might, but ultimately the documentary reveals them both to be irresistible optimists – especially so in the face of their demotion down the social ranks; their sudden unforseen poverty and public disapproval and ridicule. They remained staunchly feral, yet still somehow refined. Big Edie’s warbling vocal performances under her mismatched bed clothes seem to transport her back to her radiant, tuneful youth and the keen amateur singer she once was. Little Edie’s enthusiasm for life continues undented by their impecunious circumstances; she invents outfits, performs a flag dance for the camera and happily guides the viewer around her world of “special things”.
After the documentary aired for the first time, public opinion tended to view the Beales as filthy, mad, old cat ladies, and examples of how not to live. BUT, there were some other people who recognised them immediately. They were outsiders. They were our people. They were part of us.
Since it was first screened, public opinion has shifted, and the Beales are now more recognised for their resilience, singularity, style, charm, humour and their absolute resistance to authority, raccoon attacks, or tidying up. After Big Edie’s death in 1977, Little Edie moved to New York to finally realise her dream of performing in cabaret. She was 60 years old.
“Grey Gardens the musical” debuted off Broadway in 2006 and starred Christine Ebersole as Little Edie, for which she won a Tony Award.
A fictionalised movie “Grey Gardens” starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, was released in 2009. Lange won an Emmy.
The Rufus Wainwright song “Grey Gardens” appears on his 2001 album Poses.