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The Secret of Grey Gardens

My little girl held out the Tide box to show her the trembling bunnies.

“Did you think we care for animals here?” The woman smiled and bent down close to the face of the child, who silently considered her. This was not at all a proper witch. She looked sweet sixteen going on 30-odd and had carefully applied lipstick, eyeliner and powder to her faintly freckled face. The child nodded solemnly: “This is an animal house.”

“You see! Children sense it.” The woman clapped her hands in delight. “The old people don’t like us. They think I’m crazy. The Bouviers don’t like me at all, Mother says. But the children understand.”

My little girl said it must be fun to live in a house where you never have to clean up.

“Oh, Mother thinks it’s artistic this way, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Don’t you love the overgrown Louisiana Bayou look?”

My daughter nodded vigorously. At this point the woman looked shyly up to include me in the conversation. “Where do you come from?”

“Across the way.”

“My goodness, it’s about time we got together! How many years have you been here?” She rushed on before I could answer, as though reviving a numb habit of social conversation and desperate not to lose the knack. “You phone me. Beale. That’s the name, Edith Beale.”

As she swept past us in a long trench coat and sandals, her head wrapped in a silk scarf knotted at the back of the neck, I could have sworn she was—who? I’d seen her picture hundreds of times.

Edie Beale, safe on her porch, pointed out the formally lettered sign she had made for the front door: Do Not Trespass, Police on the Place.

“Are there really?” my daughter breathed.

“Not really, but Mother is frightened of anyone who comes by.” She then described a neighbor who tries to club the cats to death at night, and the boys from across the street whose surfer friends try to break in. I suggested the boys might just be prankish.

“Oh no, they’re dangerous. I can tell what’s inside a person right away. Mother and I can see behind the masks; we’re artists, it’s the artist’s eye. I wish I didn’t have it. Jackie has it too. She’s a fine artist.”

“Jackie?”

“I’m Jacqueline Bouvier’s first cousin. Mother is her aunt. Did you know that?”

“No, we didn’t.”

“Oh yes, we’re all descended from fourteenth-century French kings. Now a relative has written a book saying it’s all a lie, that we don’t really have royal blood. He’s a professor, John H. Davis, and he’s break-ing with history. Everyone is. That’s how I know the millennium is coming. The Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family. Not a bad book really.”

(Subsequently, I read the Davis book and was struck by the parallel courses of their two lives—Little Edie, better known as Body Beautiful Beale, but so breakable; her young cousin Jackie, whose heart developed a steel safety catch—until an accident of fate drove one to the top and condemned the other to obscurity. It came out in the inauguration scene:

“The Reception for Members of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s Families” was the first Kennedy party held in the White House. Peter Lawford and Ted Kennedy showed up. Little Edie Beale approached J. P. Kennedy, who was looking his usual unassuming self, and reminded him jokingly that she had once almost been engaged to his first-born son, Joe, Jr. And if he had lived, she probably would have married him and he would have be-come President instead of Jack and she would have become First Lady instead of Jackie! J. P. Kennedy smiled and took another drink.)

“I’ve just come from church, which put the millennium in my mind,” the lady of Grey Gardens was saying. The woman before me, a version of Jackie coming from church on a Greek island, was Little Edie in the summer of her 54th year!

“You…resemble your cousin,” I faltered.

“Mmmm, Jackie had a very hard time. Did you like the Kennedys?” She didn’t skip a beat. “They brought such art to the country! Besides the clothes and makeup, politics is the most exciting thing about America. Didn’t you think the Kennedys would be around forever—at least three terms?” Her eyes danced.

My daughter wanted to know if she knew President Kennedy well.

“Jack never liked society girls, he only dated showgirls,” she began, synchronizing only with her memories. “I tried to show him I’d broken with society, I was a dancer. But Jack never gave me a tumble. Then I met Joe Jr. at a Princeton dance, and oh my!” She swooned. “Joe was the most wonderful person in the world. There will never be another man like him.”


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