Last month Grey Gardens won the Emmy award for Best TV Movie and two awards (out of four nominations) for acting. I agree with the Emmy folks that it’s an excellent movie with superb acting. I loved the outrageous clothing worn by the two lead characters, Big Edie and especially Little Edie. I think the documentary upon which this movie is based—also called Grey Gardens—is a more compelling piece of cinema. But watching both enhances the other as one fills in the history of the two women better and the other fills in the filth, stench, and squalor of their lifestyle better. (The documentary has way more stray cats, raccoons, fleas, garbage, and mother-daughter bickering to give it a more disturbing feel.)
Both versions are a something’s-gone-terribly-wrong story of a mother and daughter. Mother and daughter lived together as adults under horrendous conditions for thirty-five years. Both films produced the same response in me: holy cow! I hope I don’t ever act like them, think like them, or end up like them. But I did get a kick out of Little Edie’s dancing. (Someone mentioned he has seen me do the “waving an American flag to a military march song” dance before. Slight exaggeration. I was probably waving my clarinet.)
The movie is a more comprehensive telling of the Edies’ stories—covering periods from the 1930s to the 70s. The documentary is a slice of life from 1975.
Here’s the family relationship: Big Edie is Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale; Mr. Beale is her husband; and Little Edie is Edith Bouvier Beale, their daughter. (They also had two sons.) Mrs. Beale’s brother, John Bouvier, is Jackie Kennedy’s father. So Big Edie is Jackie’s aunt and Little Edie is Jackie’s cousin. They all hung out together at the Beale waterfront mansion called Gray Gardens in the East Hamptons, NY during the 1930s and 40s.
The Beale and the Bouvier backgrounds are one of wealth and upper crust social status. Both Beale women had the “world on a string,” so to speak. So why did their spool of privileged birth and good fortune unravel into poverty, social isolation, and weirdness.
What the heck happened to Big and Little Edie? Both films showcase their delusion and decline, but don’t offer answers.
I have my take on this doomed twosome. The simple version is that Big Edie was an egocentric nut case of a mother and Little Edie didn’t stand a chance at normalcy. But of course like any family story, it’s more complicated and nuanced than that. There were circumstances in their control and beyond their control that when added up equaled a strange, unhealthy, pathetic life.
Both Edies defined themselves as artists and had life-long dreams to be on stage. For Big Edie it was singing. In the documentary, she states, “I was happier singing than anything I have ever done since I was born.” Her drive to be a successful singer drove her out of NY City and to Gray Gardens, drove the selfish husband away (who was way too concerned with appearances than his family’s well-being), drove her to an affair with a piano player/composer, drove her to control her daughter to adhere to her wacky way of life.
Little Edie’s passion was dancing. In the documentary she said she only cared about three things: “The Catholic Church, swimming, and dancing.” Dancing is the physical manifestation of Edie’s blithe spirit. Dancing is who she is. Her dancing career also careened off course because of manipulative and unsupportive parents. Edie had to leave her apartment in NYC to care for her mother at Gray Gardens, thus ending her chance of securing the big break she craved.
In the documentary at Big Edie’s 80th birthday party, there were two wooden signs on the wall with hand-painted words.
The first read:
The second read:
Both women never gave up on their dreams. I admired them for that.
Part of the reason for the Edies’ dire circumstances was the times in which they lived—which required husbands as neither woman worked. Little Edie had opportunities to marry but chose not to. Big Edie received a paltry inheritance from her father (because she embarrassed him by wearing an “operatic outfit” to her son’s wedding) and very little from the divorce settlement as her husband was nearly broke at the time. In an article in The New Yorker, author Gail Sheehy wrote that they sold off Tiffany pieces one at a time to make ends meet.
The amazing part is the wealthy relatives that could have helped but didn’t. Big Edith’s two sons were in the movie encouraging their mother to sell Grey Gardens. But they were not there with a checkbook to help out in real life.
Jackie Kennedy “came to the rescue” with money to help her aunt repair her house after it had been condemned by the health department. I don’t think this was an act of generosity so much as an act to relieve the embarrassment that her relatives were living in deplorable conditions. Jackie never sent a monthly stipend—and certainly after receiving the Onassis fortune could have afforded something.
Being poor, however, is not a precursor to living in subhuman conditions. Before Jackie’s help, the house had no electricity or running water. How in the heck did they shower? Use the toilet? Ai Yi Yi!
In addition, raccoons had ripped holes in the ceiling and the roof leaked. The overflow of cats produced fecal matter all over the floors. The women barricaded themselves into one bedroom with yellow walls that contained two beds, some kind of makeshift stove, and a small refrigerator. The room was beyond cluttered—with dishes, empty food containers, clothes, blankets, and memorabilia strewn everywhere.
Nobody wants to live like this. And by nobody, I mean no normal person. I have to go with the theory that both these women had more than just flamboyant personalities; they had mental problems.
Big Edie was totally lacking in self-awareness and delusional about her life. She was pompous, narcissistic, craved male attention, and an exhibitionist. She thought she sang great (eek! she didn’t). The scene where she sings “Tea for Two” is hysterical.
Big Edie said in the documentary, “I had a very very happy and satisfying life. I was a great singer. I had a perfect marriage—a terribly successful marriage, and beautiful jewelry. I never had words with Mr. Beale at’all; never had a fight in my life. Oh, I had my cake, and masticated it, and chewed it, and loved it….”
I think Big Edie convinced herself that she had the fantastic life she was born to have because reality would have destroyed her. She couldn’t have been that happy because she took out her frustrations on her daughter—constantly barking at Little Edie, ordering her around, criticizing her ad nauseam. I wanted to throttle her.
Little Edie was more in touch with the reality of her situation. She talked about leaving Gray Gardens but the emotional grip her mother had on her was too tight. She said she wouldn’t get out “unless she dies or I die.”
Little Edie had alopecia, which started as a young woman. As a result, she covered her bald head with unusual creations—everything from scarves to towels to sweaters to pants. She put the same gold bow-shaped brooch on the headdress. I liked that added touch.
I think Edie’s affliction was a psychological problem because of the abnormal relationship with her mother and lousy relationship with her father as well. In the documentary Little Edie said, “I never got on with Mr. Beale.”
This condition made Little Edie sympathetic and unlike her mother, was quite likable. She had a spunk and joie de vivre that allowed her to live in such conditions with optimism and charm.
Had Little Edie and I been neighbors, I would have liked to know her. I wouldn’t want to go inside her house, but I would have enjoyed a swim or picnic lunch with her. And I would have been an enthusiastic audience if she danced.
I highly recommend the movie and the documentary about these two eccentric and fascinating women.