Friday, January 7, 2011

Little Edie and Grey Gardens
For those who don't know, Grey Gardens was a documentary made in 1975 about the eccentric mother and daughter, Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier-Beale. Big Edie was Jacki Kennedy's aunt, and Little Edie was her cousin.
They lived alone together and penniless in their house, Grey Gardens, a 26 room mansion in East Hampton.  This is Little Edie standing outside the decaying house and gardens.

A few years prior to the documentary being made people were shocked to find these two American aristocrats living in filth and povery, and about to be evicted from Grey Gardens, which was deemed unsafe by the local council.
In their hey day, Grey Gardens was the Bouvier-Beale's Hamptons retreat, but when Big Edie's husband left her, she was virtually penniless. She got by by selling off her jewellery. Following so far?
In 1952 Little Edie, who was trying to establish a career as a beautiful young actress in New York was called back to East Hampton to care for her mother, since the staff were all long gone.
By the time the documentary was made, Little Edie had been caring for her mother for 23 years, having sacrificed any chance she may have had of becoming an actress.
The pair had been living for a long time with no money. Having come from serious old money, the two of them were incapable of fending for themselves.
Little Edie's talent lay in her dress sense and style. Her style was innate, and her dress sense was born out of necessity. She would wear her skirts upside down, and always her trademark head skarf. She layered clothes (way ahead of her time) and wore black stockings with white shoes - a strong look, but she pulled it off.

This is the famous scene from Grey Gardens below, where Little Edie, the quintessential eccentric, does a dance for the camera with the American flag. We could all learn something from Little Edie's confidence, look at her whooping it up in these brown bummies.

Grey Gardens interests me so much because I love Little Edie, and I love her style. She was a total original.
I know a little lady who, like Little Edie, wears blankets as skirts and uses brooches and knots to change the look of a dress.
Little Edie died at 84 in 2002. I hope she had some idea of the style icon she had become. So many designers have used her as their inspiration.

Her physical appearance and her circumstances also remind me a bit of Gwennie. Gwennie was never married either, and instead stayed at home to care for her father after her mother died.
Big Edie died in 1977 and the house was put on the market. Little Edie would only sell it to someone who wouldn't knock it down.
In 1979, along came Ben Bradlee, former Editor of the Washington Post, and his wife journalist Sally Quinn, who bought Grey Gardens for $220,000.
Little Edie left Grey Gardens with only a few possessions. Nearly everything remained when the new owners took possession.
This is what they started with, below. There were 52 cat skeletons in the house. When Sally Quinn touched a key on the piano below, the whole thing fell to the ground.

Sally Quinn had almost all the furniture left in the house restored and it's still in use.

Sally Quinn also had this cabinet below restored along with all the figurines in it.

The kitchen, below.

They also restored the gardens. This is what it looks like today, and how it would have looked when Big Edie was throwing her lavish parties in the 1930s. Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn still own Grey Gardens. Their guests have described it as 'magical.'

Grey Gardens the documentary is at our video store, but I'm not sure how widely available it is. It has also been made into a movie starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. It's available in the New Release section, but again, it may not be a very wide release.
It's a very original story. Ideally, you'd watch the documentary first, then the movie.
Hope you can find it. Or just google Little Edie or Grey Gardens for a fascinating read.


  1. Sounds fabulous, I hope they stock both the doco and video in Cairns! thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Fascinating stuff! I've read about the Vanderbilts & their eccentric ways. I'll now have to read about Big & Little Edie.

  3. I'm really looking forward to seeing the doco and the movie now, I find all this stuff so fascinating. How wonderful that Sally Quinn restored and preserved so much, no wonder the home has a magical feel to it. I wonder did Jackie Kennedy ever offer assistance to Big and Little Edie in some way or perhaps they were happy to live life the way they were? Cheers Robyn

  4. I never knew this story. How intriguing and so well-recounted by you.

    Thank you ... I whole-heartedly admire women (especially) who, through necessity or otherwise, flout the system and do their own thing.

    It is inspiring, and ashamedly, shows the rest of us what lemmings we are.

  5. Robyn, Jackie Kennedy financed a big clean up of Grey Gardens when the story about their living conditions first appeared in the papers. I think the doco was shot after the clean up? I've read they took away 1000 trucks of rubbish, but surely this can't be right?

  6. I have the dvd of the doco which I ordered through Sanity. I had read a few articles on the Edies' and was fascinated. Such wasted lives really that by the end of the film I felt like screaming.
    Nice to see you back Madam

  7. Oh this is facsinating...will be off to the DVD store to look for a copy...thanks for sharing..

  8. Glad you are back! I saw the Mayles doco and have the dvd. I love little Edie's breathy Jackie Kennedy voice but all those empty cat food tins and the racoons living in the walls made me want to be sick. Poor Edie. All that beauty and promise...Jackie didn't want to help with the clean up- Onassis shamed her into it. Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn fascinate me too. They really fixed that old dump up xxx

  9. This story is fascinating to me. The ABC Bookshop sells a 2 box set of the documentary (1970s)and also sells the film version (2009)with Drew Barrymore.
    Many thanks for sharing it with us.

  10. What happened to Little Edie after she left Grey Gardens?

  11. According to wikipedia, she sold the house and moved to FL where she died in 2002.