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The Secret of Grey Gardens

“…It was not clear after the mess hit the papers who put whom up to what. But three forces conspired against the ladies of Grey Gardens: Village Fathers, a few neighbors, and closest kin…”

From the January 10, 1972 issue of New York Magazine.

This is a tale of wealth and rebellion in one American Gothic family. It begins and ends at the juncture of Lily Pond Lane—the new Gold Coast—and West End Road, which is a dead end. There, in total seclusion, live two women, twelve cats, and occasional raccoons who drop through the roof of a house like no other in East Hampton. Ropes of bittersweet hang from its frail shoulders. A pair of twisted catalpa trees guard its occupants, but nothing is safe for long from invasion by the bureaucrats and Babbitts. Least of all a mother and daughter of unconventional tastes who long ago turned their backs on public opinion.

The seeds of their tale go back to 1915 when the family first discovered, beyond “dressy” Southampton, a “simple” summer resort composed of saltbox houses and village greens. The sea was still tucked then behind great cushions of sand dunes. Behind them potato fields stretched in white-tufted rows clear to the horizon like a natural Nettle Creek bedspread. Right from the start, East Hampton provided a refuge for the family’s scandals and divorces and all manner of idiosyncrasies common to those of high breeding.

The family brought the wealth of Wall Street to this simple resort. It casually purchased a cabana at the Maid-stone Club for $8,000 in 1926. The men set down roots in four houses and sired beautiful women. In due time the little girls’ names entered the Social Register. Later they would appear in the creamy pages of The So-cial Spectator... “Seen at the recent East Hampton Village Fair, ‘Little Edie’ Beale,” under the picture of a full-lipped blonde shamelessly vamping through the brim of her beach hat, or, “Picking up another blue rib-bon at the East Hampton horse show, Miss Jacqueline Bouvier with her father, John Vernou Bouvier III cap-tions which reflected the infinite self-confidence of the indomitably rich.

The Social Spectator described an era which will never be again. The family’s homes are gone now, all but one. And the family itself, after 300 years, has slipped back into the abominable middle class. All except a few. One became the most celebrated woman in the world, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Two others never gave a damn about all that. They rebelled against the Maidstone, shunned garden parties to pursue the artistic life. Now, passed over by history, they are left to the wreck of their house.

Contemporary East Hampton is caught up in a war of land values. It is no longer a refuge for artists and eccen-trics. The dropouts at the foot of the lane do not conform to the new values exhibited by “beach houses” with elevators. Their lives are remote from the Friday afternoon helicopters which ferry high-powered businessmen out from the city and drop them into pastel sports cars on D. Blinken’s lawn. Around the corner from them, on West End, a parade of tycoons’ castles, one owned by Revlon’s Charles Revson (who copied the house next door), ends in a nest of five mansionettes owned by Pan Am’s Juan Trippe and family. But the grounds belong-ing to the dropouts bear no resemblance to putting-green lawns, nor to the wedding-cake trees created by topiary gardening on estates which retreat from them behind trimmed privet hedges. These two have lived beyond their time at the juncture of Lily Pond Lane and West End, where the privet runs wild over a house called Grey Gardens.

Last summer our lives crossed by chance. My daughter and I often walked past Grey Gardens on the way back from Georgica Beach. We could see little of the house because on that side it was obscured by a tall hedge with an overpowering fragrance of honeysuckle. But my daughter had seen fat cats in the high grass. She also reported a light in the second-floor window at night. On this scanty evidence she had dubbed it the Witch House.

One Sunday morning’s discovery changed all that. My daughter came running, tearful, holding three baby rab-bits in a Tide box. She had found them motherless by the side of the road. “Can’t we take them home?” she asked. I explained they would never survive the train ride. She had another idea: if the Witch House had all those cats, whoever lived there must like animals. Before I could protest, we had ducked under the hedge, skittered past a 1937 Cadillac brooding in the tangled grasses, and we were deep into the preserve of twelve devil-eyed cats. There was no turning back.


We whirled at the sound of an alien voice. She was coming through the catalpa trees as a taxi pulled away, and she was covered everywhere except for her face, which was beautiful. “Are you looking for Mother, too?” she asked, more unnerved than we.


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