Revisiting Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens is a property famously owned by the eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Edith Ewing Bouvier (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie) were scorned by their East Hampton community for the condition of their home, but they became pop culture icons through the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. Since then Grey Gardens has also been made into a Broadway musical and an HBO movie.

It's been more than forty years since Grey Gardens first entered the public consciousness, and last December the property sold for $15.5 million. Interestingly, the property was owned and restored by Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Tom Hanks in The Post) and his wife.

The news about the sale of the estate led me back to Albert and David Maysles' 1975 documentary. Grey Gardens was filmed after the house was cleaned up enough to save the Beales from eviction. However, it was still flea infested, lacking running water, and cats and raccoons roamed freely inside. In the middle of it all were the two Edies - the elder ever critical and quick to get the last word, the younger still dreaming of a life that might have been.

Despite their isolation, the Beales seemed to enjoy the company of the Maysles almost as much as being the stars of their very own movie. Here Little Edie models one of her unique outfits:

It's hard to understand how their living conditions deteriorated so much or why these two women became so removed from society. Strangely though, Grey Gardens is more amusing than unsettling.

The Beales of Grey Gardens (also by the Maysles brothers) consists of footage left over from the filming of their documentary. It lacks even the loose structure of Grey Gardens, and is more exhausting than amusing. It does give us a clear idea of what it was like to spend time with the Beales. We also see Little Edie away from the property, visiting the beach and venturing into town. The highlight is easily Little Edie shouting, "The house is on fire and I can't find it! I hate that." 

If The Beales of Grey Gardens shows Little Edie at her most eccentric, the coffee table book Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens does the opposite. Compiled by Eva Marie Beale (Little Edie's niece), this collection of poems, drawings, and photographs shows Little Edie in her youth. It is a celebration of the articulate and fashionable young woman she was. In this light, the wit and candor she displays in Grey Gardens makes perfect sense.

Tying it all together is the 2009 HBO version of Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. The film does an excellent job of providing context to iconic moments in the documentary. On second viewing, it was far more moving than I remembered. It allows us to see Little Edie as a whole person- a vibrant woman whose dreams were derailed (or at least sidetracked) by her devotion to her controlling mother. I can only imagine she would be quite pleased to know we are still captivated by her.