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A Return to Grey Gardens

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Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie), David and Albert Maysles, and Edie Beale (Little Edie) during the filming of Grey Gardens; the author's New York Magazine cover story, January 10, 1972.  

After her death in 2002, Little Edie left a diary, letters, poetry, and stunning photographs, which were recently shared with me by Eva Beale, the wife of Little Edie’s nephew, Bouvier Beale Jr., the executor of her estate. Eva Beale is at work on a coffee-table book about the family story that will include much of this material.

The first act of Doug Wright’s musical casts Little Edie as the dreamy "It" girl of East Hampton in 1941, preparing for her fictional engagement party to Joe Kennedy Jr. It’s a re-creation of Grey Gardens in all its glory, with Mother singing racist show tunes and the butler twirling a silver tray while a knobby-kneed Jackie is entertained by her reactionary grandfather, Major Bouvier. The second act leaps over 30 years to find two dotty divas locked in a devouring bond amid the decay of their estate. What had broken Little Edie’s dream? How did she lose all her hair? How did she wind up such a captive of her mother?

Little Edie’s papers fill in the blanks between the two acts; they are their own drama of maternal psychological seduction. The diary, written in 1928–29, when Little Edie was a preadolescent, is the family Rosetta stone. It is meant for an audience, as if preserving her story for future publication when she became famous.

The seeds of this tortured tale go back to the Jazz Age, when the Bouvier clan first discovered, beyond "dressy" Southampton, the "simple" summer resort of East Hampton. Major Bouvier, Big Edie’s father, used his first wife’s fortune to buy Lasata, the family estate by the sea where his progeny could jump their horses over topiary hedges. Little Edie, born in 1917 and the eldest of ten grandchildren, was the family beauty, "surpassing even the dark charm of Jacqueline," according to their cousin John H. Davis, a professor who wrote a book about the Bouviers.

One of three siblings, Little Edie was her mother’s crown jewel. Dressed in velvet coats and lace-trimmed socks, she was attached to Mother’s hand at all times, accompanying her to ladies’ luncheons in East Hampton and on the East Side. And the attachment became even more intense when Mother took her out of Spence. The official reason was some vague respiratory illness, to which Edie refers in her diary only perfunctorily: "I’m so mad, I’m missing the fair" or "Oh, I’m sick again, I have to have a chest X-ray."

Mother kept the child out of school for two years—Little Edie’s 11th and 12th years—and brought her daughter to the theater or movies almost every day. A frustrated singer herself, Mother ensured the girl would be as starstruck as she was. And despite the excuse that Little Edie was "too weak" to return to school, she was perfectly well enough to go on a shopping trip to Paris.

"I can’t really tell you if I am pretty or what kind of girl I am but … I have long hair, blonde, getting darker, deep blue eyes, a pug nose and a rather decided mouth," Little Edie wrote. "I am by no means fat, but I have a good body and big feet." One line offers a poignant window into the determination behind her blithe spirit. "I only mark the hours that shine."

Mother wanted her to be an authoress, she records. Her earliest dream was to become an actress—"but how?" Eva Beale, who is at pains to emphasize what a loving family it was in the early days, says, "I think it was a safe haven for her always to be with her mother. They had such a wonderful bond that nobody could break through."

Including all of her boyfriends. In a revealing entry, she is racked with guilt for feeling love for a boy: "There are lots of 11-year-old children who think they know the meaning of love, when they honestly haven’t any idea," she writes. "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 a true, steady love."

She signs off by swearing her love for Mother will supersede all others. Her letters to Mother always end "With ladles and ladles of kisses, loves & hugs—your ever precious, ever loving and ever darling and kissable Edes."

Little Edie dated Howard Hughes and likely had proposals from Joe Kennedy Jr. and J. Paul Getty, says Eva Beale, but always she sent her suitors away. In a final act of negation, she tore out the faces of her boyfriends from the photographs she saved, so only her image remained, solitary and sad.


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