Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Two Edies

Picture Big Edie: She’s in bed upstairs boiling corn on a hot plate beside the bed. The bed is scattered with a dozen old newspapers, two mildewed photograph albums and four cats, who watch the boiling corn as if waiting for a treat. Across the room Little Edie is stuck between a series of dance steps and making mystery snacks for the two guest photographers. Welcome to the world of Grey Gardens.

Edith Bouvier Beale and her mother, also named Edith, were two of America’s more bizarre socialites who lived for years in a run down mansion in East Hampton, New York. They were first cousin and aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and at one time moved in the highest circles of New York society. During the early years of Mrs Beale’s marriage she pursued a singing career and often entertained at parties, and until the day she died was still able to sing with panache. Her daughter, also enjoyed singing, but sought a career as a fashion model and actress. However, the theatre, spotlights and runways were not to be for mother or daughter. Phelan Beale abandoned wife and daughter leaving them to care for themselves with only minor support. The home at least belonged to Mrs Beale.

In 1930 Grey Gardens was a large and beautiful house of twenty-eight rooms near windswept Georgica Beach in East Hampton. It had been purchased for the future Mrs Beale in 1923. The two-acre property included a large, well-kept garden considered one of the finest on the east coast. It was called Grey Gardens because of the colour of the cement garden walls, the nearby dunes, and the sea mist. In those early years it was the site of numerous parties, a gathering place for the rich and socially elite. That all changed when the support of a wealthy husband was withdrawn and life came to be dictated by a meager monthly allowance and the sale piece by piece of their home’s lavish contents.

Until 1952, the daughter Edie lived in New York pursuing a career in modeling and acting, but at the age of thirty-five returned to live with her mother, ill and in need of someone to care for her. Forever after, Edie contended that she had been on the verge of a show business breakthrough when forced to give it up and return to Grey Gardens to care for her mother. Thus began the odd, entwined and reclusive lives of mother and daughter—“Big Edie” and “Little Edie”—lasting twenty-five years until the mother’s death in 1977.

With a chronic shortage of money, the house and grounds deteriorated over the years between 1935 and 1971. Eventually, Suffolk County Health Department inspectors forced their way into the house and discovered violations of every known building regulation. They found a five-foot mountain of empty cans in the dining room, dozens of cats, raccoons and possums, and in the upstairs bedrooms, human waste. News media got the story enflaming a national scandal. Health Department officials threatened mother and daughter with eviction if the house were not cleaned. Jacqueline Onassis came to their rescue and arranged to have the house and grounds cleaned and repaired to the satisfaction of heath officials.

And then came the Maysles brothers, Albert and David. Hearing about the eccentric pair from their socialite cousin Lee Radziwill, the brothers approached them with the idea of making a documentary film of their lives at Grey Gardens. Despite the passage of years, both mother and daughter still entertained notions of theatrical discovery and so agreed to allow the brothers to spend weeks filming the daily life, the conversation and the activities of Big Edie and Little Edie. The result was a 1975 documentary film of the two women living at the decrepit Grey Gardens in the wealthy Georgia Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York. The film became a huge hit and remains to this day a frequently screened classic. It spawned a 2009 dramatic remake starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie, a version which fills in some of the backstory left untouched in the documentary. That film too is well done, both actresses giving exceptional performances.

One of the side effects of the popularity of Grey Gardens and the two Edies has been the flare of interest in the outfits Little Edie wore day in and day out. She had a very individual eye to fashion and covered herself in costumes that included skirts worn upside down, or a skirt wrapped casually around ample thighs held by another of her oversized brooches. She described the skirt as doubling for a cape. Edie suffered from alopecia universalis a condition which caused her hair to fall out and which prompted her to wear the turbans and other head wraps she became known for. One time it might be a cashmere sweater, another time a bath towel or old table cloth. She was also fond of bathing suits, being a lifelong swimmer and draped them in all manner of add-ons. Both Italian Vogue and Harper's Bazaar have done photographic layouts inspired by Edie’s fashion statements in the two movies.

The unscripted dialogue in the 1975 documentary makes clear that the two bizarre Edies were very intelligent and erudite women gifted with a talent for clever and colorful comments on a wide range of subjects. It is true that the house was allowed to sink into abject deterioration, but their minds certainly did not. It was not easy for the two and at one point Little Edie muses, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”

A funny moment comes in one scene when Little Edie hisses, “The movie, the movie!” at her mother when Big Edie threatens to strip naked.

Mrs Beale and her daughter were easily two of America’s most individual ex-socialites, living life as they chose to, turning their noses up at frowning neighbors or anyone else seeking to intrude upon or criticize their somewhat fabulous eccentricities. They lived their lives without apology. We have the Maysles brothers to thank for introducing them to a world of fans.

Big Edie died at Grey Gardens in 1977. Little Edie later sold the house and property to Benjamin Bradlee of The Washington Post. She had a brief career as a cabaret performer in New York before retiring to Bal Harbour, Florida where she died of a heart attack in 2002.


  1. Oh, yeah. Had not there been a documentary, a Broadway musical, and then the film, this was the kind of fodder any writer would latch on to in an East Hampton second. Writers (and all others) are always drawn to the particular, the odd, especially high society folks living like hermits.

  2. Fabulous post! It is very interesting to read about these "very different and reclusive persons". Wish you'd do one on Pear Buck.....she's another interesting one and my Kappa Delta sorority sister.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America