On “Big Edie” Beale’s death bed her daughter “Little Edie” asked her if there was anything she wanted to say. According to Little Edie she replied “There’s nothing more to say, it’s all in the film.” Groundbreaking documentary filmmakers The Maysles Brothers presented Big and Little Edie Beale to the world in 1975 with the splendid documentaryGrey Gardens, a film that rivets you where you need to be riveted, if you’ve got the groove for it.
The Beales were former socialites who created a world of their own when faced with poverty and social ostracism. Their closest friends were mostly an army of cats and raccoons until The Maysles showed up. Highly educated in the arts and used to a life of decadence, the Beales carried on for the camera in front of filth and dilapidation as if nothing at all was the matter.
“VLADIMIR: What do they say?
ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.”
?-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Although they had holed away together for decades, their exile from their tony community worsened in the early 1970s after their mansion was condemned and their relative Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her husband Ari stepped in, spending $32,000, to help get it back in order. The Maysles filmed with the Beales after the highly publicized renovation, which is almost hard believe with the state of the house documented on film: the rooms were in disarray and cats seemed to be coming out of the walls (raccoons definitely were.) At one point, perhaps the most hilarious moment of the film, Big Edie catches a cat going to the bathroom behind a large and gorgeous portrait of herself. Instead of regret or lamentations about this rather disgusting turn of events, Big Edie simply says “At least someone’s having fun.” A cat defacating behind a work of art and symbol of class and stature is both hilarious and poignant.
With the prevalence of reality television and the popularity of documentaries at a peak, we’re now used to literally being invited into people’s homes and lives through the screen, especially if there is some sort of dysfunction invovled, but the intimate style of the film was groundbreaking at the time. It showed a rare portrait of two ladies who were locked away from the world in a kind of Waiting for Godot existential dance full of song and melodrama. They seemed to be reliving the past on a loop, and bickering to the point of nonsense. As Little Edie so poetically put it, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” During filming Little Edie wallows in regret, threatening to leave to Paris or New York. She dreams of finding a husband, but the truth is she is bound here. She did not (could not) leave Grey Gardens until her mother left.
“ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.”
? Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
“Big” Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale was Jacqueline’s aunt, the sister of the first lady’s dad “Black Jack” Bouiver. All her life, Edie wanted to be a singer, but in 1917 her aspirations were put on hold when she married Wall Street lawyer Phelan Beale. The pair lived together for a while on Madison Avenue in NYC, at the current site of the Carlyle Hotel. She gave birth to “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale the same year, followed by brothers Phelan Beale, Jr. in 1920, and Bouvier Beale in 1922. The family purchased Grey Gardens in East Hampton in 1923, and Edith and the children settled in there while Phelan continued to work in NYC.
While in the Hamptons Big Edie kept her singing dreams alive by training her mezzo-soprano voice. She performed recitals at Grey Gardens and sang at local functions, but her efforts never materialized into a career. Her marriage to Phelan Beale crumbled in 1932, and in the divorce she was left Grey Gardens and child support, but no alimony.
As the children grew up and her money dwindled, she further complicated her financial situation in 1942 when she angered her father Major John Vernou Bouvier, Jr. by showing up late to one of her son’s weddings late dressed like an opera star. He mostly cut her out of his will a few days later, leaving his daughter only a $65,000 trust.
While Big Edie was staring financial hardships in the face, and still spending frivolously, the beautiful Little Edie Beale was trying to make a showbiz life for herself in NYC.
When she returned to Grey Gardens in her mid-thirties it wasn’t the first time Little Edie had been called home to mother. She had spent her 11th and 12th years at home with Big Edie instead of going to school due to an undefined “respiratory illness.” While she was home those two years mother and daughter spent their time going to the movies, theatre, and taking in other art and shows. During Little Edie’s glorious convalescence, she got bit with the acting bug in a bad way. She even kept a diary during this time that you can read on Kindle, which provides a great deal of insight into Little Edie’s life and mind at the time.
“I can’t really tell you if I am pretty or what kind of girl I am but … I have long hair, blonde, getting darker, deep blue eyes, a pug nose and a rather decided mouth,” she wrote about her body. “I am by no means fat, but I have a good body and big feet.”
She even wrote about love, both for a boy and for her mother. “There are lots of 11-year-old children who think they know the meaning of love, when they honestly haven’t any idea,” she writes. “I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it? Second, my buzzing love for a boy, no mere crush, but a true, steady love.”
Despite this young, buzzing love, Little Edie was already showing a fierce devotion to Big Edie. She said she always signed letters to her mother “With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs—your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes.”
In 1934, at age 16, Little Edie went to Miss Porter’s, the posh boarding school that Mad Men‘s Sally Draper fell in love with (in fact, there are some striking similarities between Sally and Betty Draper and the Beales,) in Farmington, Connecticut.
“Vladimir: Did I ever leave you?
Estragon: You let me go.”
? Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
By age 17 Little Edie was getting some modeling gigs, which scandalized her father Phelan, who was desperate to stay in good graces with his father-in-law and boss. He was already in a delicate situation because Big Edie had shunned the buttoned-up social life expected of her for what she called an “artistic life.” When she did attend events, she shocked everyone by talking about Christian Science and bursting into song.
By the time Little Edie was an older teenager away at boarding school and hoping to become a model or a star, her father’s business was floundering a bit because of The Great Depression. In a letter home to Big Edie, who he was in the middle of divorcing, Phelan told her to not let Little Edie in on the their gloomy financial situation. “She will think we’re at the poorhouse,” he wrote Big Edie. “It will rob all her joy.” He ended the letter by saying that he hoped he would die in an airplane crash. “I do hope that the machine crashes, because it would be a pleasant exit for a very tired man.” It’s this idea from Edie’s parents that she should be shielded from realities of life that kept her suspended in an illusion. Sometimes we thing we’re protected our loved ones by hiding things from them, but facing difficult things is an important part of being able to carve out a place in the world for ourselves.
How did Little Edie lose her hair?
At some point in her teens Little Edie suffered from alopecia, a disorder of sudden hair loss. Her hair grew back before she started modeling, and she thought she was over the condition for good, but she started losing her hair again at age 35 when her mother called her home in 1952. Her cousin John Davis claims he witnessed Edie climb a tree during this time, and set her hair on fire just to spite her mother. Regardless of what really happened, once Edie started going bald again in her thirties she never let herself be seen without a stylish head covering that matched her “costume of the day.”
Sometimes when we’re under stress, our bodies show it when we refuse to deal with it psychologically. Hair loss is linked to stress, and it seems doubtful that Little Edie’s underlying anxieties didn’t at least have something to do with her hair loss.
“Estragon: I’m like that. Either I forget right away or I never forget.”
? Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Why did Little Edie have to go back home?
In the 40s Big Edie suffered the consequences of ignoring her financial situation, and had undergone several eye operations. In a state of desperation, she pleaded with her daughter to come home to her to help her.
She could no longer afford to pay for Little Edie’s groceries at the Barbizon Hotel, a woman’s hotel young women boarded while they tried to make their dreams come true. Little Edie came home because of all the pressure, and because she couldn’t afford to feed and pay for herself, but she carried with her a deep resentment. She says she had an audition with the Broadway producer Max Gordan that summer, and could not go to it because she had to be home with her mother. “The minute he saw me, he said, ‘You’re a musical comedienne.’ I said, ‘That’s funny, I did Shakespearean tragedy at Spence.’ Max Gordon said the two were very close. I was all set to audition for the Theatre Guild that summer,” Little Edie told her friend Gail Sheehy. “I modeled for Bach¬rach while I was waiting for the summer to audition. Someone squealed to my father. Do you know, he marched up Madison Avenue and saw my picture and put his fist right through Mr. Bachrach’s window!” You kind of get the feeling, though, that not going to this audition maybe was a relief to her. It was a relief to have an excuse for why her dreams had not come true.
Why didn’t they leave their home?
In order to survive in these circumstances, Big and Little Edie could have sold their sprawling home, and paid for a smaller place in a cheaper part of the country, but Big Edie refused such a path. She clung to the property as if it was her soul. There are moments in the Maysles documentary when they are out on the balcony sunning themselves and looking out at the lush tree and the view of the Atlantic Ocean. In that context, Big Edie’s staunch refusal to leave almost makes sense. From what’s been pieced together, Big Edie lived her life both expecting everything, and refusing to make the compromises you sometimes have to make to have the things you want. Even in a world where money flows like champagne, no one is entitled to living large without realizing the costs. In the end, Big Edie wanted luxury, she wanted to stay in her giant mansion, and she wanted to maintain a hold on something she had deeply engrained in her ego. Relinquishing it at this point, would have been relinquishing a huge part of herself. She could not get the luxury with no money, so she chose to live a Miss Havisham existence in a house she could not keep up. It wasn’t just the luxury, or the dignity, it was an attachment to a place.
“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”
? Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Little Edie never married, but says she had a stream of rich suitors like Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty, and claims to have been engaged to John Kennedy’s brother Joe Kennedy Jr. despite the fact that they only met once. She’s said to have told Joe Kennedy Sr. at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration that if Joe Kennedy had not died in combat, she would have been First Lady instead of Jackie. According to her letters and diaries, in the late 40s she had an affair with Julius Albert Krug, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who was married.
Did Little Edie suffer from mental illness?
At one point in the Maysles’ footage Little Edie is seen reacting to being called a schizophrenic by the press. This diagonsis-by-media doesn’t seem to be correct, but there does seem to be some mental health issues going on with The Beales. Little Edie was enamored with both The Catholic Church and astrology, but it seems she never sought out official counseling or diagnosis.
What happened after the movie?
Big Edie enjoyed quite a bit of attention after Grey Gardens premiered, and much of the immediate aftermath of the movie was documented by family friend, and fellow hermit, Lois Wright. She moved in with them for a year and kept a diligent diary.
After her mother died in 1977, Little Edie stayed at Grey Gardens for another two years. During that time she had an eight show cabaret act at a club in Greenwich Village that had terrible reviews, but gave her another moment in the spotlight. Without her mother around to keep an iron grip on the place, Little Edie sold Grey Gardens for $220,000 on the condition that it not be demolished. The current owners now rent it out or $125,000-a-week. After years of renovations, it’s now a breathtaking estate, but oit took several years alone just to get out the smell from the cats and the raccoons.
So, if you’re rich enough, Grey Gardens is still there. You can walk the same rooms as the Beales. The ladies themselves believed in ghosts, and if such a thing were to exist, you can bet Big Edie is still there, ready to perform for you. Little Edie’s ghost is probably out roaming the world. That was always more her style, anyway.
To truly be haunted by Grey Gardens, however, all you have to do is watch the film. It flickers on and on for an audience who just wants stay there forever with the Beales.
A restored version of Grey Gardens was rereleased for a limited theatrical run March 6, 2015, which in a strange coincidence, happened to be the weekend Albert Mayseles passed away at him home at age 88.
Photo and letter credit: Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures Deluxe and I Only Mark the Hours That Shine