Grey Gardens is a 1975 documentary about a grandiose mother-daughter duo named Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, or Big Edie, and Edith Bouvier Beale, or Little Edie. The two, an aunt (Big) and cousin (Little) of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former First Lady and style icon to moms across the nation, are reclusive ex-socialites living in relative solitude in a ramshackle husk of a Hamptons manse. They have minimal contact with life outside their secret 28-room clubhouse, which is the kind of statuesque estate that commands its own title (and still another name for the two women to share, as if one joint identifier weren’t a pointed enough metaphor about their bond): Grey Gardens.
Or…the property would have been statuesque, were it not falling apart to a condemnable degree and filled with raccoons, festering cat-food cans, and other stray trash throughout the majority of the years they lived in it. Despite the general sense of upheaval about the place, the Edies’ private dual world is decadently romantic and entirely, specifically their own. I’ve dissolved inside it with glee the 12,395 or so times I’ve rewatched this jawn.
In Grey Gardens, the Edies reverberate with charisma in all they do, even though (and because) they’re only truly known to each other. The documentary is a wild flowerbed of ideal moments like these, which, garlanded together by the fraternal filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (this movie, perfectly, was a family affair through and through) are a cohesive celebration of not-at-all cohesive women:
Grey Gardens was once the very height of chintzy WASP opulence. During the parts of their life that the film tracks, which finds Big an old woman and Little in late middle age, this is… not the case anymore. How they got mired in garbage in the first place: Big Edie, who was an aspiring opera singer in her 20s, married Little E’s father, Phelan Beale, a lawyer working at her father’s firm, in 1917. They lived on Madison Avenue until 1923, when they and their three children decamped to Grey Gardens. Big Edie continued to give singing recitals in their home, which she retained after the couple’s separation in 1923 (Little E was 14). Although Phelan paid her alimony at first, that money eventually dried up, as did her family trust.
Like her mother before her, Little Edie was always a performer. One life prior to where we find her, she was a young debutante in New York City who professionally sang, modeled, and danced from the time she posed for Macy’s at 17 to when she moved back to the Gardens at 35. She did so supposedly to take care of a depressed and lonesome Big E, but she wasn’t doing too hot, either: The year before, she had developed alopecia, a disorder in which one’s hair falls out, and was also very broke. In her 50s, where the film finds her walled off in her mother’s once-august tomb of a home, she and her mother do their best to entertain themselves—and, in the documentary, the Maysles brothers and their cameras:
Little E takes breaks from these impromptu performances to jaw on about her abject “hatred” of her house and her life with her mother, which, however sound, doesn’t belie the intense love between them. The two are STILL amazing as they clash like a pair of their wayward housecats when they feel stifled or disrespected by each other, and that delights me, too. Even their disagreements are striated with light and atmospheric appreciation for Grey Gardens. A sample of some fighting words from Big to Little: “Will you shut up? It’s a goddamn beautiful day! Shut up!”
They’re scrappy like that, much to the dismay of their neighbors. Their aberrant behavior and crumbling home weren’t quite in keeping with the tony surroundings the family of two excommunicated themselves from, which was just fine with them. As far as I can see in the movie, their only allegiances are to each other and their excellent, refuse-rife home, which they fight like cobras to maintain ownership of despite its utter dereliction. Jackie O. would later step in to quite publicly salvage the house, from which over 1,000 bags of trash, and, I don’t have the exact statistic on hand, but I think it’s safe to approximate and say “maaaaad raccoons,” were removed. Edie the second discusses her dealings with her upper-crust relatives thusly:
Yes!!! As you can tell, I cast no aspersions on the Edies. The consummate puzzle of how to be in the world can feel as gnarled-up and labyrinthine as a certain overgrown East Hampton garden—with its own attendant moments of gorgeousness that showily peek at the rest of the world despite the very best of efforts to hide them away. In that way and many others, I felt like I was in on the Edies’ intimate way of relating to each other the first time I watched Grey Gardens at 19. I badly wanted to be a part of their two-woman secret society. I wanted to be a staunch woman, like them—but also, like them, only like myself.
The Edies helped teach me the pleasures of constructing a Grey Gardens–type fortress in my brain. At my best, I channel their intensive, extraordinary love for the world writ large, even when I feel lonesome or “unjustly” detached or removed from it. That first time I met them, I watched in wonderment and recognition as Little Edie hammed it up across my laptop screen. “This is the best costume for the day,” she said, hitting pose after pose and stroking a head wrap, turtleneck, shirt tied over herself as a skirt, and fishnet stockings. I glanced at my brokedown closet, overstuffed, as it was (and is), with casual Party City daywear and realized I commonly explain the setup of my bedroom with the same logic Little Edie does her own organizational stratagem: “Listen, kid! I’m extremely organized. I know exactly where to look for this stuff. I’ve got it under control right here, but I can’t find it. Get it?”
So she’s a little delusional maybe, but also sharp, confident, and wholly her stylish and stylized self. That’s something I aspire to. Little Edie is such a protagonist, both to herself and those watching her, and I don’t care what relation the plot running in her head has to the one an outside might assume about the “two aging women living in squalor,” or whatever weak, dull assignment the Beales’ neighbors might try to affix to them. I like her version of events way better, just as I admire Big Edie’s absent references to how gorgeous she finds their surroundings, as when she looks out at their beachfront and says, “It is a beautiful ocean today, isn’t it? What would you say that is, sort of sapphire? I’ve never seen anything like that ocean!” Except she has. Every single day, for decades on end. What a reconfiguration of the place’s appellant grayness on the part of its two proud residents. However tumbledown on its surface, these two staunch characters found their unified life dazzling, and so too is it to me.