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A Return to Grey Gardens


Her first chance to separate from her mother came in 1934, when she entered Miss Porter’s, the famous finishing school in Farmington, Connecticut. At 17, she modeled for Macy’s. But her father, Phelan Beale, was violently opposed to his daughter’s being on public display in any way. Phelan worked for his father-in-law, the imperious Major Bouvier, in his Wall Street law firm Bouvier, Caffey and Beale, and he was desperate to preserve their status in the Park Avenue Social Register, which wasn’t easy, given Big Edie’s behavior. She had always shocked the stiffs at the Maidstone Club by singing operettas and spouting Christian Science and shunning garden parties in favor of what she called "the artistic life."

Although Edie’s father congratulated himself for not going under in 1929, he did gradually run out of money. In a sober letter written in 1934, shortly before he divorced her, Phelan directed Big Edie to hide the truth from their daughter. "She will think we’re at the poorhouse," he wrote, sounding suicidally depressed. "It will rob all her joy."

In the early seventies, Edie Beale would invite me to meet her at the beach (away from Mother) to hear about her many aborted attempts to escape. I ran away from home three times. First to Palm Beach; everyone thought I’d eloped with Bruce Cabot, the movie actor—I didn’t even know him! I never did anything but flirt—you know, the southern belle. My father brought me back. He’d always thought my mother was crazy because she was an artist. Then I went into interpretive dancing and ran away to New York."

She moved into the Barbizon Hotel for proper ladies on the East Side. "On the sly, a friend sent me to Max Gordon [the famous Broadway producer]," she told me. "The minute he saw me, he said, ‘You’re a musical comedienne.’ I said, ‘That’s funny, I did Shakespearean tragedy at Spence.’ Max Gordon said the two were very close. I was all set to audition for the Theatre Guild that summer. I modeled for Bach¬rach while I was waiting for the summer to audition. Someone squealed to my father. Do you know, he marched up Madison Avenue and saw my picture and put his fist right through Mr. Bachrach’s window!"

"I have two great loves in my life. First, I love my mother. Second, my buzzing love for a boy.”

She continued to dream of becoming famous for something other than being Jackie’s cousin. But the Gordian knot that had always tied her to her mother appears to have locked for good in Little Edie’s mid-thirties.

Scandalized by Big Edie’s theatrics and running out of money, Phelan had divorced her by telegram, from Mexico, ran off with a young thing, and left his ex-wife in the 28-room house a block from the sea. Major Bouvier constantly wrote to his daughter telling her to quit going to the club and to sell Grey Gardens. Mother refused. When she showed up at her son’s wedding dressed like an opera star, Major Bouvier cut her out of his will. Big Edie slumped into depression and blew up with weight. Later, she could no longer afford to send her daughter grocery money in New York, and Little Edie lacked any capacity to support herself.

"Did you ever go for the audition?" I asked, desperate for the end of the story.

"Oh, no. Mother got the cats. That’s when she brought me down from New York to take care of them."

There may have been a final fit of rebellion shortly after Little Edie moved back to Grey Gardens, as later described to me by John Davis. Little Edie’s hair had begun to fall out in her twenties; the family now ascribes it to a stress-borne illness; hence the constant head-coverings. But cousin John told me about a summer afternoon when he watched Little Edie climb a catalpa tree outside Grey Gardens. She took out a lighter. He begged her not to do it.

She set her hair ablaze. And in that act of self-immolation, she sealed her fate as a prisoner of the love of her mother.

The resolution of the two discards was to become defiant iconoclasts. If they couldn’t have a public audience, they would live out the musical in their heads and use each other as their audience. Little Edie amused herself by writing poetry, drawing genius" dress designs, creating scrapbooks, and occasionally sneaking off to a party where she would dance by herself, flying her scarves, like an Isadora Duncan possessed. "They were very brave," says Eva Beale. "They sold off their Tiffany pieces item by item."

Passed over by history, the ladies of Grey Gardens were left to the wreck of their lives until, sweet revenge! In the sixties, they were suddenly being indulged by a nervous White House. Secret Service cars were posted outside. As Davis recalls in his book, the Kennedy inauguration gave Little Edie a chance for her own theatrics. She reminded Joe Kennedy Sr. that she was once almost engaged to his firstborn son. And if Joe’s plane hadn’t gone down while he was bombing Nazis, "she probably would have married him, and he would have become President instead of Jack and she would have become First Lady instead of Jackie!"

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