Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Grey Gardens: A Haunting Real Life Riches to Rags Tale

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful mansion built in the Hamptons called Grey Gardens. 
Grey Gardens got its name from the cement garden walls, the color of the dunes and the sea mist.
Grey Gardens would become notorious for its eccentric mother and daughter inhabitants, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, after a series of twists and turns, brought them cult status and notoriety.
A reverse story of riches to rags with celebrity relatives always makes for a great tale.
A14 room shingle style Victorian home, Grey Gardens was designed by architect Joseph Greenleaf Thorp in 1897.  Acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Hill in 1913,  Mrs. Hill designed the lush gardens that were once considered to be one of the most beautiful private gardens, with a private cement walled garden room. The home was purchased by Edith Bouvier Beale in the1920s.  Edith was a Bouvier, the same Bouvier family as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and was an aunt to Jackie.  Edith's only daughter, little Edie, was Jackie's older cousin. 
Image: HBO
 They spent time together as family members, summering in East Hampton
 as the daughters of the rich and privileged Bouvier family.
In the HBO movie Jackie Onassis is seen in shock when she visits the house.  
She called upon her aunt Edie, after she heard the house was to be condemned.  
Together they enter the walled garden to sit outside, as the stench inside is too much to bear.
Their story is one I only just discovered on my trip to the Hamptons with Matthew Mead. 
 He asked me if I wanted to see the fabled, Grey Gardens? 
 How had I never heard of this story?
He told me about the odd mother and daughter duo who lived in this decaying home.  
The husband left the mother and his daughter, and they lived for years on a modest stipend. 
 After he died and the modest trust ran out, Big Edie refused to leave her
 "beautiful Grey Gardens".  I was hooked, yes I wanted to see Grey Gardens!
 For many years, Grey Gardens was lost in overgrown brush and vines from the outside, 
and on the inside it had suffered years of neglect compounded by cats 
and raccoons who shared the home with the Beales.
Animal and human waste overwhelmed the senses, yet it was common every day living by 1970.  No electricity or running water, a leaking roof and holes in the windows and roof took its toll.  Forced by the town in the fall of 1971 to get it cleaned up or demolished, Jackie Onassis paid for the
$32,000 cost of rehabbing it so it passed occupancy and escaped a wrecking ball,
 and was granted the condition that the two Edies could remain in their home. 
 The Beales were penniless.  
Their reversal of fortune had them selling off their Tiffany silver and jewelry to pay 
for food and other necessities as time went along.  But they seemingly remained cheerful.
Image: NY Daily News
Interestingly, the Beales lived there as if there was nothing to be ashamed of.
They had created their own little world inside Grey Gardens, and it was all that mattered.
In some respects many think that little Edie's mother abducted her and forced her to live with
her behind the closed doors of Grey Gardens.  They both were dramatic characters, as you watch them in their documentary film, filmed in 1973 by the Maysles brothers, and released in 1975.
Mother wanted to be a stage singer, and Little Edie wanted to be an actress or a dancer.
The documentary made them into cult heroines.
The audience seemed taken with the eccentric pair of women, who loved singing Broadway tunes,
and dancing around the house.  Watching cats pee behind Mrs. Beale's large oil portrait, was simply  incomprehensible yet irresistible to watch.  Much like watching a car wreck, one can't turn away.
(The Beales themselves loved the documentary, when shown to them in their home.
Big Edie refused the invitation to the movie premier in NY, but little Edie did attend.)
Image: Jim Mooney, NY Daily News, Getty Archives
Their world was one that was falling apart around them, 
they carried on as if the home was still the grand old dame of its heyday~
enjoying the daily routines they had created with each other, which included singing, and recalling 
the past and reminiscing, often opposing each other's versions of their storybook beginnings.
Many moments were filmed in this entryway of the home, with little Edie marching down
the staircase to a broadway tune, or big Edie carefully negotiating the steps with her cane all dressed up in her silk slippers and fancy dress as she came down from her bedroom to entertain family members for her 80th birthday party in the decrepit dining room.  The chairs were too dirty to sit on, so little Edie dutifully put down sheets of newspapers as cushions so everyone could sit. 
 It was surreal and unnerving to watch.
Fast forward, two years after the documentary:  Big Edie died after a fall in the house. Little Edie decided to sell the house, leaving all of the contents in place.  She simply walked away from her life with "mother darling" after accepting $220,000 from Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, of the Washington Post.  The Bradlees restored the home to its former glory, much in part because of Sally's obsession to save it and restore it as historically as she was able.  Sally found a treasure trove in the attic and used the bits of wallpaper and fabrics and antiques to piece together the restoration. Recently Sally sold Grey Gardens for 20 Million dollars after the death of her husband.  I'd like to think she was the perfect owner, and enjoyed the time she spent living in the home of the two Edies.
Little Edie ended up living in an apartment in Florida, where she swam most every day,
until her death at age 84 from an apparent heart attack.  She did not want to be buried with her mother, and after cremation was memorialized with a marker in Long Island next to her brother's grave site at a different cemetary. 
Big Edie was buried in the Bouvier family plot in East Hampton, buried alongside 
 the family that for the most part turned their backs on her for her irreverent style and eccentric ways.
Big Edie's own father disinherited her after she appeared in an outlandish costume at her son's wedding, causing embarrassment for the family.  
Theirs was a complicated family storyline, and this house held many secrets.
 On this rainy and raw spring day, Matthew Mead and I slowly approached Grey Gardens, parked the car and took a stroll in front of the infamous Grey Gardens.  Despite the pouring rain, I wanted a closer look.  The wind was blowing in from the ocean grabbing at my umbrella.  I tried to imagine what it used to look like in it's state of disrepair.  The heavy gnarled limbs of brush out by the front of the road seemed original to the landscape, and perhaps were left in place as a nod to the Beales residency and the original plantings.  You can see more on our video at the bottom of the post.
 We walked along the front of the property to the other end of the circular drive. I headed towards the house just a bit, and Matthew mentioned the bay window on the second floor was what little Edie referred to as the "eye to the world".   I was intrigued, and planned to watch both the documentary and the 2009 HBO movie when I got back home.  There has always been an interest on my part of who originally lived in these grand old homes.  When I purchased an 1881 shingle style victorian, I researched the owner and even visited her grave to see what more I could glean, and to pay my respects.  This elegant old house with its crazy story had taken me in it's hold, I had to find out more! 
On the corner down from Martha Stewart's home in East Hampton on Lily Pond Lane, 
is where you will find Grey Gardens, at 3 West End Road. 
 It holds the memories of a bittersweet life. 

Watch the short video of my recent trip to Grey Gardens with Matthew Mead.
(Click the arrow in the center to play)
Image HBO
 If you want to delve more into the story of Grey Gardens, check out the HBO Movie, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. I thought it was terrific.  Then watch the documentary by the Maysles brothers.  It will be hard to watch the real life film.  If you are anything like me, 
you won't be able to sleep for a few nights after watching.  
Grey Gardens is now a slight obsession, and 
perhaps with this blog post, you may find it just as fascinating...
 if you haven't already heard the story of the Beales and their beloved Grey Gardens.

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  1. What an interesting story! I always love to find out the history of places and things. It all so intriguing! I had found out that there use to be a thriving oil town down the road from our old house. It had a school, two hall, church, stores and saloons. It was bustling town in its hay day. We drove down the old streets and sadly there is little left but it was fun to try and imagine how it once was.

  2. Hi Amy,
    I loved reading this post. I think I've read something about this a long time ago. You've piqued my interest so I am going to watch the HBO movie and the documentary. It is a fascinating story and I am curious about the dynamics between the mother and daughter. Thanks for posting this with the photos.

  3. I will be checking out these movies. I had totally forgotten about this story.

  4. Hi Amy! (and Matthew), what a fascinating story. I love old houses and the stories they tell. We are merely stewards of these wonderful old homes. Somehow, the wet weather seemed appropriate for your visit. Pat @ Bringing French Country HOme

  5. Oh- I can't believe you never heard the story before. It has fascinated me for years. I actually have the original documentary that was taken while they lived there. It's about 3 hours long, I think...and then, of course, the movie. It is one of those things that you just can't get out of your mind after you see it. I am glad someone lived in, and loved, the house for all those years after Little Edie left and moved to Florida.
    Have a great day- xo Diana

  6. Great story and I will have to watch the movie some time.

  7. Thank you for this post as I loved the movie and story of Grey Gardens...I have watched that movie several times as I love a wonderful historical movie...but every time the movie ends, I feel such a sense of sadness. However, it is wonderful that the Bradley's wanted to restore it back to its greatness...and wow, what a profit! I had no idea that you could see the home just by driving into the neighborhood...always thought that it was a gated community....and did not realize that Martha was around the corner...what a wonderful trip you and Matthew had!!! Have a great day Amy!!!

  8. I saw the original documentary just recently, and you're right...fascinating and repelling at the same time. Like a car wreck you can't turn your eyes from. I didn't know HBO had made a movie about them. Will definitely have to look for that!

  9. Did you know there was also a musical of Grey Gardens? Christine Ebersole was in it - she is on Broadway right now with Patti LuPone in a musical about Eliz. Arden and Helena Rubenstein. I saw a production of it in Arlington a couple of years ago - it was a hoot!

  10. i read every word, and isn't it amazing how much stranger truth is than fiction? as a renovator, i am a bit distracted thinking about how i might rescue the next 20 million dollar property with a sticker price of 220k. :)

  11. I saw this documentary a few years ago and I too, found it very interesting. It captured my imagination trying to picture this life! Why did Little Edie stay? Maybe a true love for her mother? I do not understand why. A wonderful story for Mothers day in an odd way? Thank you for sharing this ,it is a beautiful house now after restoration. And yes it was very disturbing to watch.


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