Grey Gardens, The Story Of Two Fabulous Women Let Down, Is One You Need To Know

Mother and daughter duo, the two Edies, captivated millions in the original documentary of their dilapidated life, and there's now to be a West End show of their spectacular fall from grace...

Grey Gardens, The Story Of Two Fabulous Women Let Down, Is One You Need To Know

by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

Do you know about Jackie Kennedy? She was the first lady of America’s 35th president John F Kennedy, left widowed after his 1963 assassination. Propelled to the status of style icon alongside being first lady, she went on to marry Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, hence the nickname ‘Jackie O’.

Lesser known, however, is the story of her aunt and cousin: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale, who fell from grace marvelously and became cult heroes for their steadfast fabulousness and reluctance to let go of the old in the face of changing times and pretty grim poverty. And their lives are just so fascinating that as well as being a subject of a documentary in the early 1970s and an HBO miniseries in 2009, a musical about them is coming to London for the first time, making its debut in London.

So here’s the story. Edith was a singer and debutante who married an attorney called Phelan Beale in the 1920s. After having a bunch of kids – they were Catholic, like the Kennedys – Phelan left them in 1931 when Little Edie - as she was known - was just 14. He’d got himself a ‘Mexican divorce’ which meant while he had to pay ‘Big Edie’ child support for Edie and her brothers (who soon left for college, World War II duty, and had their own lives), he didn’t have to pay alimony.

And due to the nature of the divorce, it wasn’t recognised by the Catholic Church and so Big Edie never felt comfortable pursuing another husband. At a time when her lavish lifestyle – Grey Gardens, the East Hampton house she was allowed to keep in the divorce has 28 rooms – needed to be funded by a husband or father, things got worse when she turned up to her son’s wedding dressed as an opera singer. Her father, an attorney, wrote her out of his will and so she was left destitute.

Feeling smarted by New York’s elite, but too stubborn to sell Grey Gardens, Big Edie’s life tumbled drastically from attending balls and schmoozing with the New York elite to being a practical hermits in her dilapidated Hamptons house-squat.

And she was soon joined. After a lack of success in finding her own husband in New York, Little Edie joined Big Edie to live in The Hamptons again aged 35.

By 1971, the extent of the squalor these modern day Miss Havishams lived in was revealed by the National Enquirer after it was found that Grey Gardens, which was impossible to manage without a load of money, was so infested with cats and raccoons (and all the fleas that come with them) that there was a health inspection. The Suffolk County board of health ordered them to clean up the property or face eviction.

Jackie and Aristotle Onassis responded to the publicity by giving $32,000 to her aunt and cousin (Big Edie was her dad’s sister) to get the house tidied up. 1,000 bags of rubbish were carted away in the clean up, but just a couple of years later, a documentary film crew returned. The Mayles Brothers were meant to be there to film something about Jackie O, but upon seeing the state the house had returned to – despite its clean up – and the way the two women presented themselves, they returned to make their own documentary.

Grey Gardens was born.

Featuring sing-a-longs, cats shitting behind priceless paintings, gardens growing in and outside the houses, raccoons making holes in ceilings and both Edies remaining steadfastly convinced of their own commitment to the ‘fashions of the day’, we don’t want to spoil it for you. But suffice it to say, this critically acclaimed film is one of the most charming depictions of barmy women acting as properly as they can in the most improper circumstances you might ever see.

What happened next? Big Edie died of pneumonia in 1977, and Little Edie sold the house in 1979 for $220,000, on the proviso it would be restored, not destroyed. Little Edie died in Florida in 2002. Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange played the two in an HBO mini-series of their lives in 2009

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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