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The Secret of Grey Gardens

The sea comes into its wild season with September riptides. Gathering far out, it hurls its weight against the land, smearing the beach with tidal pools, while opposing waves tear at virgin sand and drag it back. Most people in East End stay away from the beach then.

Who was that lone figure in black?

Both Sundays after Labor Day she ran off the dunes like an escapee and plunged into the surf. Alarmed at first, I watched her draw the water hungrily around her. But she was a strong swimmer, a child-woman of such unspent exuberance. Her body was still beautiful, I thought, as Edith Beale came up the beach in a black net bathing suit.

“I haven’t seen you in so long!” she called. “Mother never allows me to show myself on the beach after summer, but this fall I had to come out.”

I said she still looked like a model.

“Shall I tell you what I’ve done for twenty years? Fed cats. Mother wouldn’t let me go around with American men, they were too rich and fast. She was afraid I’d get married. Nothing has happened in twenty years, so I haven’t changed in any way.”

She remembered every detail from our last encounter. How was my trip to Russia? she asked. How are dancers treated there?

“The simple life is not understood in America,” she broke in with a deep whisper. “They’re all so rich and spoiled. I would have loved this life, except—I never got to say goodbye to any of my friends.” She blushed to the edges of her flowered cap, admitting she had always preferred older men. “They’re all dead now and I’m alone….”

We walked toward the sea, which seemed to revive her spirits. “So I had to make friends with the younger generation,” the voice lilting now, “the boys who come by and like the overgrown look. We sketch together.” She turned quickly and scanned the beach. “Maybe they thought I was getting too friendly with the young boys.”

They?

Her eyes focused on a dark blur, maybe a mile away. She recounted a strange phone call from one of her brother’s sons last February: You’re in the soup, he kept saying, the County’s going to take your house. “I’m psychic and I feel it coming.”

That was her brother coming now, in the jeep down the beach; she grew stiff and asked me to stay and meet him. I wondered which brother it would be, having read of the contrast between them. While Little Edie confounded her Bouvier relatives by imitating her mother’s rebellion against bourgeois conformity, her younger brother, Bouvier Beale, was following in the footsteps of his lawyer father and grandfather. He married a society girl and established his own law firm in New York—Walker, Beale, Wainwright and Wolf. Today he lives in Glen Cove, belongs to Piping Rock, as did his grandfather, and only last summer built his own summer home in Bridgehampton. The other brother, Phelan Jr., escaped to Oklahoma and never came back.

But why hadn’t they come to the rescue of their 76-year-old recluse mother and pathetic sister buried alive in Grey Gardens? Edith Beale must have read my thoughts.

“Now my brothers, they’re great successes. But the way they’ve been acting has put Mother more on my neck than ever. They refuse to give one penny to the house. The trust from my grandfather is about gone. Mother suffered reverses in the stock market last year, so my brothers sold her blue chip stock.”

I asked a sensitive question about her present financial situation.

“Oh we’re not destitute, Mother has collateral. It’s been my life’s work to protect her collections, we don’t trust anybody.” The rest was hurriedly whispered: “My brother, Bouvier Beale, has been after Mother for a year now to sign over power of attorney. I think he wants to take over the house and put poor Mother into an institution. He treats her just as her father did, you know, because she’s an artist. It all goes back to Mother deciding she wanted to sing…she was so advanced. Grandfather threatened to disown her but she made plenty of appearances in clubs around New York. She is still totally modern and correct in everything, with one exception. My career.”

But how could Mother deny her the very freedom of expression for which she had defied an entire family? I pressed.

“Two women can’t live together for twenty years without some jealousy,” Little Edie Beale said reluctantly. “Not that my voice is better than Mother’s, but she can’t dance.”

The jeep was upon us. Its driver, a stiffly formal man, was introduced as Bouvier Beale. Seemingly embarrassed, he walked off with his sister for a private conference. As I climbed the dunes, their bodies were turning rigid in dispute, necks stiff. A shout came back in a man’s voice: “You must go to a room in the Village!”

Little Edie broke away and ran for the sea.


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