Why I love “Grey Gardens” (and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale)


by Rebecca Collins | March 28, 2009 • The Broadway musical version of Grey Gardens began its run at the Ordway in St. Paul this week, and it’s a sure bet that fans of the 1975 documentary that inspired it will flock to see it. The original Broadway show garnered critical acclaim and earned ten Tony Award nominations in 2007, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction. Mary Louise Wilson won the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Big Edie Beale and Christine Ebersole won for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Little Edie.

Grey Gardens. Little Edie. Big Edie. The names don’t mean much if you’re not familiar with the film. But to those of us who love Grey Gardens, which Entertainment Weekly named “One of the Top 50 Cult Movies of All Time,” just hearing these words conjures excitement. The “Edies” were part of the Bouvier clan. Big Edie was the sister of John Vernou Bouvier, the father of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Little Edie was Big Edie’s daughter and Jackie’s first cousin. Both Jackie and Little Edie were society girls who loved the performing and visual arts, poetry and fashion. They both attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut and were both debutantes; Little Edie had her coming out party in New York City in 1936; Jackie in 1947. But somewhere along the line, their paths diverged. Jackie Kennedy is an American icon who represents what is often seen as the final “Age of Innocence” in American history. Not only was she rich, beautiful, well-educated and stylish, she was the First Lady.

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Edie Beale is perhaps best described as Jackie’s “Bizarro.” She never married. She was not widely known until the early 1970s when the Suffolk County Health Department raided Grey Gardens, the family mansion she shared with Big Edie in the East Hamptons. Hundreds of photos were taken of the squalor in which they lived and, when it came out that they were Jackie’s relatives, national newspapers across the country picked up the story. The documentary Grey Gardens was made by Albert and David Maysles (who also directed the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter) several years after the raid (Jackie and her sister, Lee, came to the rescue and paid to have the place cleaned up) and the film presents the Beales in all their glory. The house is still in disrepair. Raccoons peek down from holes in the ceiling. Big Edie’s bedroom teems with cats. The Beales cook their meals on a hotplate in the bedroom and tack artwork or cutouts from magazines to the walls with tacks. Big Edie is largely bedridden and enjoys looking through old photos and listening to recordings she made back in her youth.

Today we have all kinds of terms we would apply to them. Hoarders. Paranoid delusional. Depressed. Maybe some would even use the word “crazy.” But I prefer to call them unconventional and eccentric, which doesn’t always equal crazy. The star of the film is Little Edie, who runs the joint to the best of her ability and is the only one who knows how to care for her mother. She alternately prances, whispers, argues, and rolls her eyes throughout the scenes. Some felt the film was exploitative, but Little Edie clearly knew she was on display and relished it. After all, she was an aspiring actress in New York before she returned home to take care of her mother full time in 1952, and she spends lengthy scenes in the movie arguing with Big Edie about how her mother ruined her acting career and wondering how she was ever going to escape Grey Gardens.

But this in and of itself is another reason to love and admire Little Edie. Crazy or not, she answered the call when her mother needed someone. In the 1970s there weren’t nearly as many options as there are now when it comes to elder care, and Big Edie wanted to stay at Grey Gardens. It’s a theme we can relate to; in fact, many of us have experienced this exact dilemma (except, maybe, for the part about the decaying mansion) in our own lives. There is the constant push-pull within Little Edie to have the life she wanted for herself but to also love and honor her mother. And after Big Edie died in 1977, Edie did realize her dream of returning to New York—singing at a few nightclubs, meeting Andy Warhol and dancing at Studio 54. Later, she moved to Florida, Montreal, and then back to Florida, where she died in 2002.

Many times I’ve wished I could face the world as Little Edie did. At the approach of a hurricane, she didn’t evacuate, she put on her swimming suit. When the Beales were cut off from charging food at the town grocery store because they couldn’t pay their already large debt, she reportedly blew it off for months, scraping together a little money here and there for supplies while saying, “I’m busy getting a nightclub act ready. I have three songs. God! I’ve got to practice!” And she nicknamed the young handyman, Jerry, who appears in several scenes in the film The Marble Faun after the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

And then there is the famous Little Edie fashion sense. Just an indelible as Jackie’s Chanel suits and pillbox hats are Little Edie’s skirts and sweaters fashioned into turbans and head coverings (often these clothes were Jackie’s cast-offs) fastened with enormous pins and brooches. From at least the 1970s on she was never seen without a head covering of some kind and many claim she was bald, although the cause of her baldness was never determined. No one ever had the guts to ask her. If you watch the movie and pay attention to what Little Edie wears in each scene, whether it’s evening wear, bathing suits, slacks, skirts or tall white boots, you quickly realize that fashion designers have now been “borrowing” from her for years.

But at the bottom of it all, stripping away all the hilarious theatrics for the camera, the fights with her mother, the “weird” clothing, there is the sense that Little Edie is a tender person who is able to find joy in very small things. In an interview for the Rutgers University newspaper in 1976 she is quoted as having assured Jackie that Grey Gardens was, “just about a girl who loved her mother and how they lived together and fought.” She feeds the raccoons in the attic. She takes care of her mother’s upteen cats and never fails to answer Big Edie’s calls to be taken out onto the porch for some air. She is all too human and doesn’t try to hide any of it.