Grey Gardens: Riches to Rags
“It’s sad, it’s funny, it’s disturbing …
If ever there was a tale mirroring the times we live in fraught with instant fame, fleeting fortunes and overnight foreclosures, excess, privilege and entitlement reduced to despair, disillusion and decay, all unnervingly captured on film by the prying eye of the paparazzi, look no further than the upcoming HBO drama Grey Gardens. [April 18, 2009]
Jessica Lang as Big Edie
In a reprise of the 1975 cult classic of the same name shot by cinéma vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens chronicles the lives of former socialite Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her aspiring actress daughter Edie, (played by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis …
Drew Barrymore as Little Edie
… two forgotten women who lived in a world of their own behind the towering privets that surrounded their decaying 28-room East Hampton mansion known as “Grey Gardens,” a place so far gone that the local authorities once threatened to evict them for violating building and sanitation codes.
Drew Barrymore, HBO Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens explores the broken dreams of two indomitable women who were once among the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social registry but became the subject of tabloid headlines that rocked the Kennedy clan in the early 1970s.
At the time, the incident made national headlines —
“American royalty, living in squalor!”
(In our present day round-the-clock mediatized era of Made-Off and friends, the story would have registered as a mere blip on the blogosphere).
But at the time, the Beales were nothing short of the upper crust. Mrs. Beale, a.k.a. “Big Edie,” was a born aristocrat. Her daughter “Little Edie” was an aspiring actress of striking beauty who put her New York life on hold to care for her mother – and never left her side again.
Little Edie at seventeen.
“She has this brilliant fashion sense
and these great lines —
I don’t know a movie I quote more.
But when you go deeper …
what’s there is a truly remarkable injured bird
with the most amazing feathers.”
–Drew Barrymore on Little Edie
Little Edie modeling swimwear during her job as a fashion model, circa 1935.
Both had lived in almost complete seclusion since the mid-1950s, ever since Big Edie’s husband abandoned them. Twenty years later they continued to live in their memories while camped out in a single bedroom of the 28-room mansion overrun with cats (who use the floor as their litter box).
The two Edie’s would spend the next two decades slipping into mental illness, feeding off each other’s inability to cope with the injustices that life dealt them, and yet in a haunting way, developing a loving relationship that was endless.
Little Edie Beale, circa 1935
Together they descended into a strange life of dependence and eccentricity that no one had ever shared until the Maysles arrived with their camera and tape recorder.
The Beales were ready for their close-ups. Little Edie — a still-attractive woman at 56 — parades about coquettishly in her trademark improvised turbans (her wildly original ensembles inspired a 9-page fashion spread in a 1998 issue of Harper’s Bazaar and a 1999 issue of Italian Vogue) reminiscing about her brilliant past, still hoping that her Big Chance and Big Romance are just around the corner.
Big Edie, trained soprano in her bohemian days, trills romantic songs of yesteryear in a slightly wobbly, but still rich voice. The women bicker, prattle, and flirt like characters out of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.
“I’ve seen Grey Gardens four times!
I felt that I was looking at
two eccentric women
and I was embarrassed,
but the fault was in me,
because slowly but surely
I was opened to these women
on any number of levels
that I’m still exploring.”
– Judith Crist, 1974
“To my mother and me,
Grey Gardens is a breakthrough
to something beautiful
and precious called life.”
–Edie Beale, 1974
Big Edie and her daughter were paid $5,000 each for the documentary which featured their daily life, songs and dances. They never did obtain a percentage of the film profits as originally promised by the Maysles. The film was screened for Beale and Little Edie in the upstairs hall of Grey Gardens in 1975. Her daughter Edie declared it “a classic!”.
BEFORE / The Bohemian Party, 1936
AFTER / Jackie’s Visit, 1972
Grey Gardens was purchased in 1923 by Phelan Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt and uncle of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Beales occupied the house for over 50 years.
The house itself, a traditional shingled cottage of 14 rooms and 3 bathrooms, was designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897 and completed several years later. The grey color of the dunes, the hue of the cement garden walls, and the sea mist gave the garden its color and the house its name.
With the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their home, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, provided the necessary funds to stabilize and repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet Village codes in the Summer of 1972.