The One about Grey Gardens

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Today I write about “Grey Gardens” (and also “The Beales of Grey Gardens”) by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke.

The film that has inspired various plays, an HBO film, a documentary and even a fashion trend, the film has a cult following and for me, “Grey Gardens” is a film that I have enjoyed and have not grown tired, even watching it for over a dozen times since it was released by the Criterion Collection years ago.

In 1975, The Maysles brothers Albert and David went to create a documentary film on the lives of two reclusive socialites, mother Edith Beale known as “Big Edie” and her daughter with the same name known as “Little Beale”.

Directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, what attracted people to the story is that Edith Beale is the cousin to former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Little Edie was her first cousin.

And together, the two lived in “Grey Gardens”, a 28-room home that was once a home of extravagance, had become a home that played home to stray cats and racoons, infested by fleas, had no running water and the home was littered by garbage and smelled of cat urine.

The interested in Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale attracted many people who wondered how can someone related to Jacqueline Kennedy, who is the face of Camelot, live in a home that was so disgusting.

Needless to say, the attention led to an article in various publications including a cover story by “New York Magazine”, an article in the “National Enquirer” and despite the Suffolk County Health Department trying to inspect the home and many times the women had to face eviction, in 1972, their cousin Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provided the financial support to repair the house to meet codes.

And this story is what caught the Maysles brothers attention and along with Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susaen Froemke, offered both women $5,000 each to film their life ala Direct Cinema and to watch these two former socialites now living as recluse in a broken down home.

Which was surprising since Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale was once a well-known singer and singer to John “Black Jack” Bouvier, father to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.  Beale’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer and a father who was an attorney and a Major in the Judge Advocate Corps.  Bouvier married lawyer/financier Phelan Beale and after having a daughter and two sons, the couple purchased “Grey Gardens” in 1923 in East Hampton.

Edith divorced Phelan in 1931 and received no alimony but child support, while pursuing a music career.  Despite being the daughter of Major Bouvier, because she dressed as an opera star at her son’s wedding, her father cut her out of her will, only leaving her with a trust of $65,000.

As for Little Edie, she became a clothes model at a young age and pursued the career with no success (and her mother starting to be concerned with money), Edie moved back home to take care of her mother and supposedly missing her big showbiz break by moving back to East Hampton.

And the experience of these two women of their past life and their current dysfunctional life is what people will get to see in the documentary “Grey Gardens”.

How Edith has come to depend on her daughter but also how daughter have come to depend on her mother, never to leave from “Grey Gardens” and to take care of her other for 25 years.  The documentary discusses the men in their lives, men they could have been with, opportunities squandered and other frustrations that they have, but yet have been living this way for over 20 years.

The film was the day in the life of these two women and the film became a hit.

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But what is it about the two Edie Bouvier Beales and their life story that fascinates me?

Perhaps because it was a film that caught me by surprise because these two women are related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and the lives of mother and daughter would eventually fascinate you because this is one documentary that can’t even be scripted, because you never know what is going to come out of the mouths of these two women.

In America, we have seen documentaries about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her Bouvier years, but this is the other side of the Bouvier family that not many people were familiar with until the documentary was released.

“Grey Gardens” is a documentary which gave the Maysles brothers (David and Albert) along with Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and associate producer Susan Froemke, access to Edith Bouvier Beale. Big Edie and Little Edie, a mother and daughter that have the same name but yet are interesting and fascinating people.

The more you watch the film, you realize that these two women were brought up during a time where they were part of high society and were very involved. Big Edie, the mother was a well-known singer, while Little Edie was a model. Two women who appear to have had it all but then lost it all.

Despite their social standing in their later years and their deplorable living conditions that had Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and family trying to do what they can to help them, it’s the history and lives of these two women that you will find so fascinating.

You can easily do your research on the Internet and see how these two looked when they were younger and both were absolutely beautiful but find many dedication sites and articles to the Beales. These women are loved by many and by watching “Grey Gardens”, you will find yourself captivated.


 

Dennis A. Amith