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The Secret of Grey Gardens

“But you were a ballerina?” My daughter wanted to stick to the facts.

“What, sweetheart?” Edie Beale was off in her private world again; this brought her back. “Oh yes, I started in ballet. 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. Mother caught me moving out of the Barbizon, she thought it was the correct spot. But I moved into New York’s oldest theatrical hotel. On the sly a friend sent me to Max Gordon. 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. Shaking with fear, you can imagine with my father still alive—he’d left Mother for the very same thing! I modeled for Bachrach 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?”

At that, Little Edie threw back her head and giggled so contagiously we caught it ourselves. “But”—we were gasping for the end of the story—“did you ever go for the audition?”

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

It was a stunning non sequitur, but the empty finality of her voice made the meaning clear. We had come to the dead end of a human life.

Cats crouched all around in the grass, rattling in their throats, mean and stricken.

“Are they wild?” I asked.

She called for Tedsy Kennedy, a Persian. “Mother bred them all. We’ve had 300 cats altogether. Now we have twelve, but they’re not wild. They’re fur people.” Tedsy Kennedy leaped out of her arms. She tried for Hipperino, Little Jimmy, Zeppo, Champion—“He’s a mother’s boy”—and finally she succeeded in scooping up Bigelow. “It’s true about old maids, they don’t need men if they have cats.” She put her lips to the ear of the fur person named Bigelow: “We’re going away together, all right, Bigs? Just you and me?”

Bigs writhed out of the embrace too, giving her nothing but a blood bubble on one finger.

Then an operatic voice sang its lament through the upstairs window.

EeeDIE? I’m about to die.

“Oh dear, Mother’s furious because she’s not getting attention. I’ll be right up, Mother.

“The bunnies.” My daughter offered the Tide box.

“They are sweet, but you see, Mother runs everything around here. I work for her and she might throw me out….” Little Edie accepted the bunnies anyway. She walked us up to the catalpa trees. Suddenly she gasped, shrank back:

“Oh dear, it’s fall.”

We followed her eyes to the ground where a dead mouse lay in our path. “That’s the sign of an early fall. There’s evil ahead,” she said.

It was not an early fall. But Edith Beale was right about evil in the wings. Late August Saturdays still found the new rich along the Gold Coast entertaining the “fun people” in lime pants from Southampton. At high noon they sat beside gelid pools exercising little but their mouths; talking business, nibbling quiche, complaining about neighbors who drive down the land values.

These are the city people who send out their architects to order the shoulders of the sea broken, crushed, swept back into the potato fields. On the leveled stage they set down their implausible houses and bathwater pools. New dune grass eventually appears in patches, row on row, like hair transplants. But dunes never grow back. The new people use the sea only as a backdrop (“You don’t swim in it, do you?”), insulting it, hating it really. The wind wrecks their hairdos. Sand nicks their glass window walls. They use the sand only as a mine field to hide the wires leading to their Baroque burglar alarm systems.

So long as real-estate moguls and barons of Wall Street and their shrill, competitive wives keep coming out from the city to erect display cases on the dunes, the Village Fathers will appease them. The new people create jobs and pay obscene beachfront taxes. Nothing is likely to be said aloud about what they violate of East Hampton. But when a few of them complain about those two living in an “eyesore” near their precious land values, the Village Fathers can be very quickly turned into a posse. Even as Labor Day approached, such a posse was being assembled against the Beales.


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