Inside the tragic and fascinating lives of Big and Little Edie of ‘Grey Gardens’
In 1975, a documentary was released that would capture the hearts and fascination of the public. The film was called Grey Gardens after the sprawling East Hampton estate where Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, secluded themselves from the world for over 20 years. The two women, who came to be affectionately known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” drew the attention of the world not only due to their eccentric lifestyles but also because of the fact that they happened to be the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
A cleaning lady’s worst nightmare
By 1971, Grey Gardens, a once stunning East Hamptons mansion had become that one house on the block that stands out for all the wrong reasons. Amid the perfectly manicured lawns and shining exteriors of its neighbors, Grey Gardens dared to feature an overgrown lawn and countless household repairs just begging to happen. Even before the debut of the 1975 documentary, the two Edie’s had captured headlines when the Suffolk County Health Department revealed that their home had literally managed to violate every building regulation in the book.
The New York Times reported that the women had been “living in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 8 cats, fleas, cobwebs, and no running water.” Often sharing their home with the occasional raccoon or possum who would fall through their roof, the women soon found themselves in danger of being evicted. In the end, however, Jackie O. came to the rescue and paid tens of thousands of dollars to have the house cleaned and updated with new plumbing and furnace systems.
The tragic tale of Big and Little Edie
Despite the house’s infamy, it was its inhabitants who really grabbed the public’s imagination. Their tale began when Edith Ewing Beale and her husband Phelan purchased Grey Gardens as a summer home in the 1920s. There they enjoyed beautiful beach views alongside their two young boys and one daughter. Things began to go downhill, however, when Big Edie’s husband left her for a younger woman in the mid-1930’s. Big Edie was awarded Grey Gardens in the divorce but, aside from child support, found herself with hardly any other additional income. Big Edie attempted to pursue a singing career throughout the 1930s but found herself cut out of her father’s will in 1942, when she showed up to her own son’s wedding dressed as an opera star.
Slowly but surely, Grey Gardens fell into decline as Big Edie’s money situation only got worse. Realizing that her mother was suffering from depression, Little Edie returned from New York City where she had been a model and socialite, in order to take care of her mom. Things seemed to be on the upswing for a while, but during the 1960s, the two Edies suffered both the death of their caretaker and the shock of a burglary which happened while they were out at a party. These events pretty much sealed the two women’s decision to stay locked inside the mansion, mostly isolated from the rest of the world.
By the time filmmakers entered the world of Grey Gardens for the 1975 documentary, it had more or less returned to its state of disrepair. Regardless of Jackie Kennedy’s attempts to get it cleaned up a few years prior, there were once again stacks of cans up to seven feet high, mountains of trash, and an entire village of cats. Many believe that the women suffered from hoarding tendencies and had taken to selling off their old valuables in order to be able to continue to live their isolated existence. Both seemed to be resigned, for the time being, to a lifestyle of self-imprisonment as they lamented their missed opportunities of stardom. While many today would question whether they suffered from mental illness, they simply thought of themselves as living an artist’s lifestyle which rebelled against mainstream bureaucracy.
The Edies capture America’s affection
Despite their eccentricities, the public fell in love with both women when the 1975 documentary finally premiered as an instant cult classic. Why? Because despite their unique lifestyle and even questionable habits, there was something incredibly beautiful about the two Edies and their relationship. As one fan put it, “the two Edies are characters that no novelist would ever dare to invent. It’s a ‘riches to rags’ American epic. It has a mythic quality that echoes Greek tragedy. It’s a fairytale told in reverse. An over-the-top Gothic narrative. A classic Tennessee Williams play set to music. A soap opera of the mind.”
The two women remained inside the isolation of Grey Gardens until Big Edie’s death in 1977. To the surprise of many, Little Edie seemed to have no problem getting back out into the world after her mother passed away. Having spent much of her 25 years of isolation singing and practicing dance routines, she decided to launch a cabaret show at the age of 60. She ended up booking an eight-show stint at a Greenwich Villiage cabaret called the Reno Sweeny in 1978, during which she performed while wearing an eye patch due to recent cataract surgery. In 1979, she finally sold Grey Gardens for $220,000, but only under the condition that its new owners would refurbish it rather than tearing it down. Over the next decade and a half, she moved around to a variety of cities until she finally settled down in Florida in 1997. She spent her days writing poetry, swimming every day, and corresponding with fans until she died in 2002 at the age of 84.