In The Shadow Of Grey Gardens

Sarah Ng

Not all American socialites grow up to find wealth, success, and beauty. In fact, the promising first cousin of Jackie Onassis turned out to be quite the black sheep of the family. Her name was Edith Bouvier Beale, and she grew up with a chip on her shoulder, no doubt jealous of her far more famous relatives. You see, Edith—or “Little Edie”—wanted the fairy tale ending more than anyone, but her time living at the notorious Grey Gardens dashed her dreams forever.


A Promising Young Woman

Born in 1917, Little Edie had the makings of a distinguished young lady. She and her two brothers, Phelan and Bouvier, enjoyed quite the luxurious upbringing, attending the best private schools and finding themselves caught up in the swing of America’s “Catholic aristocracy.” But that wasn’t all. Little Edie was also a member of an East Hampton country club, and at her debutante ball, she emerged as a stunning young woman, draped in a shining white dress and crowned with a wreath of fragrant gardenias…So where did it all go wrong?

Trouble began knocking at her door when her parents’ marriage imploded before her very eyes. In 1931, her lawyer father, Phelan Beale Sr., left the family high and dry, abandoning her mother, “Big Edie,” entirely. With only a small-time singing career at her back, Big Edie had no choice but to depend entirely on the Bouviers for support. For now, this planted the seeds of discontent, but it would take years for the full horror of the situation to play out.

In 1947, a year after her parents’ divorce finally went through, Little Edie moved into the renowned Barbizon Hotel—a women-only residence that had the honor of hosting other working powerhouses like Rita Hayworth and Sylvia Plath. For the next five years, she pursued her dreams of modeling, acting, and dancing. But poor Edie’s moment in the sun was never meant to last.

Becoming A Mama’s Girl

By 1952, Edie’s city days were over, and she moved back in with her mother at Grey Gardens, a large estate in East Hampton. This is where the descent truly began. See, Edie’s father had given them a $300 allowance to maintain the residence, but eventually, he cut all contact and the finances needed to maintain the sprawling 14-room home dwindled away. But that was only the beginning.

As Grey Gardens began to fall into disarray, Little Edie’s own life crumbled along with it. In her late 30s, her gorgeous looks began withering around the edges. To her dismay, all of her hair began falling out. She developed alopecia, and in order to disguise its effects, she began using headscarves. This, of course, became her signature look. In the wake of these mounting disappointments, the once-proud socialite lashed out with some stunning allegations.

Little Edie had gotten her first taste of glamour only to have it ripped out from under her, and she was undoubtedly jealous of her more illustrious relatives. She began making some far-fetched claims, stating that  Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. had been her fiancé. Of course, this was all a lie. However, at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, she took this fib a step further.

She actually told Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. that she would have been the First Lady if his son had survived. Clearly, Edie’s mental health had begun to teeter—and it was only going to get worse.

The Fall Of Grey Gardens

With dwindling funds, Grey Gardens soon lost its former luster. Its caretakers failed to maintain it, and over time it devolved into an absolute dump, teeming with feral cats and other animals. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The house was a downright nightmare—filled with garbage and feces, and infested with fleas. Its thoughtless occupants refused to clean, and by 1972, others started to take notice of how uninhabitable Grey Gardens had become.

The state of the home shocked and disgusted the New York Health Commission, who didn’t hesitate to hand over an eviction notice. Under the notice’s terms, Little Edie and Big Edie would have to leave Grey Gardens until it was safe enough to live in again—the utilities repaired and the home properly tidied. Of course, with their ties to Jackie O, this debacle didn’t go unnoticed by the press. The story was explosive and went international.

Rich Cousins To The Rescue

Unsurprisingly, it was something of a scandal for Jackie O’s close relatives to be living in such unspeakable conditions. The former first lady was, after all, now married to one of the richest men in the world, Aristotle Onassis. Surely, she could come to the aid of her desperate aunt and cousin…

Thankfully, both Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill came to the rescue and provided the funds necessary for Grey Garden’s glorious restoration, thus saving the estate for their misguided relatives. But the whole affair led to something much greater.

The year after the fateful eviction notice, Lee Radziwill commissioned Albert and David Maysles to make a documentary film about her youth at the estate, and it just so happened to include interviews with both the Edies at Grey Gardens. The Maysles brothers quickly realized that these two eccentric ladies were by far their most interesting subjects, and when Lee’s project never saw fruition, they returned to Grey Gardens with a brand new film in mind.

A Revealing Documentary

The isolated and insular lives of the Beale women fascinated the Maysles brothers, and they wanted to make a documentary about their lives. The result? The film Grey Gardens, wherein the brothers followed their subjects around for two months, recording their daily comings and goings. The results were revelatory, comical, and tragic. The mother/daughter dynamic of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” proved to be an entertaining spectacle in more ways than one.

The dilapidated nature of Grey Gardens only mirrored the broken dreams of its inhabitants—their faded beauty and their fraying minds. On screen, Little Edie dresses up in wild outfits and feeds the raccoons that still run rampant throughout the halls. Outwardly, something isn’t quite right, but the real root of the problem is much deeper.

In the documentary, both mother and daughter are trapped in a heartwarming yet toxic relationship. Their banter overlaps in a comfortable rhythm, but beyond their quirks and questionable lifestyle, there’s something else: loneliness, sadness, and more than a touch of resentment. As Edie says in the film, “We better check on mother and the cats. She’s a lot of fun, I hope she doesn’t die. I hate to spend another winter here though. Oh God, another winter.”

Broken Dreams

Of course, in the end, Big Edie did die. Only two years after the documentary came out, she passed, leaving Little Edie all alone for the first time in practically forever. Finally free, she decided to follow her heart and pursue a cabaret career—but it all ended in disaster.

At the ripe age of 60, Little Edie took up dancing. The nightclub Reno Sweeney offered her eight shows, but the reviews were so terrible, the establishment hid the hurtful feedback from her. In just one example of the vitriol, The New York Times called her performance a “public display of ineptitude.” In the end, there was no comeback for this fallen socialite. Edith Bouvier Beale was never able to recapture her lost youth, and the dream was finally over.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 7

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