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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: