There are things that are sometimes just so off the wall that you can’t believe you have missed out on them for so long. It’s a bit like discovering hidden treasure, or finding out that you do really like gin… just not Gordon’s.
Grey Gardens is one of those hidden treasures for me. If you’re anywhere in the world other than America, then you may not even know what Grey Gardens is, as I certainly didn’t, let alone the joy that is Big and Little Edie.
Grey Gardens is a docufilm created in 1975 by Albert and David Maysles, This film explores the day to day life of mother and daughter Edith Beale (they were both called Edith). Formerly part of high society, now living the life of recluses in a mansion which, long with their social standing and public presences, has fallen in to a dilapidated state.
The film was originally shown in the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, but it was not entered in to the main competition. The name of the film came form the walled estate that they lived in, a mansion which sits in the privileged location of East Hampton, New York.
To give some background to who Big and Little Edie are, they were aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie, in her hay day, was a socialite and amateur singer. She was known for her eccentric life style and married Phelan Bouvier. She had three children, Edith (to be known as Little Edie), Phelan Jr. and Bouvier.
In 1923 the family moved in to Grey Gardens which was a 28 roomed mansion. In 1931 Phelan and Big Edie separated, and Big Edie retained the mansion. While she received child support, she didn’t receive alimony. She continued to pursue her signing career, giving recitals in her home and local functions. When she turned up at her son’s wedding in 1942 dressed as an opera star, her father, Major Bouvier cut her almost entirely out of his will, leaving her a tiny (in comparison) trust fund of $65,000. Big Edie became depressed and gained weight, coupled with multiple eye surgeries, this impacted her social standing and confidence. In 1946 Phelan notified Edie of their divorce via telegram from Mexico. Reference is made to this in the documentary as a “fake divorce” as it wasn’t recognised by the Catholic Church.
Little Edie followed in her mother’s footsteps for a while as a socialite, fashion model and cabaret performer. Between the years of 1947 and 1952 Little Edie lived in the Barbizon Hotel for women as she believed that she was on the verge of a break in to show business. She also stated that wealthy men such as Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty had requested her hand in marriage (despite only meeting some of these men once). In 1952, with Big Edie draining money and falling in to ill health, Little Edie returned to the estate. Grey Gardens had one of the finest gardens on the East Coast, but when the caretaker Tom “Tex” Logan died, and a subsequent robbery in 1968, the mother daughter due lived in near poverty and almost isolation. When Little Edie was in her late 30s she developed alopecia totalis, making all of her hair fall out, and pushing her to wear her signature headscarves.
In 1971 the health department raided the house, and found the pair living in just a few rooms of the mansion. The building had fallen in to such bad disrepair that it now violated many building regulations, including no running water or heating, and the couple were told that they would need to clean the house or face eviction. Jackie Kennedy Onassis paid $32,000 to clean the house, install new plumbing and furnaces and remove over 1000 bags of rubbish.
In 1975 the pair were paid $5000 each to appear in this documentary although it appears that they never received a cut of the profits which they were allegedly promised (although their recollection of “real life” is something to be desired).
The documentary concentrates on the day to day life and interactions of Big and Little Edie and it highlights so many wonderful and tragic things.
The mansion itself is a looming beast of a building, in the documentary you see the garden, a rolling expanse of greenery which has been left to overgrow and waste away. There are holes in the walls, rotting rubbish everywhere, and the pair have two single beds in a room. Big Eddie’s bed is covered in rubbish, food, cats, records and anything else you can think off… she sleeps like she is about to fall out of it and at one point I was scared for their life as she balances a hot place on the bed and boils up corn of the cobs. There is a fridge in the room and piles of memorabilia and photos along with decaying food and old new papers. In contrast Little Edie’s bed is well kept and had the top half of an arm chair to make sitting up in bed easier.
If you think that the documentary might give you all of the information that I’ve explained above, you are mistaken. It is all just discussion based, where both Edie’s talk over each other incessantly. What they talk about makes little comprehensible sense and really highlights a mother who is suffering depression which seems to be relieved from living somewhat in the past, singing along to her old records and maintaining some weirdly dysfunctional relationship with Little Edie. What really stood out of me, and what seemed so sad was that Little Edie seems to have a raft of issues which have been left unaddressed, I am no expert, but her highs and lows as well as sketchy recollection and anxiety point to some mental health issues which has been left without medication for a little too long. Both mother and daughter fight for attention, now that they are starved from being in the lime light and often compete to get the film crews attention, either by arguing, in what they wear or in some other madcap way.
While the situation of two women’s fall from grace to live in squalor is sad, there are some pure moments of joy in this piece. Little Edie set a fashion trend from this documentary. This is clearly a women who is making the best of wha she had available, using old outfits, and any material that she could find to present herself in the most presentable way. Her use of headscarves and brooch is a wonderful thing, facing her baldness in the most tremulous way. Her dancing while erratic and disjointed shows true moments of joy in the face of adversity.
There are also things which are so sad that they are uncomfortably funny such as Little Edie weighing herself. Her eye sight is so bad (and because he has never had an eye test) she uses binoculars to see the scales. Also Little Edie feeding the raccoons in the attic – the very things tearing the house apart is something out there all on its own.
Ultimately, if you ever feel that you want to know more about the Edies, this is not the documentary for you. If you want something which is a fly on the wall view of how two people have possibly driven each other insane, then this is certainly the thing you should watch.
You can watch the whole documentary on YouTube, if you ever feel inclined to be able to use the phrase “What would Little Edie do?”
Have you seen Grey Gardens? Why don’t you tell me what you thought in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?
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Life: stranger than fiction. Thanks for the write up.
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