Grey Gardens: The Rise and Fall of Two American Socialites

The cousin of First Lady Jackie Onassis was a promising young woman, a socialite in the making with dreams of finding wealth, success, and beauty. Unfortunately, she turned out to be the family’s black sheep and spent her life resenting her far more famous relative.

Little Edie / Little Edie / Little Edie / Little Edie, Big Edie.
Source: Getty Images

Edith Bouvier Beale, also known as “Little Edie,” lived with her mother, known as “Big Edie,” at the notorious Grey Gardens estate. But they had few funds and barely any resources. Fleas, raided by raccoons, infested their house, and it lacked running water. How did these upper-class women fall from grace?

A Distinguished Young Lady

Little Edie was born in 1917, and along with her two siblings, brothers Bouvier and Phelan enjoyed a quite luxurious upbringing. The Beales children attended the best private schools and became part of the nation’s “Catholic aristocracy.”

A photo of Little Edie with her mother in the garden.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Little Edie was also part of a posh East Hampton country club. She wore stunning gowns to the various balls and danced with the finest men. In short – she had a bright future ahead of her. She was truly privileged, and the world was her oyster.

Trouble Began Knocking at Her Door

The real trouble for Edie began when her parents’ marriage crumbled to pieces before her very eyes. Her dad, a lawyer, named Phelan Beale Sr., abandoned the family in 1931. He left them all high and dry and left mother “Big Edie” all to herself. She had to clean up the mess all on her own.

A portrait of Little Edie as a young woman.
Source: Tumblr

Big Edie had nothing much to show for herself regarding a career. She had managed to build a small singing career back in the day, but now, she had to rely on the Bouviers for support (Jackie’s family). This was the start of a long and unfulfilled dynamic between the families.

A Model, an Actor, and a Dancer

Little Edie didn’t think her parents’ divorce marked the end of her career. And why would she? She was young and beautiful; surely, she could make it alone, right? And sure enough, in 1947, she moved into the Barbizon hotel – a renowned residence that housed other huge names like Sylvia Plath and Rita Hayworth.

A photo of Little Edie modeling swimwear during her job as a fashion model.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Little Edie spent the next five years building her reputation. She wanted to be a triple threat – an actor, a dancer, and a model. She worked hard and achieved little. It looks like Edie just wasn’t meant for the limelight. At least not for long.

A Loyal Mama’s Girl

In 1952, not long after she left Grey Gardens, Little Edie moved back in with her mom. She was now, once again, living at the large estate in East Hampton. But don’t let the words “large estate” and “East Hampton” fool you. Their situation was terrible.

A portrait of Little Edie in the garden.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

When Edie’s father left, he initially agreed to give his family a meager allowance of $300 to keep the residence intact. But he cut all contact, leaving Big Edie to deal with the house herself. Eventually, the large, 14-room house began to fall into disrepair.

As Grey Gardens Crumbled, So Did Little Edie

As the large estate fell into disarray, so did Little Edie’s life. By that point, she was in her late ’30s. And her once gorgeous looks were now quite plain. To Little Edie’s absolute dismay, her hair began to fall out.

A portrait of Little Edie wearing a fur coat at the time.
Source: YouTube

She developed a case of alopecia to hide that fact, and she began covering herself with headscarves, which ultimately became her signature look. With her life completely turned upside down, she began to lash out.

Jealous of Her Illustrious Relatives

As Little Edie’s health and wealth began to crumble, she grew more and more bitter about her relatives, particularly her famous, beloved, and successful relative – First Lady Jackie Onassis.

A photo of Little Edie standing in a park.
Source: YouTube

She started spreading some outrageous rumors. She claimed that she had been engaged to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., which was, obviously, a lie. Not only that, but after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, she said that if Joe had lived, she would have been the First Lady.

Her Mental Health Began to Teeter

With dwindling funds, Grey Gardens was no longer the lush estate it had been. Both Edies failed to maintain it, so, over time, it just became this dingy dump, invaded by feral cats and raccoons. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

A picture of Little Edie sitting with her mother at home.
Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

The house was just…disgusting: full of garbage, feces, and fleas (obviously!). Both women refused to clean it, and by the ’70s, the neighbors began to complain. Grey Gardens was officially uninhabitable.

It Disgusted the NY Health Commission

Their house truly shocked the New York Health Commission. They immediately gave them an eviction notice, stating that the two women had to leave Grey Gardens until it was safe and sterile to live in again.

A photo of Little Edie opening the door of her home.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

They had to repair what was broken and tidy up the place. But let’s be honest. It wasn’t the house that interested the public; it was the fact that Little Edie and Big Edie had ties to clean-cut, posh, wonderful Jackie O. People couldn’t fathom the stark contrasts.

Rich Relatives to the Rescue

Unsurprisingly, the story of their nightmarish house went international. For Jackie O to have such poor and filthy relatives? Scandalous indeed! Such unspeakable conditions were unacceptable for relatives of the First Lady.

An exterior shot of Grey Gardens and Little Edie.
Source: Wikipedia

Jackie was married to one of the richest men on the planet, Aristotle Onassis. So, naturally, everyone looked at her to rescue her aunt and cousin. Along with her sister Lee Radziwill, Jackie provided the necessary funds for Grey Garden’s urgent restoration.

The Start of Something Great…

Jackie and her sister saved the estate; however, the scandal led to something greater. The following year after the official eviction notice was handed to the Beales, Lee Radziwill decided it would be a good idea to hire Albert and David Maysles to make a docu-film about her upbringing at the estate.

A photo of Little Eddie while filming the documentary.
Photo by Peter Beard

The documentary showcased interviews with Big and Little Edie at Grey Gardens. The Maysles quickly understood that the real interesting subjects of their documentary were these two eccentric ladies.

A Brand-New Film in Mind

While Lee Radziwill’s project never came to be, Albert and David Maysles did end up making something – a much more interesting and revealing documentary about the isolated lives of Big and Little Edie.

A still of Little Edie in a scene from the documentary.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two women fascinated Albert and David, and they insisted on shooting the movie Grey Gardens, a documentary following the women around for two whole months. They managed to capture raw, daily comings and goings.

An Entertaining Spectacle

Following Little and Big Edie revealed some comical as well as tragic moments. The mother-daughter dynamic proved to be a fascinating display in more ways than one. The women’s fading beauty and fragile minds are both heartbreaking and intriguing.

A photograph of Little and Big Edie sitting in their home.
Source: YouTube

In the documentary, Little Edie is dressed in crazy outfits, feeding raccoons that run freely in the halls. As a viewer, you know something isn’t right, but the real root of the issue runs deeper.

A Toxic Relationship

In the documentary Grey Gardens, viewers see that both Big and Little Edie are trapped in a vicious cycle. It’s an oddly heartwarming but, at the same time, toxic relationship. Beyond their banter, quirks, and snappy remarks, there’s an underlying reality of loneliness and sadness.

A view of Little and Big Edie in their bedroom.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“We better check on mother and the cats,” Little Edie says at once, “She’s a lot of fun. I hope she doesn’t die. I hate to spend another winter here, though. Oh God, another winter.”

Shattered Dreams

In the end, Big Edie does die. Just two years after the film was released, she passed away, leaving Little Edie to fend for herself for the first time in, well, forever. At last, she’s freed of Grey Garden’s tight hold. And what does she do?

A portrait of Big Edie wearing a hat and talking to the camera.
Source: YouTube

She decides to pursue a career in cabaret. However, it ends in disaster. At 60 years old, Little Edie was hired by nightclub owner Reno Sweeney, who offered her to do a series of eight shows. But the reviews were so bad that the feedback was hidden from her. The New York Times called her to show a “public display of ineptitude.” Ouch…

She Was Never Able to Recapture Her Lost Youth

After Big Edie’s passing, Little Edie lived in Grey Gardens for around two years. According to Little Edie, it was one of her mom’s wishes that she wouldn’t have to sell the house or tear it down.

A photo of Little Edie at home holding her cats.
Photo by Tom Wargacki/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Eventually, in 1979, she sold the place to the executive editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, for around $220,000 (nowadays would be worth around $800,000). Afterward, she moved to Florida, and in 2002, at the age of 84, she died in her apartment from either a heart attack or stroke.

Her grave reads: “I came from God. I belong to God. In the end—I shall return to God.”

It Became a Cult Film

Few movies have reached such cult heights as 1975’s Grey Gardens. This documentary, which captured the bizarre mother-daughter relationship of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, was captivating. Here are some behind-the-scenes tidbits.

A still of Little Edie in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

The two women, who had isolated themselves from society, developed a world that was utterly strange yet somehow relatable. Held up in their mansion at the Hamptons, the women, who were 100% unscripted, talked about anything that came to mind, and it was glorious.

Who Was Allowed to Enter During Filming?

According to the co-director of the film, Muffie Meyer, only David and Albert were allowed to enter the mansion. The camera operators would load the film into the camera and leave it on the porch for the brothers to pick up.

A photo of the filming crew outside Grey Gardens.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

The funny thing is that the Beales loved having the Maysles around and tried shoving them into every picture. Little Edie always approached them and asked questions to get a conversation going. They became a huge part of the film, maybe even as big as the women themselves. The fact that Albert and David were men helped, as Little Edie spent half of the time flirting with them.

The Beales Were Delightful

While editing the film, Muffie Meyer realized they lacked some footage, so she sent the brothers back with specific takes to shoot. During that period, Muffie and some other crew members would often bicycle over to Grey Gardens and invite Little Edie for dinner.

A picture of Big and Little Edie sitting on a bed.
Photo by Tom Wargacki/Archive Photos/Getty Images

According to Muffie, the Beales were just great to be around. They would sing, argue, and laugh; they were full of life and personality. “It was amazing,” Muffie Meyer gushed about being around both women.

Little Edie Sang at Muffie’s Wedding

One thing led to another, and many crew members who worked on the documentary developed a deep relationship with the women. For example, co-director Muffie said that Little Edie ended up singing at her wedding!

A photo of Little Edie singing.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“She remained much the same when the cameras weren’t rolling,” Muffie revealed. “She was always charming and Edie-ish, but she didn’t flirt with me like the Maysles. We stayed friends, and for years she would write me the most wonderful letters – it was certainly a friendship of longevity, if not necessarily of depth because she was generally remarkably self-absorbed.”

They Had to Protect Them

The documentary wasn’t scripted at all, so the directors sometimes struggled to structure the film properly. In addition, they feared that the women would be called crazy (which happened) and agreed on ways of protecting them.

A photo of Little Edie at home.
Photo by Tom Wargacki/Archive Photos/Getty Images

But no matter how hard they tried to portray them properly, respectable way, the public ended up criticizing them. Viewers believed that Little Edie, in particular, was a little crazier than her mom, so crazy that she wasn’t really in the proper mindset to consent to such a film. But the directors assert that while she was eccentric, she wasn’t crazy.

Edie Loved the Film

The movie was released at the New York Film Festival, and on the night it aired, Little Edie received a large bouquet from several crew members. Excited by the whole event, Little Edie threw the flowers at the crowd and the orchestra.

Little Edie stands next to a poster of the film.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“She was just beaming,” co-director Muffie stated. “Those times were kind of her moment of validation, and that was a joy to see.” Edie would call Muffie around two or three times a year until she passed, asking her when they would make another film.

Hundreds of Hours of Footage

Grey Gardens’ directors shot hundreds of hours of footage, and much of it got cut out. Co-director Muffie said she wished they hadn’t cut out a scene they called “Politics,” in which Little Edie rants out of their second-story window about Richard Nixon.

A photo of Little Edie sitting outdoors during filming.
Source: Pinterest

David decided to leave it out, but Muffie believes they should have left it in. “I’ve thought about that scene repeatedly, going back and forth on whether he was right or not – and in some ways, I think he’s right, it would have dated [the film].”

They Never Imagined It Would Become a Cult Classic

The longevity of this documentary took everyone by surprise. The directors have had people come up to them years later to discuss the film and its impact on them. Co-director Muffie once shared a surprising visit to a club that had a Grey Gardens-themed night once a week:

A portrait of Little Edie.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“I remember that one night I went to a club which, every Thursday, has a Grey Gardens night and all these gay guys came dressed up as the Edies, and they had a little stage that they would spontaneously hop up onto and act out scenes. Who would have thought?”

It Had a Big Impact in the Queer Community

The documentary affected people from all areas of life, but there’s no denying the waves it created in the queer community. The reason for that is likely the eccentricity of the two women and the freedom they had to live their lives as they wanted, precisely the opposite of how it feels like to “be in the closet.”

A still of Little Edie smiling at the camera.
Source: YouTube

There’s also a complexity about their mother-daughter relationship that touches all of us. In many ways, the Beales are nothing like us. But in other ways, they completely are. They show a side of human nature that is normally hidden. They were truly raw and authentic.

The Beales Weren’t the Original Subject

As mentioned earlier, the original subjects of Albert and David Maysles’s project were Lee Radziwill and her sister Jackie O. But seeing as the Beales were way more interesting, the Maysles brothers decided to toss the footage of the prestigious ladies and go for something rawer and candid.

A still of Big Edie in a scene from the documentary.
Source: YouTube

Lee wasn’t happy with their decision. Because she had paid for the project, the movie was hers, so she could do what she wanted to with the original footage. The original movie had an hour and a half of the Beales, which she tossed away out of anger.

Odd Performances

After the movie wrapped up, Little Edie decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of being a cabaret dancer. So, let’s talk a bit about her performances. In short – they weren’t very good (as noted above). She sang “Tea for Two” and two other original songs she had written.

A still of Little Edie sitting by a window in a floral swimsuit.
Source: YouTube

But the shows were odd, partly because Little Edie was wearing an eyepatch (she had had cataract surgery two weeks before the show and was advised to keep it on). After eight nights, the club put an ax to her comeback.

Someone Died in the Kitchen

Both Big and Little Edie talked a lot about ghosts during the shooting of Grey Gardens. They insisted that numerous spirits haunted their creaky old residence. They were unsettled, looming beings who still roamed the earth.

A still of Big and Little Edie conversing on a balcony.
Source: YouTube

Big Edie spoke of a sea captain (which many viewed as nonsense). The man was named Tom Logan, aka “Tex.” He was one of the locals the girls hired to take care of the house…

He Had a Thing for Big Edie

Tom “Tex” Logan worked for the Beales from 1955 to 1964. The women met him in Montauk, where he played guitar at a hotel called the Sea Spray Inn. Rumors have it that Logan had a crush on Big Edie and took the cleaning position to try and get closer to her.

Big Edie speaks to the camera.
Source: YouTube

Logan wasn’t good at handling household businesses. He preferred to go on drinking binges and hike out of town than clean their place. Eventually, he wound up with a case of pneumonia and died in the kitchen of Grey Gardens.

The Crew Had to Wear Flea Collars

As seen in the movie, Grey Gardens was a total sh*t show at one point. Big Edie didn’t want to sell the place, and it ended up being on the front paper as a place that fleas, possums, and raccoons overran. Therefore, this little tidbit won’t come as a surprise:

A portrait of Little Edie showing old jewelry.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The filmmakers had to wear flea collars around their ankles to keep the nasty bugs off. Years later, a woman named Sally Quinn, who bought the property with her husband Ben Bradlee, noted: “You had to have flea collars on” to enter the place.

“All It Needs Is Paint!”

After buying the place from Little Edie, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn had to put a lot of work into fixing the place. When they first saw the property, Little Edie pitched it by crying, “Oh! All it needs is a little paint.”

A photo of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

A “little” paint wasn’t all it needed. According to the new buyers, there were dead cats on the floor, the walls were rotten, the floor had to be ripped out, and the kitchen walls were broken and combined with another room.

It’s Now a Summer Rental

Incredibly, a lot of the Beales’ furniture in the attic was salvaged and restored! The Bradlees normally spent each year at the estate (typical Hamptons tradition), but after Ben passed away, Sally put it up for rental years later.

An exterior shot of Grey Gardens today.
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Nowadays, if you’re looking for a summer rental, you may spend some warm months living just like the Beales. What’s the price, you ask? Around $250,000. Not too shabby. Plus! Sally can assure you that no more dead stray cats are lying around.

That Summer

A quiet documentary named That Summer came out years after Grey Gardens. It’s considered Grey Gardens’ prequel and 80 minutes of hilarious moments between Big and Little Edie. It’s never seen footage that highlights how eccentric the Beale women were.

A closeup of Little Edie in That Summer.
Source: YouTube

In the documentary, Big Edie is more fit and intact (mentally and physically), and her house is, well, unsurprisingly, trashed with garbage and cat urine. The inspectors can be seen barging in with court papers as Lee Radziwill (their cousin and Jackie O’s sister) frets about what to save.

Raccoons as Friends

In That Summer, we get another glimpse of Little Edie, a delirious cabaret dancer and odd fashion icon. She leans into the camera and hisses bizarre statements like “Cats don’t fit into having a house redecorated,” and also, “I think any of us would be happy to have raccoons who look upon us as friends.”

A still of Little Edie in That Summer.
Source: YouTube

When you think about it, the Beales paved the way for aspiring YouTubers and starlets like the Kardashians. They knew how to work the camera. “Documentary has always been way ahead of the mainstream media or social phenomena,” the movie’s director Goran Olsson said.

The Film Is About Freedom

According to the director of That Summer, Goran Olsson, the movie he created is about freedom or its lack. Little Edie feels caged in Grey Gardens, crying about how she wants to escape it all and move back to New York.

A photo behind the scenes.
Source: YouTube

The early footage of the Little Edie, then 55 years old, is a bit painful to watch. Big Edie keeps complaining that her daughter should wear makeup, stop standing like that with her arms crossed, and change her outfit so that she could look pretty for the construction workers.

Uncle Jack

In one startling scene in That Summer, the two women talk about Little Edie’s lil’ “incest” moment with her Uncle Jack. Big Edie shrugged it off, saying: “Well, you had to find out about men sometime.”

A still of Big Edie talking on the phone.
Source: YouTube

Afterward, their conversation moves on to arguments and more complaints and just plain nonsense. In the movie’s cruelest line, Big Edie yells: “The only vermin was you, Edie!” Lee Radziwill didn’t take part in That Summer. However, she let Olsson use one of the interviews she had recorded.

Big and Little Edie’s Unhealthy Relationship

Journalist Gail Sheehy, who documented the women and wrote about them extensively, said that an odd co-dependent relationship always existed between them. She said that Little Edie was inseparable from her mother as a little girl.

A dated exterior shot of Grey Gardens.
Photo by Tom Wargacki/WireImage/Getty Images

Little Edie was even taken out of school by her mom for two years due to an alleged respiratory illness. During those two years, the two Edies traveled together, with Little Edie tagging after her mother to clubs or the theater.

Her Mom Was a Safe Haven for Her

According to their relative, Eve Beale, it was “a safe haven for [Little Edie] to be with her mother. They had such a wonderful bond that nobody could break.” Little Edie signed all of the notes she sent to her mother with the sentence:

A still of Little and Big Edie in Grey Gardens.
Source: YouTube

“With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs – your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes.” Moreover, when Little Edie was a child, she kept a secret diary in which she wrote: “I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother, which will always go on, never be forgotten or forsaken. Most children think that mother love is a thing taken for granted, isn’t it? Second, my buzzing love for a boy, no mere crush, but true, steady love.”