The Grey Gardens Cult

The Bizarre Beales
Grey Gardens on DVD
Take a pair of financially strapped, mother and daughter socialites...aunt and cousin to the Bouviers (Jackie O), a ramshackle East Hampton country house, some highly eccentric behaviour and you have the subject of a much discussed 1976 documentary called  Grey Gardens. Since its airing three decades ago the bizarre Beales, both called 'Edie' -Big and Little,  assumed a kind of cult status and though they are now dead, they still have their fans. The story of the two Edies eventually spawned an HBO film,  a Broaday musical and various Grey Gardens fanclubs.

Articles in the early 70s and the low budget, Mayles Bros. documentary had incited much curiosity.   For one thing, viewers wanted to know how a family with such wealthy connections could be living in such extraordinary squalor? Yet it was perhaps, the very juxtaposition of this squalor with the still retained but badly peeling patina of former glamour and wealth that was so oddly looking at a chipped Ming vase lying abandoned on a junk heap.

Once having been introduced to the 'Edie' Beales, it's hard not to retain some fascination for the once glamorous mother and daughter and their state of strange decay; particularly 'Little Edie' Beales. whose faded but still striking beauty, 'top drawer' manner and incredible fashion sense were so very unique. Edie's story is one of wasted promise, of tentacle-like maternal bonds and perhaps, a profound fear of the outside world. In her early years, Edie had had so many advantages and had shown such potential for worldly happiness. What went wrong...?

Big Edie
Edith Bouvier Beale was from an old moneyed family - her parents were the paternal grandparents of Jackie Onassis. In her youth she had been a New York society beauty, a forceful presence and amateur singer who had show biz aspirations and a powerful sense of her own talent and self-worth. Edie married lawyer Phelan Beale in 1917 and the couple set up house comfortably in Madison Avenue producing three children from the union -  Little Edie and two younger brothers. During this period she continued to sing at private parties and small venues, hiring an accompanest for her act.

Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie
However, all was not well in the Beale household as Phelan abandoned his 35 year old wife when their eldest child was just fourteen. In 1923 Phelan bought the 28 room mansion Grey Gardens and when the couple separated in 1931, Edie was given that house, receiving child support from Phelan but no real alimony. Later he instigated divorce prodceedings, informing Edier via a  cold telegram. Edie's experiene of rejection did not end there, as her own father, 'Major' Bouvier, apparently shocked by her eccentric antics (such as turning up at her son's wedding dressed as an opera star) virtually cut her out of his will, leaving only a small trust sum to his daughter.

It seemed Big Edie had little talent for surviving materially in the real world and opted instead for a rarefied, private world of her own creation, which she would eventually share (or ensnare) with her only daughter. Although she had her post-divorce, romantic peccadilloes; first with her piano accompanist and then a handyman, she lived largely alone at Grey Gardens until Little Edie returned from the City to  live there permanently in 1952.

In the years that followed the pair became more and more reclusive and the house, which they shared with cats, raccoons and an army of fleas,  fell into a state of appalling disrepair - the garden a tangled mess and empty tin cans and detritus plied knee-high in the living-room. The Mayles film crew were allegedly compelled to wear flea collars around their ankles to avoid getting bitten. When their living conditions were revealed in an article in the Inquirer, Jackie Onassis and the Bouviers were prompted to offer financial assistance.

Little Edie
Of course I won't get out of here till she dies or I die ~ Edie the Younger

Little Edie in her youth. Wistfully beautiful
Little Edie - Edith Bouvier Beale stroke two,  was born the year of her parents marriage. Everything about her childhood indicated an idyllic existence of wealth and privilege - she was educated at The Spence School in NYC and later the exclusive Miss Porter's School in Connecticut. Yet her father's abandonment of the family must have cut deep, especially at the turbulent age of fourteen.

As a young adult Edie was lithe and beautiful and for a time she worked as a fashion model at Macy's department store and at Palm Beach, Florida where she had escaped to, only to be brought home by her father, Phelan Beale. During this period she claimed to have dated some notable men, including Howard Hughes, Joe Kennedy Sr and American industrialist, John Paul Getty. The years were slipping away and if she had offers of marriage as she claimed, she didn't take them.

At thirty, she moved into the Gothic Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan where she stayed for the next five years until finally moving home to live with her mother at Grey Gardens. It's difficult to know how much of Edie's reminisces about her youth were fantasy and how much were real. Her aspirations as an actress, singer and dancer were never, even partially, realised and wistful claims that she made in the documentary about being "on the verge of a big break" seem as desolately lightweight as tumbleweeds blowing in the wind.

Whatever strange pull drew her back to Grey Gardens, she was to remain there until her mother's death, as she herself had predicted. She had once remarked that she moved to the Barbizon because she felt "insecure" in her apartment - could it be that as she grew older, she felt even less secure and could feel grounded and safe only within close proximity of her mother, where a kind of shared fantasy could exist?

The Allure of the Edies
In spite of the squalor, the lack of funds, the isolation and for Little Edie at least, the lost potential, the two women did yet possess a kind of spirited  charisma. Just how deeply regrets, longings and unfulfilled aspirations featured in their interior lives is anyone's guess. Certainly life there had its pressures and burdens - Little Edie suffered from alopecia, a condition that causes severe hair loss and is associated with stress. Her signature turbans were not merely a fashion statement. At one point she is said to have scampered up a tree-house and set her own hair on fire - hardly normal behaviour.

It appeared they lived with a kind of resigned stoicism, romanticized by their former glory and elite connections. In spite of its dilapidated state, Grey Gardens was still a beautiful place to live and only a hop, skip and a jump from the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Things could have been worse. People's situations are judged in relative terms and it seems the cache of wealth and glamour, even when it has dissipated, still hangs in the atmosphere. When you're eternally poor and strange, you're deemed 'nuts' but when you're strange and rich, or at least have wealth and connections in your background,  you tend to be labelled with the more forgiving term,  'eccentric'.

Shortly after Grey Gardens was screened, Big Edie died and Little Edie's life was at least partly transformed by the publicity and interest that the film had generated. After lingering for a couple of years at Grey Gardens, she eventually sold the house  to the then editor of the Washington Post, who promised restoration rather than  demolition. A stint as a cabaret artist at a Manhattan night spot Reno Sweeney followed, though it was not a critical success. By then she was 60 and had scored the gig only through her notoriety.

For the next twenty years or so she lived in various places - New York, Florida, Montreal and California. Her final years were spent alone at Bal Harbour, Florida, where she swam, wrote poetry, and corresponded with friends and fans.  At the very end she lay dead in her apartment for five days before the body was discovered. Little Edie's remains were interred in Long Island's Locust Valley Cemetery, though she had requested her ashes be scattered into or near the Atlantic ocean in 2002. Interestingly, she had not wanted to buried alongside her mother, preferring instead a posthumous independence. She was 84 - her unique life had at least been a long one.