Film at its best can confer immortality. Such is the case with Grey Gardens, a 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles that chronicles in direct-cinema style (closely akin to the French cinéma vérité) the daily lives of a mother and daughter who eked out a precarious existence in a decaying mansion that was once an East Hampton showplace. The startling case of Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale came to light in the early 1970s, when newspapers began reporting that the one-time socialites were living in squalor, surrounded by cats, fleas, and garbage. The story made headlines because Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter Little Edie was Jackie’s first cousin. A large donation by Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis helped replace the mansion’s defunct furnace and plumbing systems, but the two women continued to live in eccentric squalor until Big Edie’s death.
The Maysles brothers’ documentary gave viewers a first-hand glimpse of the two Edies, who are viewed by some as pathetic and by others as heroic in their determination to make their own life-choices. Both had artistic aspirations: Big Edie aspired to be a singer, and in the mansion’s heyday insisted on performing at parties; Little Edie, in her early years, had some success as a New York fashion model and dreamed of a Hollywood career. (She also dreamed of marrying a dashing young man of the likes of Joseph Kennedy Jr., but her brief engagement to the eldest Kennedy son was apparently one of her many fantasies.) In later years, when all of her body hair fell out due to alopecia, she adopted a headscarf look that made its own unique fashion statement.
On the heels of the Maysles’ film, which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, there was much additional media attention to the Beales. A 78-minute interview with Little Edie at Grey Gardens appeared in 1976. The two Beales inspired photo-spreads in magazines like Vogue, as well as additional documentaries in this century, including Ghosts of Grey Gardens. Today there’s actually a so-called Grey Gardens lifestyle legacy brand, created by a family relative. It features housewares and accessories supposedly based on Little Edie’s fashion flair in the days before she succumbed to total eccentricity.
Grey Gardens also became a much-honored 2009 HBO made-for-TV movie, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, who won an Emmy for her role. And a Broadway musical based on the lives of the two Beales played 300 performances on Broadway, from November 2006 to July 2007. Recently revived in a new production with Rachel York and Betty Buckley, it is now playing at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, where I had a chance to see it two nights ago. Its score doesn’t make you come out humming, but it remains a fascinating exploration of a symbiotic relationship that’s as mysterious as it is all-consuming. This new production pays tribute to the original work of the Maysles brothers by introducing two filmmaker characters haunting several scenes with their cameras and boom mikes, and also by incorporating what looks to be actual Maysles footage projected onto the set.
To be honest, I for one find the Beales to be disturbing rather than enchanting. But I’m glad to have gotten to know more about these puzzling but unforgettable women. By the way, Grey Gardens, the estate, is proving to have some immortality of its own. The elder Edie, though impoverished, refused to sell, but Little Edie sold it to journalism’s Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, who’ve lovingly restored it to its past glory.