I’ve spent the past few nights with the lovely Beale ladies from Grey Gardens. Holy wow, you guys. These two put a whole new spin on crazy, at least that was my first impression. Initially, I became interested because of Drew Barrymore winning a Golden Globe for her portrayal of “Little Edie” Beale in the HBO remake of Grey Gardens. I’m not a huge fan of Barrymore, but after watching both the HBO version and the original 1975 documentary, I will say she truly captured young Edie. Both movies made me want to cry out, it was so disturbing, and yet, like a train wreck, I couldn’t seem to turn away or get enough of these two. I hope that you take some time to watch one or both of these fascinating pieces. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these two women and their story and I wanted to explain why.
Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) was considered a bohemian and was very much a part of the 1930s social scene in both East Hampton and New York City. Her daughter “Little Edie” was at one time a New York City debutante who was eccentric and full of life. Eccentric is the key word, I guess, as in the end eccentricity was all that survived of their once lavish lifestyle. After Big Edie’s husband (Phelan Beale) left her, she and Little Edie moved full time to the “country” home they kept in the Hamptons. Grey Gardens is the name of the Beale’s home on East Hampton, and it was the only remaining piece of Big Edie’s Bouvier fortune, which is the reason she refused to sell it – even though it’s sale would have allowed her to live quite comfortably in her old age. Instead, the two Edies took refuge in the mansion as it crumbled around them. It was not winterized, and at one point had no running water. The women were also host to more than 75 cats, raccoons and other animals who lived with them and in the attic space. To put it mildly, Grey Gardens had gone from a beautiful, sprawling 28-room mansion to a gigantic flea infested shack in just a matter of years. In 1972, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (the niece of the Big and cousin of the Little Edies’) put up the money to save Grey Gardens from being condemned and torn down. The two women continued to live there until Big Edie died in 1977 and Little Edie finally sold it in 1979.
Having watched both movies and gotten a glimpse of the Beale’s lifestyle, I had to know more about these two women. I know that people live in this kind of filth, I know that there are people out there like these two, but seeing it, witnessing it on screen was at once so disturbing and fascinating, I had to know more. Possibly also as disturbing to me was the “riches to rags” story, the story of aristocracy gone awry, it was as if the two Edies had no idea that they were no longer socialites. Perhaps also unnerving for me was that neither of the Edies seemed to be suffering any sort of mental illness in their younger years. Yes, they were perhaps extravagant and eccentric, but not crazy. Did living alone, with little contact with the outside world bring each of them to the brink of insanity?
I was driving down Ward Parkway Blvd. the other day, which is a stretch of beautiful homes in Kansas City, and I began to wonder as I looked at these homes, what exactly do we really know about anyone? I have driven down that road hundreds, maybe thousands of times during my life and many times I’ve thought about what it would be like to live in one of those sprawling mansions. I never stopped to consider that those people might be just as ludicrous or absurd as the Beales’, or that all the money in the world won’t pay for sanity. After watching what happened to those two, I started questioning my beliefs about the affluent families who lived in those homes I have so often coveted. It seems silly to most people, I’m sure, but I think the reason these films struck such a nerve with me is that I think we so often inexplicably tie money and happiness together, and both of the films so quickly struck down that idea in my head. Those women, in the end, had nothing but each other – even the cats seemed to shake their heads at the Edies’ in disbelief – and while at least they had company, watching their relationship certainly made me wonder what weaves the human mind and spirit so intricately together.