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Hamptons Life

Feb 13, 2017 11:35 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Grey Gardens Goes On Sale, Renewing Interest In The Fascinating Characters Who Once Lived There

Grey Gardens, 3 West End Road, East Hampton COOURTESY CORCORAN GROUP
Feb 13, 2017 1:09 PM

The announcement that the East Hampton estate Grey Gardens has been put on the market—with an ask of a whisker under $20 million—revives interest in the legendary property and in this question: How was it that an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter living in squalor would become a cultural phenomenon and spawn at least two films, a stage musical, and both parodies and homages in popular television shows?The 1.7-acre estate is in pristine condition and has been maintained in that condition since the late Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, and his journalist wife, Sally Quinn, purchased it in 1979 and oversaw a complete restoration. Before then, Grey Gardens had been occupied by Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie” Beale. Both were related to the Bouvier family whose estate, Lasata, also in East Hampton, was placed on the market last year.

The Beales were a prominent family in the 1920s and 1930s, which included membership in the Maidstone Club, and the estate, first constructed in 1897, was purchased in 1923 and was known for its exquisite landscaping. After her divorce from Phelan Beale, Edith fell on hard times. In the early 1950s, she persuaded her former débutante daughter to move in with her. As their fortunes continued to decline, their behavior became more careless and eccentric, and the vermin-infested house deteriorated.

They may well have passed on in complete obscurity—except for the occasional raid by the health department—if not for documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles. The brothers had chronicled the first arrival in America of the Beatles in 1964 and made the critically acclaimed documentary “Salesman” in 1968. They achieved widespread notice as filmmakers with “Gimme Shelter” (1970, with Charlotte Zwerin) that concluded with the stabbing death of a man while the Rolling Stones were performing at Altamont near San Francisco in December 1969.

The Maysles were approached by Jacqueline Onassis, who had been Jacqueline Bouvier before her marriage to John F. Kennedy, and her sister, Lee Radziwill, about doing a documentary on their family, the Bouviers, including their aunt and cousin in East Hampton. The brothers agreed.

On and off for several months they shot footage and then came to a surprising realization: Edith and Edie Beale would make for a lot more interesting movie than Jackie and Lee.

The mother and daughter lived a very private existence in Grey Gardens, which was literally falling down around them. Dozens of cats and other animals had easy access to the interior of the main house. The interior of their minds is where Big Edie and Little Edie spent much of their time—yet they 
allowed the Maysles brothers and their cameras into their home.

For the next two months, the filmmakers all but lived at Grey Gardens as they followed the two women in their daily routines. Among the more memorable scenes that made the final cut were Edith, once a highly regarded concert singer, warbling songs for them, and Edie, with her dreams of being a dancer, improvising a soft shoe to the Virginia Military Institute fight song. Other scenes showed the Beales rooted in the 1940s, wearing skirts upside-down and one-piece bathing suits, singing “Tea For Two” and other old favorites, and sharing a loaf of Wonder Bread with a raccoon.

When the film was released in 1976, audiences and critics were in turn fascinated and appalled by what they saw. The mother and daughter, 82 and 56 at the time of filming, formed a combination that was both bizarre and poignant. Showing them living in cat-overrun filth and Gothic decay, yet in money-drenched East Hampton and being related by marriage to the Kennedys and a Greek shipping tycoon, was a jaw-dropping spectacle.

The Maysles brothers were smart enough to let the story tell itself. Roger Ebert wrote that the film was “one of the most haunting documentaries in a long time.”

Thirty years later, when Albert Maysles was reviewing unused footage, he realized there was enough to create a feature-length follow-up to the original documentary. In July 2006, “The Beales of Grey Gardens” was shown in New York City. But he hadn’t beaten Broadway to the Beales. “Grey Gardens—The Musical” had premiered that spring at Playwrights Horizon, with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, and tickets couldn’t be sold fast enough. It moved to Broadway that October. Ms. Ebersole actually plays Edith in Act I, which takes place in 1941, and then plays Little Edie with Ms. Wilson as her mother in Act II, set 32 years later as Grey Gardens withers around them. Ms. Ebersole won a Tony Award for her performance.

Suddenly, it seemed that Edith Bouvier Beale and Edie Beale had turned into something of a franchise. Another play was produced in 2008, this one titled “Little Edie & The Marble Faun,” which somehow involved Nathaniel Hawthorne. There was a book about them too. In 1975, Lois Wright, an artist and friend of the Beales, was invited to live with them at Grey Gardens. Ms. Wright kept a journal of her 13 months. From that came “My Life at Grey Gardens,” in which Ms. Wright chronicles events at the estate from her arrival through the passing of Big Edie in 1977.

The cable giant HBO took a shot at the story in 2009, broadcasting “Grey Gardens” with the approach being Little Edie’s life as a privileged socialite juxtaposed with the filming of the documentary decades later. It starred Jessica Lange as Edith and Drew Barrymore as her daughter, and earned several Emmy Awards.

Joan Rivers and her daughter once did a parody of the Beales on a TV special. There are references to them in episodes of “The Gilmore Girls,” “The New Normal,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and, in 2015, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen played “Little Vivvy” and “Big Vivvy” in the IFC series “Documentary Now!” with the script written by Seth Meyers.

Two years after Big Edie died, in 1977, Little Edie sold Grey Gardens to Mr. Bradlee and Ms. Quinn for $220,000. She moved to Florida, where she died in 2002 at age 84.

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Fascinating women!
By susgeek (37), Speonk on Feb 19, 17 9:09 AM
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