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Arty Farty Friday: Grey Gardens

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I have something special for Arty Farty Friday today as the topic I’ve chosen isn’t really about art in the exact meaning, but concerns a 1975 documentary that moved me to bits.

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Grey Gardens depicts the everyday lives of two reclusive socialites living in a decrepit mansion in East Hampton in increasing squalor and isolation.

Although Edith Beale, known as Big Edie, and her daughter Edith Beale- Little Edie, are quite well known in the US as they were related to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, I had never heard of them before this documentary ran up and punched me in the face🙂

Let me tell you, both Big Edie and Little Edie are a piece of work, but you can’t help but fall in love with them.

These women redefined the stereotype of the crazy cat lady everyone in the neighbourhood avoids!

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The Bouvier and Beale families were a sort of American aristocrats, and both mother and daughter were socialites who lived in a beautiful house called Grey Gardens, named so after the colour of the dunes, the cement garden walls, and the sea mist, in the affluent East Hampton.

After Big Edie divorced from her rich husband in 1946, the women continued to live in the mansion, although didn’t have enough money to sustain it.

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By 1975 when the documentary was shot, the house had already become so decrepit and an eyesore in the posh neighbourhood that an intervention was staged.

The Beale women faced eviction and Grey Gardens underwent a thorough clean-up.

In 1972 Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill, Big Edie’s nieces,  provided the necessary funds to stabilize and repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet village codes.

What they found was terrifying.

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The house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with rubbish and decay, deeming it unfit to be lived in.

By 1975 the house was slowly creeping back to the squalor it was three years before.

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This isn’t a story of how the high-flyers of society can fall, but rather a portrayal of two women living in seclusion, a story told in their own words.

I struggle to summarise what this documentary is about.

On the one hand it shows two women with huge personalities who defied social norms and chose to live their life on their own terms.

It’s a tale of an incredibly close relationship between mother and daughter, of the freedom to express your artistic impulses even if it means being shunned by society.

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On the other hand, it’s a story of co-dependency, emotional blackmail and living with regret over what could have been, resentment of decisions made in the past.

Like in any true American gothic tale, disturbing things happen in remote locations unregulated by the scrutiny of the outside world.

Perhaps Grey Gardens is ultimately about women suffering from a hereditary mental illness which, if left undiagnosed and unchecked, poses a threat and excludes the sufferers from society.

The story of the Beale women was expanded on in the consequent 2006 documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens, which consisted of footage not used in the first film.

Here’s a clip from it, I could have sworn I watched the whole thing on YT, but I can’t find it now.

It focuses more on Little Edie, who has since become something of a fashion icon.

Suffering from alopecia which resulted in hair loss, she created a specific style of dressing which would consist of make-shift turbans and scarves, accompanied by her beloved brooch.

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Edie was a master in fashion recycling, a good 20 years before it became a popular movement, and the documentaries are worth watching if only for her quirky sartorial choices.

Although a devoted catholic, she spends her time reading horoscopes and flirting shamelessly with the filming crew.

Both women love to sing and perform in front of their friends, displaying a need to be the centre of attention and admired.

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The story of the Beale women is so incredibly touching, and they have both become cult figures.

The notoriety they dreamed about didn’t come during their lifetimes, but this documentaries carries on their legacy.

Watching them, it seems like time has stood still for Big Edie and Little Edie, just as it had when they were living together in Grey Gardens.

In 2009 the story was turned into a movie Grey Gardens, with Jessica Lange playing Mrs Beale and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie.

Although the film catches the nuances of the Beale spirit, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

After all, those are some mighty big shoes to fill…

If you’re wondering whatever happened to Grey Gardens, here’s a slideshow illustrating its extraordinary history:

About AgzyM

"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons". A fangirl through and through, anglophile, and admirer of beauty whereever I can find it. I love books and art, and spend too much time admiring Richard Armitage and other amazing British actors.

38 responses »

  1. Sounds fascinating, Agzy. Thanks for pointing this docu out. If I have time, I shall watch it later on. Happy Guy-Day, dear!

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  2. I am not really sure if the topic of this doc is right down my alley. Shallow person that I am I think this is indeedy too sophisticated for me. But (nosey and curious person that I also am) nevertheless I will give it a try and I am looking forward to be proofed wrong.
    But more important: I do want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your recommondation from 29th of August. Instantly got myself the boxset from ebay, and this week at last I could start watching the first two episodes of the Forsyte Saga. And I am helplessly hooked. I really love it and can’t wait for the weekend to come to see the story unfold and what will happen to this bunch of marvellous characters. Couldn’t wait und took a glimpse on wikipedia – but tried to quit immediately after some heavy spoilers by only reading the cast list. I am intrigued and hope you will come back to this topic and post some more about your view on the Forsyte Saga. Daniel Lewis is a fantastic actor and I am amazed by his portrait of Soames.
    I should really really do some very very important pestering RL stuff this weekend. But due to you this will have to wait. Thank you.

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    • I’m so happy🙂 I love a good rec, but I’m always afraid that I may disappoint someone with what I suggest. I felt FS was a winner, especially that it’s a great costume series and the plot is lush and rich, but you never know…
      There’s definitely more Soames posts waiting to b written and now that I know that some of my readers are fans, I’m more inclined to post on FS. Oh, and I have to write about June and forgiveness.
      BTW I read somewhere that Lewis was the first actor cast, they felt he would make the perfect Soames. When it came to shooting the first day, he was doing a bad job of it, worrying the producers that perhaps he wasn’t up for the part. Turns out he was in great pain (I think it was appendicitis) and he had to be shipped off to hospital for surgery. And the rest is, as they say, history…
      Regarding “Grey Gardens”, it’s maybe an unusual rec, the documentary isn’t really about anything else but the every day life of these extraordinary women, but it resonated with me. You can always give it a go on YT or mayby try out a few clips to see if it suits🙂

      Reply
  3. Just to round it out Agzy, Grey Gardens was also a Tony award winning musical on Broadway.I was dubious at best about a musical of this incarnation, but it was stunning. The entire thing is in parts on YouTube, and a song by Edie is the second link.


    http://www.greygardensthemusical.com/

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  4. Agzy, I have just finished watching it. Touching! I came to it thinking it would be quirky, but as the documentary went on, it became more and more evocative. It is all very repetitive – the two women reminiscing on old times, lost chances, music – and all the more disconcerting for it. Two women, caught in a life of co-dependence, (partly) self-induced isolation, traces of mental illness, certainly vestiges of eccentricities cultivated by a formerly privileged lifestyle. It is scary at times, because it brings home to the viewer how the bonds of family can destroy lives, and how tendencies of lethargy and depression can lead down a path of self-destruction and carelessness. Those lives could have been so different, particularly Little Edie’s life. – The two documentary makers only record, they do not add their own voices (and knowledge) to the story. They let the filmed material speak for itself and allow the viewer to make up her own mind. This was a fascinating watch, a very sad and poignant film, although comical at times. I am glad you recommended it and I watched it. I will recommend it further!

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    • Thanks so much, I’m really happy you connected with it too. I’m just so torn between raelly falling for Big and Little Edie, feeling sorry for the way they lived their lives and being peeved because they created that horrible isolation.
      Little Edie was a stunningly beautiful socialite that really could achieve anything she put her mind to, but was marred by the feeling that she was cheated out of an experience, or that she’ll still have a chance to do the things she dreams of. I’m at least happy that these two exhibitionists had the chance to shine in the documentary and would have gotten a kick out of knowing that decades later we’re still talking about them😉
      Here are some young Little Edie pics:

      and

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      • Absolutely gorgeous, she was. And so was her mother. I would just love to know where it actually went wrong? They did not really talk about the *real* issues or turning point. What made Big Edie “leave” her husband? Was she “expelled” from her marriage by him? Why? Did she have an affair with the Gould guy? What was Little Edie up to in NY? Why did she reject all the millionaire suitors? What really happened with T Logan and the Polish count Tyczkiewicz? Why did she never free herself from the grasp of her mum? When did they spiral into the squalor and eccentricity of their later life? Who financed the whole shebang???
        Sorry, not expecting answers, just brainstorming here. I wonder whether there is any biography out there. The dramatisation with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore seemed to address some of those questions, from what I could see in the trailer. Fascinating.

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        • As GG has amassed a cult following since the documentary aired, all the questions, and many more, have been asked and answered or speculated over, online. Here’s what I’ve learned:
          I think there were many factors that led them to that strange point. Unfortunately, Big Edie was left by her husband, who was apparently an extremely controlling man. She was already a free artistic spirit and the society was slowly rejecting her anyway. He died a few years later, leaving most of his money to wife nr 2, what was left to the Edie’s was controlled by her sons. They were determined to sell GG, but Edie didn’t want to hear of it, so she was almost completely cut off financially. Hence the tight budget despite living most her life in huge wealth.
          After Little Edie’s time in NY, she came back ill and depressed and her mother did everything to nurse her, but also used the experience to keep her daughter to ever leave again. Little Edie was trying to make it as a model and actress in NY. She claimed that she wasn’t successful because of her controlling father, but a romance with a married man couldn’t have helped. As far as know, the only meaningful relationship was with said married man, so that couldn’t result in marriage.
          Also, especially Big Edie had a way of colouring the truth, so it’s hard to tell which romance/relationship was real, what the truth is about Little Edie’s time in NY. It must have been a particularly dramatic time if she came home in such poor condition and later developed alopecia.
          On the one hand, they can both be seen semi-feminists. They lived the way they wanted, not dependant on men, surrounded by arty people, rejected society etc. On the other, they didn’t actually do anything with their lives despite being privileged and clearly neither one of them could actually pick up a mop or throw a single item into the bin. There inability to maintain basic hygiene in their home is the ultimate sign of weakens and it’s odd because especially Little Edie cared so much about how she looked.
          There’s a number of books on the subject, but I haven’t read any yet. There a beautiful album on Little Edie’s unique dress sense, but it’s a bit pricey so it’ll have to wait.
          The Barrymore film answers some questions that the docu didn’t but then we always have to remember that films have a tendency to bend the truth to make for better viewing. I’d suggest that you check out the second documentary. I especially liked the scenes where Little Edie goes to the beach. It’s so refreshing to see her out of the disturbing environment of GG.

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          • After posing all those questions yesterday I actually started researching online and came across a very useful site called Grey Gardens Online. http://www.greygardensonline.com/ I will definitely try and get to see the other docu, because I am fascinated by their story.
            Thanks for the long answer, Agzy.

          • Just added the link to favourites!
            People are still fascinated by this story and, in a way, the Edie’s got what they always dreamt of- fame and a following of admirers😉

      • PS – Just realised that I watched the 1975 original docu, not the 2006 version with the added material. Have to dig that out somewhere.

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  5. I saw the 2006 version when it came out — yeah, this is a disturbing piece of art that doesn’t leave you alone.

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    • I actually couldn’t sleep after I first watched the 1975 documentary because the Edie’s didn’t want to leave my head. The story is so complex and disturbing that I think my mind couldn’t rest until it was at least superficially sorted through.

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  6. I hadn’t heard of the Beales or Grey Gardens before the Lange/Barrymore movie. After seeing the trailer and doing some light research on it I determined it was that type of subject matter that might disturb me to the point of extended discomfort. I can’t watch reality shows about hoarders either.

    I’ve had two incidents in my life that are behind this, and one involved a friend who had breast cancer. When she learned she had it, she essentially gave up. I’m sure her home was probably in bad shape prior to the cancer, but once she determined she was going to die (and I say determined, because she said she would not quit smoking unless she “beat” her breast cancer. Yeah.), she then began to shop and spend what was left of her retirement on stuff she didn’t need and filled the house with it. And when I say “fill”, I don’t mean “enjoy and use”. When she needed care, her house was so deep in unopened and unused stuff, that we couldn’t walk through the house, let alone get a wheelchair in, in order for hospice to get her out. About five of us spent a week removing mounds of clothing, household decor, nicknacks – shoes, shoes, shoes – and debris and other abandoned items underneath. You get to know people in ways you can’t explain when you get to know their filth. Ironically, it did not affect my care or respect for her as a person. But even after her death, I still think of all of that which was unearthed in her home before I remember that she was a person who died horribly and painfully from cancer.

    The other was closer to home, where I discovered 13 years ago that my mother was ill from a Thyroid shutdown, where she wasn’t getting enough oxygen to the brain. It resembled Dementia, which frightened me so terribly. The result was neglect throughout her home – a home she would not let me into for a long time, which I stupidly respected (serious guilt here). The issue was resolved with medication, and the house situation I soon rectified with extensive cleaning and remodeling. It was hard. Hardest time ever in my life, as well as hers. The good news is she enjoyed the remodeled house for a few years, then we sold it in better shape than when it was bought – paying off bills and buying a better home still. But in regards to my mother’s emotional health, and ongoing health maintenance overall, I still worry – so I stay attentive and close.

    So yeah…too difficult a subject in a documentary for me to appreciate from a distance. Maybe someday.

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    • Oh Honey, that just terrible. I’m so sorry about your friend, but it’s good that your mother is doing so much better. I’m quite compulsive with some things, like eating, so although I don’t have a hoarding bone in my body, I’ve watched enough shows about them to kind of understand the impulse to turn living conditions into a dire state.
      I can see how the documentary could be a trigger for you, but as you say, maybe some day. I think it’s that type of viewing where everyone find their own trigger and I must admit that, despite finding the squalor and hoarding disturbing, it wasn’t the thing that pinched me the most. For me the thing that struck me was the stifling but also sustaining relationship between mother and daughter. On the one hand they were so close and supportive to one another, on the other they really cocooned themselves in their little fantasy world and neither could let the other go and reach their potential.
      This documentary is amusing at times and you get swept away by their larger than life personalities, but it’s packed with issues and there’s no release from that.

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      • For all those reasons, it actually sound just like the thing I would want to see. I should get past my issues for something as good sounding as that. Ours is a good, close relationship – my mother and I – and I think in all the healthy ways. But we have switched roles a bit in that often I have to be the a little parental, but with respect. She are are friends and not just mother/daughter. I am blessed.🙂

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    • I hear you. I wonder how I’d feel about it after dealing with my father all summer. When I got home I felt the violent impulse to throw out everything in my apartment.

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  7. Agzy, I thought about what I wrote – and then about what I neglected to write, which was this. This is a fascinating story and you have presented enough imagery and information to paint a very clear overall picture of what happened throughout the life of Grey Gardens. This is very and thorough and I certainly appreciate your work in this. I have gained a brief history of a complicated and unsavory living situation and the good that came out of it when others care, and all with out even needing to see the documentary. Well done.

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    • Thanks🙂 I just wanted to tease enough to get people interested, but then there is no honest way to actually describe these two fully. I’d definitely love to do a post on Little Edie’s fashion sense because she really was very talented in styling. Sweater headgear, sweater capes fastened by safety pins, bathing costume as daywear, she did it all! She’d recycle old clothes, probably because they were on such a tiny budget, and it’s all so eye-catching. Maybe if things were different, she could have been a successful fashion designer. Poor Edie!

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      • Head wrapping with turbans was a bit popular then, actually. My grandmother was fond of them because it meant he could be stylish in her caftan and not have to do her hair.😉 She did that from the late sixties on up through the eighties, so maybe we can credit Little Edie for that?😉

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  8. Edit by an obsessive/compulsive – This is very comprehensive and thorough.

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  9. Dzięki Agzym🙂 Nie omieszkam tego obejrzeć…pewnie jutro rano bo dzisiaj juz zdązyłam zaliczyć dwie lamki wina z koleżanką…a musisz wiedziec że dwie lampki (lampy;))wina to olilość krytyczna w moim przypadku

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    • LOL po dwóch kieliszeczkach to document zamieni się w komedię romantyczną😉 A ty Polka jesteś więc mi nie mów że dwa kielichy to jakiś limit jest. Jak cię wino przymuli to setnka na jedną nóżkę, setka na drugą i jedziey dalej z winkiem. Przecież się nie wyleje wina, co ty komuny nie pamiętasz? Wszystko się z talerza zmiata, wszystko z butlki dopija😉

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      • Widziałm dzisiaj Agzym i jeszcze parę innych rzeczy dostepnych na YT. z Małą Edie. Dziekuję Agzym bo bez ciebie pewnie nigdy nie poznałabym tego fascynujacego dokumentu. . Trochę przykro patrzeć kiedy niewatpliwie fascynujaca osobowosć,piekna i utalentowana kobieta poswieca swoje zycie na opiekę nad dominująca i złosliwą matką. Nie takie to rzadkie zjawisko wsród matek i córek.
        Niesamowity nastrój ma cały ten fim a ten dom a przede wszyskim ten zdziczały ogród jest przepiękny.
        PS:🙂 Za komuny wszyskiego z talerza nie zmiatałam bo miałam ten denerwujacy zwyczaj zostawiania chociaz małego kawałka ,pewnie by w taki pasywno-agresywny sposób zdenerwowac Babcię,…nie bedzie nikt małej Polce mówił że Musi coś zrobić!
        “wszysko MA BYĆ ! zjedzone , do ostatniego kawałka!”

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        • Trochę mi to przypomniało naszą arystokrację której zabrano wszystko po wojnie, majątki niszczały I cały ten świat się zawalił. Tak to bym sobie jakiegoś może Sobieskiego albo Poniatowskiego hrabiego złowiła, ale teraz to nie ma co…😉

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          • No nie ma🙂 ale może i dobrze bo oni to obstawali przy chowie wsobnym😉 Mówie Ci na pohybel z Radziwiłłami…za Ryszarda Wielkiego Armitage się bierz!

          • Ja białowłosa podchodzę do Ryśka I Wielkiego (miejmy nadzieję, albo chociaż proporcjonalnego…) i oznajmiam: Mój Ci On!
            I zamieszkamy na Starówce w Zamku. Będziemy wzywać straż miejską jak będzie się odbywała jakaś impreza i ciszę nocną nie uszanują😉
            Piękna to przyszłość!

  10. 😀 Pciepraszam , ha ha ha .. ale ło co temu tam wyżej Johnu chodzi?😉

    Reply
  11. Pingback: THE LIVING MOMENT: I ONLY MARK THE MOMENTS THAT SHINE with LITTLE EDIE BEALE & YOUR HOST THIS EVENING, SCOTT UTLEY OCTOBER 22, 2013. HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA. | PLANET LOBSTER

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