Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Edith Bouvier Beale

This is Edith Bouvier Beale. Born in 1917, straight into the echelons of American high society, to privileged parents Phelan Beale, a respected lawyer, and Edith Ewing Bouvier, a gorgeous socialite from the aristocratic Bouvier clan.

Little Edie started a flourishing modelling career at 17, while Big Edie pursued her break into a singing career. The mother and daughter pair were extremely close, and were a staple of the New York social scene. Wherever they went, they were received as VVIPS, and were highly respected for their social graces, fashionable good tastes, and pure fabulous-ness.

Little Edie went on to appear in the pages of Vogue, and was to move away to pursue a singing and dancing career in New York City, when she was discouraged by her mother. Big Edie just could not imagine life without her daughter. And with that, they slowly ebbed away from the limelight.

Then in 1972, they reappeared, headlining the National Enquirer and New York Times no less. Not as the celebutantes as they were remembered, but as hermetic recluses, living in a world of their own, in their dilapidated 28-room mansion called Grey Gardens, where Little Edie grew up in. The gardens now were grossly overgrown, and the house was a shadow of its former self, completely run-down, with no running water, broken floorboards, and even a small tree growing into the walls of one of the rooms.

When county officials raided the decaying house for inspection, they found innumerable cats and raccoons - some dead, some alive - also lodging at the Grey Gardens. In one room, there was a five-foot high mountain of used cat food tins. There was faeces in certain rooms, and in others, rotting antiques and memorabilia of an era gone by. The era when Little Edie was the "It" girl of high society.

All this was more than just juicy headlines. This was a PR nightmare for The First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who was first cousin of Little Edie. Big Edie and Jacqueline Kennedy's father were siblings. The Kennedys quickly forked out tens of thousands to repair the house so that the whole drama of the squalor and eviction of bluebloods gone bonkers would quickly came to a close.

In 1975, a documentary, simply called "Grey Gardens", was made by the Maysles brothers about the Edies' strange existence. This was a little over a year later after the house was repaired, and by this time, it was back to being a cluttered, faeces-filled house-of-horrors.

The documentary opened to mixed reviews in theatres in America, but was well received in Cannes. It was a fly-on-the-wall cinematic essay about the two women's daily life, a peek into their everyday witty banter and squabbles, curious meals of boiled corn, pate, and ice-cream, and even curiouser "costumes for the day" fashioned from too-small clothes, tablecloths and curtains, by the resident recessionista, Little Edie.

Invariably, we also get a glimpse into Big Edie's unfulfilled dreams of becoming a singer, and Little Edie's resentment, yet deep love for her mother. Big Edie's dissatisfaction with how life has turned out, and Little Edie's poignant attempts at coping by performing marching dances and singing, very creepily if I might add, that she "ought to be in pictures".

An HBO movie has just been released starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. Using the documentary for leverage, the movie is able to explore the women's lives deeper back in time. It is a visual feast of high society parties of pre-war and pre-Depression America, and a heartbreaking love story between mother and daughter.

I am super-fascinated by this story. The riches-to-rags tale, the gothicism and its Dickensian essence, Big Edie's bizarre nonchalance and breaking into song, and posh-accented Little Edie, with her heirloom brooch on every scarf, skirt-turned-scarf, sweater-turned-headgear, ex-tablecloth and head-wrap towel, breaking into exuberant dance. Seriously slaying stuff.

And at the end of the day, I see it as a story of Fine Lines. Between squalor and freedom, between nurture and damage, between mothering and smothering, between being bohemian and being an absolute nutcase. And how the Maysles captured it all just leaves me in awe.

As for Little Edie, she is one "staunch character" that makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. And one that I thought only existed in the genius of creative minds - until I discovered her story. To me, her existence was one heart-rending epic poem.

Big Edie died in 1977 of pneumonia, 2 years after the documentary was aired. Little Edie stayed on at Grey Gardens for 2 more years, before selling it to then-editor of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee, and his writer wife Sally Quinn, making them promise to restore Grey Gardens to its former glory.

Little Edie then tried to realise her showbusiness dreams with several failed cabaret shows. By now, she was around 60. She lived out her days in Florida with relatives, and was said to swim every single day, until her death in 2002, at 84.


  1. Amazing story. Can't wait for the movie!

  2. Very intriguing and somewhat disturbing...This the second time I'm reading it through. What happened to the pix you posted earlier of a younger "Big and Little Edith" together?

  3. Did I? Maybe I took it out while polishing up the post. I do that sometimes...

    Such a super story. I love how she is super-psycho, but in such a cute way. Heheh.

  4. A really great story, well-written in such beautiful language.

  5. Thanks Shoshana! How sweet of you! :)

  6. I just watched but the hbo and original doc and am now in love with little edith!

  7. Isn't she just the most fascinating EVER!? Best thing I've heard, kids dress up as Little Edie during Halloween! How cute is THAT?! ;D

  8. edie is a real fashionista...

  9. I've seen the hbo movie and am desperately looking for the documentary. It's like a car accident, I can't look away. I have to see more about how these woman who resent each other so much need each other to survive. You found lovely pictures and haunting video clips, its very nicely put together.

  10. Hi Jess, thanks for your comment. So glad you like my little Little Edie tribute. ;) Me too, I watched the Drew Barrymore one, but have not got round to watching "the real thing", by the Maysles. You can get it on Amazon. :)

  11. Enjoyed your blog.
    Both film versions of Grey Gardens (the original 1975 one & 2009 re-make) are fabulous. I found myself feeling sorry for Little Edie and angry at Big Edie for being a selfish fool who threw away a perfectly good married life on account of her misguided performing ideals as well as alcholism. Little Edie was like a fish caught in a net. I was glad to learn that Little Edie's 'post-Mother' life was a good one with an upscale apartment in Florida, some travel, and basic provision for the rest of her days. By having to live in that Hampton horror house with 'Mommy-Dearest', Little Edie more than paid the price of being a beneficiary of the proceeds from the sale of the house. RIP Little Edie. You paid your dues.