Grey Gardens: Not-to-Miss Documentary and HBO Movie

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:

Great Singer
Big Edith
Bouvier Beale

The second read:

Great Dancer
Little Edie

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.


  • "Nancy Dancy" said:

    This was a superb movie. You’ve done an excellent job writing about it. Little Edie was sad and funny–and quite a dancer!

    Saturday, December 11, 2010
  • Lilly said:

    I just want to say, there were definitely mental/emotional issues here. At the time, of course, there would be no mention of that, and if there was, it was a sanitarium. But the men, who controlled everything including the purse strings, expected to be obeyed and appearances meant everything. The father, Phelan, was ruthless and a lawyer. Edith should have had a brilliant and brutal lawyer for herself; I hope she didn;t use her husband. The sons were despicable; they could have helped their mother, and would only do so if she obeyed them. They also should have reached out to their sister, to try to get her out of there. The women had an artistic bent and both were emotionally sensitive, but they were ignored and treated brutally by their relatives. And the daughters-in-law here? Where were they? The men were pigs.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012
  • Marisol said:

    Both of them became hoarders, which now is known to be a kind of obssesive-compulsive disorder. It’s a sickness that can be treated. But back in the 70’s it wasn’t considered so.
    If you watch any of the episodes of Hoarders or Hoarders Buried Alive you’ll get the point.
    I’m sure that when Jackie Onasis sent people to clean up the house it must have been really traumatic for Big Eddie…

    Tuesday, February 12, 2013
  • Shelly said:

    Sorry to do this, but it’s Grey Gardens, not Gray. It makes me sick to think how the men in their lives just left them to rot, especially Big Edie’s sons.

    Thursday, July 25, 2013
  • Pippi Longstocking said:

    The movie is very much a study in dysfunctional family politics and a tribute to the fact that the two Beale darlings managed to survive it all in their own way.
    Can’t help but wonder if the women lived in 2013 if they’d have been dazed on prozac or some other big-pharma meds and all that creativity erased ? Perhaps they had a bit more freedom living as they did in the past, without the 2013 habit of labels and over-dissection of people’s mental conditions. Somehow the two women managed to couple big hearts with oddness and one aspect never cancelled the other out.
    RIP Beales and thanks for the glimpse into your lives. It has made your audiences think about oh so many things.

    Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  • Hi Pippi,
    Enjoyed your comment. I read a quote the other day from an author (can’t remember who — typical these days) that reminded me of Little Edie Beale: “I am not an eccentric. I am just more alive than others.” I would have liked to have met Little Edie. Big Edie not so much.

    Monday, August 19, 2013
  • Sat Shokar said:

    So sad. RIP ladies. That Jackie Kennedy!!

    Saturday, October 26, 2013
  • AMac said:

    What an insightful commentary! You nailed it, and I agree with everything you’ve said. Also love what Pippi added. They would have been labeled quickly if they lived today.

    Monday, November 11, 2013
  • Hi Audrey,
    Thanks for your comment. Had the Beales lived to participate in today’s social media, they’d be celebrities. I think Little Edie performing her unabashed patriotic dance in a You Tube video would garner millions of fans!

    Thursday, December 5, 2013
  • Jenn said:

    I admire Little Edie’s stoicism, but her mother was deplorable and ruined her daughter’s life. People complain the rest of the family didn’t help, but Big Edie had options she willfully refused. She reminds me of addicts who whine that people won’t help them, but if you did, they’d just blow the money on more drugs, or in her case, a gigantic, crumbling house. People of that mentality don’t want real help, they just want others to enable their delusions.
    In difficult financial times, Big Edie insisted on keeping an enormous house she didn’t need and couldn’t begin to maintain, when she could have sold it, moved somewhere more affordable like everyone else does, worked with family members instead of constantly antagonizing them, and created a better life with more opportunities for herself and her daughter. Her husband, long before the divorce, explained the need to tighten finances while he tried to keep the family afloat after the 1929 crash. She simply ignored him. I would have left her unstable self-absorption, too. She purposefully antagonized her father, whose financial help she needed. That’s the sort of thing a rebellious teenager does. She was a much older woman with a daughter to help, because she trapped the daughter at every turn instead of allowing her to have a life of her own, but she didn’t care about that and acted like a spoiled child. It was more important to her to get negative attention, at her own son’s wedding, by dressing up like an opera performer, instead of supporting him on his wedding day or concerning herself with her daughter’s financial future. The level of self-absorption is mind-blowing. She was obviously psychologically compromised, but underneath it all was a layer of sheer selfishness and destructive self-will that took her daughter down with her. It’s a truly sad story for Little Edie, and a textbook case of a horrible person and mother with Big Edie.

    Saturday, January 17, 2015
  • Chrissy n' Trev said:

    WOW… you said it all… While it is entertaining to watch the films and read everything on the Beales’, everything you stated is 100% true. Our hearts truly go out to both women.

    Thursday, February 26, 2015
  • Jody said:

    I think it is just such a crying shame that the sons who were both very successful, did not help their mother and sister. I understand that there was mental illness here, and many times the ill will not listen to reason, but the very least the sons could do was make sure the house was sanitary, there was running water and their mother and sister had food to eat.

    What I got out of this movie, is that I hope I never try to hold back my daughter the way Big Edie did Little Edie, and I hope my children never turn their back on me if I am incapable of helping myself.

    Monday, March 23, 2015