In another lifetime, “Little” Edie Beale might have been as glamorous as her cousin, Jackie Kennedy. But fate wasn’t so kind to her—it was downright cruel.
When the cult documentary Grey Gardens came out in 1975, “Little” Edie Beale captivated the world. Though she was once the height of New York society, the film revealed just how far Edie had fallen. All those debutante balls were long behind her, and she was now living in utter squalor alongside her mother, “Big” Edie.
But when it comes to Edie Beale, that’s the least of the disturbing revelations. This is her whole story.
Born in 1917 to a wealthy Manhattan family, Edie was the only daughter of Phelan Beale, a prominent New York lawyer, and Edith Bouvier Beale, a beautiful and glamorous socialite. In fact, Edith met Phelan through his work at her father’s successful law firm. With all this privilege, it looked like Little Edie was set for an extraordinary life.
But “extraordinary” doesn’t always mean “good”.
It wasn’t just that Little Edie was born into a wealthy family. Her mother’s line, the Bouviers, was also extremely influential in society. Through them, Little Edie was a first cousin to none other than the glamorous Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her sister Princess Lee Radziwill. But it didn’t take long for the dark side of the family dynamics to come out.
The Bouviers may have been famously luxe, but Little Edie’s maternal line was also seriously suspect. Her uncle, “Black Jack” Bouvier, earned his nickname by being a notorious, gambling lush, and was reportedly even too drunk to walk his daughter Jackie down the aisle when she married John F Kennedy.
In an end that would presage Little Edie’s own, he ended life as a recluse in his New York City apartment. So yeah, there was something in the water in Edie’s clan. But the most important man in her life, her father, was somehow even worse.
Little Edie’s father Phelan was an imposing figure at the best of times, and a full 14 years older than her mother. Distant and authoritative, he was also a true man’s man who loved hunting and sports. If that all sounds like he wasn’t the best father figure, as we’ll see, he definitely wasn’t. Her mother, though, was something else entirely.
As the only girl in the family, Little Edie was the apple of her mother’s eye. Big Edie—who loved pageantry of any kind—would dress her up in the finest velvets and lace, then have the little girl accompany her to socialite ladies’ luncheons in East Hampton. She was, in other words, something like Big Edie’s little doll. As she got older, this identity grew to disturbing proportions.
When Edie was old enough to attend school, nothing would do but the best. Accordingly, her parents sent her to the all-girls, elite private institution of Spence in Manhattan. The eye-watering tuition fees were mere drops in the bucket for the Bouvier Beales, and Edie looked set to take on the debutante world.
And then it all started to go so wrong.
Before Edie could graduate, her mother made a fateful decision. She pulled Edie out of Spence in her 11th and 12th years. The reason was disturbing. The matron insisted Edie had a respiratory illness…but there is little evidence of this, and Edie’s diaries from the time don’t indicate a large, long sickness in the slightest. Instead, Edie’s mother might have had a different goal in mind.
See, now that Edie was out of school, it meant she could spend even more time with her mother. Despite this “sickness,” the pair went constantly to the movies or the theater. On special occasions, they even went on shopping trips to Paris—all while Edie was supposed to be learning alongside her peers. Aside from this, her mother wasn’t always the best influence in these moments.
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Edie’s mother was obviously too attached to her daughter, yes. Only, that was the least of her issues.
“Big” Edie had always lived with her head in the clouds—she had pursued an amateur singing career since before she met Edie’s father—but marriage and motherhood had done nothing to tamp down her patently unrealistic ambitions.
Reportedly, “Big” Edie still liked to ruffle the feathers of high society by singing operettas during polite luncheons, or would skip parties entirely to live the “artistic life” instead. Her daughter took note…
With all her afternoons watching films and wiling away the lazy hours with her mother, it wasn’t long before “Little” Edie wanted to partake in the artistic life, too. Her most ardent dream was to become an actress, a long-shot profession her mother was happy to encourage.
Meanwhile, the old-money circles they ran in were quick to look down on it.
Of course, by then, Edie had bigger issues than pipe dreams.
As Edie grew into a young woman, she turned astonishingly beautiful. One of her cousins even noted that she was the beauty of the Bouvier family, “surpassing even the dark charm of Jacqueline”. Only, this presented a big problem.
During this time, it became clear Edie was both boy-crazy and inextricably tied to her mother. In one diary entry, she wrote: “I have two great loves in my life.
First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken…Second, my buzzing love for a boy”. As we’ll see, these two parts of Edie would clash in increasingly disruptive ways.
But before that happened, her family would implode.
Edie’s father Phelan had watched his wife and daughter gallivanting about, spending money willy-nilly, and coming up with pie-in-the-sky ideas. He watched them, and his stomach sank.
Not only did his money take a hit after the stock market crash of 1929—making him reluctant to bankroll their pleasures—but Phelan himself was a by-the-books, rational man who chafed at the thought of a flighty wife and daughter.
So, he dropped a bombshell.
When Edie was just 14 years old, her father separated from her mother.
The ramifications were cruel. He gave “Big” Edie only a little money and no alimony in the split, leaving her to fend almost entirely for herself. Indeed, one of the only things she did get was a little beach-front property Phelan bought in East Hampton back in 1923: “Grey Gardens”.
Yet even with this abandonment, Edie’s absent father still managed to find ways to control her.
With Phelan gone, there was now almost no sober influence directly in Edie’s life, and she began trying to make her dreams of stardom a reality. When she was 17 years old, she became a model for Macy’s—but it lasted almost no time at all. As soon as her strict father found out, he kiboshed the whole thing, insisting that his daughter not put herself on display.
Not that Phelan had a leg to stand on when it came to judging people.
He was keeping a ruinous secret.
In 1934, Phelan wrote his estranged wife a rare letter. Its contents were heartbreaking. In it, he confessed to Edie’s mother that he was now completely broke—the money had run out. However, he insisted that she keep it from their daughter, saying, “She will think we’re at the poorhouse,” then adding, “It will rob all her joy”.
So, for a time, the family played pretend.
It almost worked.
In 1936, money or no, Edie had her coming out ball at long last. True to form for her chic family, she debuted to society on New Year’s Day at the lavish Pierre Hotel, wearing a white dress decorated with silver and topping it off with a wreath of gardenias for her hair. It was such an event that the New York Times reported on the proceedings.
Edie was finally “out”. She wasted no time reveling in her freedom.
The next years of Edie’s life were her heyday. Attracted to her beauty and wealth, all kinds of admirers knocked at her door. Accordingly, she dated some of the most promising young men of her day. Among them, her intrigues were a dalliance with notorious Hollywood lothario Howard Hughes, and even a probable proposal from the gas tycoon J Paul Getty.
But her biggest conquest remains her most controversial.
Around this time, Edie claimed she not only dated Joseph Kennedy Jr, then the eldest son of the prominent Kennedy clan, but she also insisted that the Kennedy scion also proposed to her during this time. Although there’s some doubt about this, it would mean that Edie got to the Kennedy family long before her cousin Jackie did.
Still, with all of these suitors, why didn’t Edie settle down into married life? That answer is tragic.
Marrying someone would almost certainly mean diminishing the role “Big” Edie played in her life, and Edie realized she could never betray her mother like that. It led to one disturbing moment. When she decided she was through with suitors forever, Edie tore all her boyfriends’ faces out of any photographs she had with them.
But if you think Edie had family problems now, just wait.
In 1946, the last vestiges of Edie’s happy family fell away. That year, her father finally had enough and got an official divorce from Big Edie. Only, he announced it to his wife and daughter in the most heartless way imaginable: He sent Big Edie a telegram from Mexico informing her of the news.
Unfortunately, his cruelty was just beginning.
It wasn’t enough for Phelan Beale to cut ties. Fulfilling a total cliché, he also ran away with a much younger woman in the process—and this despite caring so much about his family’s reputation. All hope of a reunion (and a renewed cash flow) was now utterly lost.
In some ways, this was also the final straw for Little Edie. Soon, she struck out.
Just after her father’s divorce announcement, Little Edie seemed to wake up from her dream world, look around, and realize a life under her mother’s wing was going to make her desperately unhappy. Her solution was scandalous:
But it was here she learned just how caged she was.
Edie’s father Phelan may have been out of the picture and a total philanderer, but he did still care about how his daughter looked to the world. The first time Edie ran away, her father somehow tracked her down and plunked her right back into her mother’s lap. Her other attempts were equally unsuccessful.
Exhausted from her efforts, she came up with a new plan.
Since running away illicitly in the middle of the night wasn’t working, Edie tried a more legitimate route. She moved out and began living in the famous Barbizon Hotel in New York, which, at one point, also housed luminaries like Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, and Sylvia Plath. Surely, her father couldn’t complain about this—but Edie still found ways to get in trouble.
During her time at the Barbizon, Edie began acting and modeling again, and even had an audition for the theater guild lined up.
This, of course, was putting herself on display once more, and expressly against her father’s wishes. So when Phelan, none the wiser, happened to see his daughter’s face in an ad for the clothing company Bachrach, his response was explosive.
According to Edie herself, when her father saw the advertisement, he wasted no time getting revenge.
Phelan, “marched up Madison Avenue and saw my picture and put his fist right through Mr Bachrach’s window”! Still, no amount of fatherly disapproval could stop Edie from trying to “make it”. What did stop her was much more tragic.
In the wake of Phelan Beale’s divorce pronouncement, one of the few things Big Edie had left to her name was, still, that seaside house of Grey Gardens. But this, too, she was barely hanging onto.
Little Edie’s grandfather Major Bouvier hounded the women constantly to sell the estate, insisting they get a reality check and stop living in the clouds. But then Edie’s mother made a fatal mistake.
Clearly, no one could tell either Beale woman what to do, and Big Edie reacted with the same defiance her daughter once exhibited.
Digging her heels in, Big Edie showed just how little she cared what her father thought, and attended her own son’s wedding dressed in full-blown opera gear. But this act of rebellion had a disastrous fallout.
It was the last straw for Major Bouvier, and he retaliated by cutting Big Edie entirely out of his will.
This would change Little Edie’s life forever.
Up until now, it looked like Little Edie, safe in the Barbizon, had finally gotten away from her family’s gnarled clutches. But after this feud, her mother had precious little money to support her daughter—and one day, she wrote to her at the hotel and informed her she had to come home to Grey Gardens, for good, to help support her.
It was the end of a golden era and the beginning of a slow decline.
Soon after leaving the Barbizon, Edie began experiencing a horrible symptom. Her hair started falling out. Most of her family believed it was stress-related, but whatever the cause, Edie soon realized she was suffering from alopecia totalis. Before she was even 40, all her body hair had fallen out.
Then again, this did help her create a signature style.
After her hair loss, Edie struggled to find ways to feel glamorous—but she hadn’t spent years scraping by with an absent-yet-strict father and a present-but-flighty mother and not learned a thing or two about fending for herself. Eventually, she began wearing headscarves to cover her baldness, a fashion choice that turned iconic after her appearance in the Grey Gardens documentary.
Even so, there is a darker history behind this hair loss.
While alopecia is the currently accepted explanation for Edie’s baldness, one of her family members made a more disturbing suggestion. Her cousin, John Davis, claimed that Edie triggered her own hair loss as one final act of rebellion. One day at Grey Gardens, Davis says Edie climbed a tree and, alarmingly, set her hair on fire.
It never grew back.
If it was an act of rebellion, though, it didn’t work. Instead, Edie kept on at Grey Gardens—and sunk further into an abyss.
From the outside, life at Grey Gardens probably looked idyllic, especially at first. Edie and her mother had the run of the enormous place, and Edie spent her days writing poetry and drawing, while her mother lived out her favorite musicals to her captive audience of one.
They were finally together, forever, as they always should have been.
Yet the entire time, their cheery demeanors were hiding a grim truth.
As the years passed, Little Edie and Big Edie almost got lost to time. They were not, however, lost to the taxman: Their funds continued to dwindle and, in desperation, they systematically sold off much of their personal belongings.
As a family member put it, “They were very brave. They sold off their Tiffany pieces item by item”.
When the time came for the Beale women to re-emerge into the world, it was under a glaring spotlight.
In the 1960s, another strange twist of fate showed up at Edie’s doorstep. Her cousin, Jacqueline Bouvier, married John F Kennedy, a younger scion of the family Edie might have once married into, too. More than that, Jackie became First Lady when Kennedy became president—and suddenly the Beales had a lot more than they bargained for.
The Bouviers had always been an extremely proud clan, and they understood that the Beale women’s eccentricities over in Grey Gardens might negatively affect the image of the sitting president. Unsurprisingly, then, they kept a close watch on the house, with Service Cars frequently swinging past and posting up by Edie’s window.
Then again, they were right to worry.
Edie was about to make a big splash for all the wrong reasons.
When they got invited to John Kennedy’s inauguration, the Beales finally got to come out to play once more in high society. Except, they showed just how rusty they were: Edie didn’t react well to the attention. Reportedly, during the event she leaned over to the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph Sr, and bragged loudly about how she could have married his firstborn son once upon a time.
If that had come true, it might have been the peak of Edie’s life. Instead, she was due for a downfall.
By 1971, the Beales had been living at Grey Gardens for decades, and their neighbors noticed that something was seriously off. For one, there were cats everywhere on the property, and for another, their landscaping had devolved into a half-crazed “Louisiana Bayou look,” as Edie herself once put it.
In the Hamptons this was unacceptable, and locals ended up calling officers to check out the property.
What they found was haunting.
When officers opened the door at Grey Gardens, they were greeted with just how far the Bouvier Beales had fallen. There was cat litter everywhere, a foul odor drenching the air, and more decaying artifacts from another life than they could name.
The house was, in a word, unliveable—and yet here these two socialites were, living in it. There was only one thing they could do.
After seeing Grey Gardens, officers came to a brutal decision about Edie’s home. It was such a public safety hazard, they wanted to evict both Edie and her mother from the property, and likely eventually tear down the house.
They even initiated the proceedings to do just that—until a guardian angel swooped in and saved them.
Once it got around that the Bouvier Beales were living in abject poverty, suddenly their much better-off family members came to the rescue, hoping once more to do damage control on the family name. Jackie Kennedy, now going by Jackie Onassis, paid a hefty sum of money to help local authorities clean up Grey Gardens—on the condition that Edie and her mother could stay.
Another family member, however, had an even better idea.
Around this time, Edie’s other famous cousin, Lee Radziwill—who had now become an actual princess—also descended on Grey Gardens. This time, she had an idea to do a history of the Hamptons, as narrated by, as she put it, “my extremely eccentric aunt,” Big Edie. With her, came two documentary filmmakers, the brothers Albert and David Maysles.
Almost as soon as the cameras started rolling, the project turned iconic.
Lee Radziwill’s documentary project transformed into the cult documentary hit Grey Gardens in 1975, and its footage of Edie and her mother is now famous. Or, depending on the viewer, infamous. As the Maysles brothers filmed, Big Edie and Little Edie put on a show for the cameras, bickering and singing, dancing and talking, all in the backdrop of their still extremely run-down home.
In short, they exuded a faded glamour Norma Desmond could only hope to emulate. Meanwhile, they wrapped their various disappointments, rejections, and obvious co-dependence in the glittering foil of showbiz speak. And some say this is when Lee Radziwill realized she’d made a dark error.
Although Grey Gardens did eventually get made, it wasn’t much thanks to Radziwill. After the initial bout of filming, she dropped her idea—allegedly because her relatives’ behavior embarrassed her too deeply. Although Radziwill denied this reasoning, the Maysles brothers were nonetheless obviously more interested in the project than her and returned later on their own steam to make the full film.
Still, few people know what happened to Little Edie after the film that made her famous.
In many ways, Grey Gardens turned Edie, now in her 50s, into a star at long last. But it also brought tragedy. Just two years after the film came out, Edie’s mother passed at the age of 81. That said, even then the film’s legacy lived on: Apparently, when Edie asked her if she had any last words, the matriarch replied, "There's nothing more to say. It's all in the film”.
Famous or not, Edie was now truly on her own for the first time in her life.
Everyone thought she would come unmoored—but everyone was wrong.
Surprising almost everyone, Edie actually seemed to flourish without her mother. Or at least, her grief didn’t prevent her from striking while the iron was hot. Still relying on the success and word-of-mouth of Grey Gardens, Edie Beale parlayed the public interest in her into a career in cabaret starting in her 60s. But this, too, was a decaying dream.
Edie Beale had a relentless, even deluded, optimism about her star power. So when critics almost universally panned her cabaret shows, she didn’t let it bother her. Then again, her managers were keeping huge secrets from her. The club would actively hide bad reviews, including one from the New York Times that called her act a “public display of ineptitude”.
Sadly, Edie’s story ends even more tragically.
Eventually, Edie gave up the cabaret life and sold off Grey Gardens—albeit to people who promised not to tear it down—in order to move down to Florida. It was there, in 2002 at the age of 84, that she passed from either a stroke or heart attack.
Disturbingly, no one found her for around five days; the lost socialite had been forgotten once more.
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