Once a dream mansion, the 28-room Grey Gardens house turned into a prison where the occupants were Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and her daughter, imprisoned by themselves. The bizarre story became a cult sensation when the documentary Grey Gardens was released in 1975 about the two socialites who turned into reclusive hoarders. It depicts the lives of the mother, Big Edie, and the daughter, Little Edie, in their mansion among raccoons, opossums, cats, hundreds of cans, and a variety of waste.
Back in the 1920s, the fairy-tale property was a place where the elite would pass their weekends, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Caroline Lee Radziwill stayed during their childhood, and where rich people like John Vernou Bouvier III and Phelan Beale plotted some serious business.
When Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, aka Big Edie, was abandoned by her husband for another woman after 14 years of marriage, she took a jam jar to her bed and mixed cocktails. Although she was educated and had interest in arts, all Edie had done before was singing. She had a mansion but no income. In 1942, her father, John Vernou Bouvier, Jr., cut her out of his will after Edie showed up dressed up as an opera star to her son’s wedding.
Both of her sons started families and had businesses away from the mansion where Big Edie lived alone. As for her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale became a model when she was only 17. Little Edie was a clothes model at Palm Beach, Florida, and Macy’s in New York. She was also an aspiring actress and claimed that she had gotten offers from Paramount and MGM. She was also allegedly engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr. and she received a marriage proposal from J. Paul Getty. However, those were only her claims.
In the meantime, Big Edie suffered from depression, she was alone and sickly, the money she had was draining away, and the gardens which were among the most beautiful on the East Coast fell into disrepair. She begged her daughter to return to the estate. In 1952, at the age of 35, Little Edie went back home to live with her mother. They had no income, so they both started selling their Tiffany silver. Big Edie’s father left her $65,000 in trust, but according to Little Edie, her uncle (and father of Jackie Kennedy), Jack Bouvier, invested the money for his daughters while his sister received only $300 a month.
Until the 1960s, the two women were still socially active, but after the death of their caretaker in 1963 and a burglary five years later while they were at a party, they remained in isolation, locked in their mansion. The house became a national scandal in 1971 when it was raided by the Suffolk County Health Department whose workers discovered that it violated every known building regulation. They found a five-foot peak of empty cans in the dining room, while in some of the bedrooms, human waste. The officials said that either the house was to be cleaned or the women evicted from it. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis paid $32,000 for the house to be cleaned, and new plumbing system and furnace installed.
The unique lives of Little Edie and Big Edie were depicted in the documentary Grey Gardens by the brothers Albert and David Maysles. They received $5,000 each and loved the movie. It is hard to describe both women according to how they act in the movie. The most objective term would be unique, the most tender would be beautiful. There were many people who criticized the movie as it broke all boundaries of privacy, but most people loved it.
What is even stranger, after more than 20 years in isolation, Little Edie had no problems getting back into society at the age of 60. Her mother died in 1977, and Little Edie not only got out of the house, but she also tried to start a cabaret career. In 1979, she finally sold the house and moved to a small cottage in Southampton. In the following years, she tried living in Miami, Montreal, and Oakland, until finally settling in Bal Harbour, Florida. There she lived quiet and isolated once more, writing poetry and corresponding with friends and fans, and temporarily visiting her relatives in Oakland.
Little Edie died in 2002, at the age of 84. According to her wishes, she was buried near her younger brother in Glen Cove instead of with her mother.