In 1973, Caroline Lee Radziwill, an American socialite and the younger sister of the late First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, hired documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to work on a film about the Bouvier family.
The brothers happily accepted the project, but it all turned upside down when they visited the 28-room mansion Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, New York, where the Bouvier family used to spend their weekends.
The film crew arrived to find a decaying, rambling house, full of cats, opossums, and raccoons, hundreds of empty cans, and a variety of waste.
In the midst of this mess were once glitzy socialites, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale – “Big Edie,” and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale – “Little Edie,” Lee’s and Jackie’s aunt and cousin, respectively.
The mother and daughter had isolated themselves from the rest of the world, never leaving their home over the past 10 years. They had turned the once dream mansion into their own prison where they sang, danced, ate ice cream and recalled the “good old days.”
The Maysles brothers released the documentary Grey Gardens in 1975, and the bizarre story about the socialites who turned into reclusive hoarders became a cult sensation.
However, the Gray Gardens mansion had not always been a hoarder’s nest. During the 1920s it was a fairy-tale property where Big Edie hosted elite gatherings for the socialite ladies from New York, while her father, John Vernou Bouvier III, and her husband, Phelan Beale who bought the house, entertained business clients.
Big Edie was well educated, had a great passion for music and wanted to pursue a career as a singer. However, her father and husband never supported her.
Eventually, the New York high society became fed up of Big Edie’s eccentric behavior and started excluding her from the fancy gatherings.
After 14 years of marriage, Phelan Beale abandoned her for a younger woman.
So, Big Edie took a jam jar to her bed and spent her time mixing cocktails.
She was given the mansion as part of the divorce settlement, but had no income; although she was educated and had an interest in art, all Edie had done before was singing.
In 1942, she attended her son’s wedding dressed up as an opera star. The family found the act so embarrassing that her father cut Edie out of his will.
Her two sons started families and had businesses away from East Hampton while her daughter, Little Edie, had worked at Palm Beach, Florida, and Macy’s in New York, as a clothes model since she was 17. She was also an aspiring actress and, according to her claims, she had gotten offers from MGM and Paramount. 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.
Big Edie became severely depressed and sickly. Her money was draining away; the beautiful gardens fell into disrepair. She was alone in a big house and begged her daughter to return to live with her. In 1952, at the age of 35, Little Edie went back to Grey Gardens and remained there for the next 20 years.
Little Edie claimed that her grandfather left $65,000 in trust for Big Edie but her uncle, Jack Bouvier (Jackie Kennedy’s father), invested the money for his daughters while his sister received only $300 a month. With no income, the two women started selling their Tiffany silver. That kept them going to parties until the 1960s. However, after the death of their caretaker in 1963 and a burglary a few years later, they spent more and more time in their mansion, isolating themselves from the world.
In 1971, their house became a national scandal when the Suffolk County Health Department raided it and discovered that it violated every known building regulation. They were startled to find a five-foot-high pile of empty cans in the dining room and human waste in some of the bedrooms. The officials decided that either the house was to be cleaned or the women evicted from it. Jackie Kennedy Onassis paid $32,000 for a new plumbing system, furnace, and cleaning of the house.
And in 1975, the two ladies relived their fame with the documentary for which they received $5,000 each. Even though the movie was criticized by many people that it broke all boundaries of privacy, most of the audience loved it. It is hard to describe Big Edie and Little Edie according to how they act in the movie, but it is easy to love them.
They are elegant and enjoyable in their boredom and happy in their unhappy and unsatisfied lives. Both are like two little children arguing for their imaginary fame and glory of the past. Big Edie talks about the opera career that she might have had, and Little Edie talks of her desire to live in New York or Paris.
After the death of Big Edie in 1977 and 20 years in isolation, at the age of 60, Little Edie got back into society.
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First, she got out of the house and tried a cabaret career. After two years she managed to sell the house and moved to a small cottage in Southampton. In the following years, she lived in Miami, Montreal, and Oakland before settling in Bal Harbour, Florida. There, Little Edie lived a quiet life writing poetry and socializing through her correspondence with friends and fans. Meanwhile, she frequently visited her relatives in Oakland.
She died in 2002, at the age of 84. She made it quite clear that she didn’t want to be buried with her mother. Instead, she was buried near her younger brother in Glen Cove.