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The Secret of Grey Gardens

October begins the bad months. When summer finishes with East Hampton and black ice begins to form, the stupid puddle ducks freeze in the Village pond and the caretakers stay drunk, and besides family fights and in-breeding there is very little to do. The Village Fathers had cut out their work in advance. The new Village building inspector, A. Victor Amann, had sent a letter to the Beales back last February, demanding the overgrowth be cut back: the Village would do it for $5,000. He sent a copy to the trust fund, which replied there was no money left. Another letter from P. C. Schenck’s fuel company of East Hampton warned the Beales their furnace was unsafe. A copy of that was mailed to Bouvier Beale, along with his mother’s unpaid bill of $800.

Ignored, the Village Fathers moved in on October 20. Little Edie was on the porch of Grey Gardens when five people materialized. She thought they were wearing costumes, she told me. One said: “You have no heat.” Another said: “You have no food.” A public nurse said: “You’re sick.”

Mother, did you hear that? This horrible public health nurse says we’re sick!” Little Edie stamped her feet furiously, informing her invaders: “We’re Christian Scientists. The only medicine is work.” Mother’s voice boomed from the window: SEND that nurse AWAY—SHE’S been in contact with ALL the GERMS of SUFFOLK COUNTY!

The invaders retreated, but only to assemble a proper posse (which took all of two days). East Hampton’s Mayor Rioux was away on vacation and his deputy, Dr. William Abel, was determined to have done with the misfits.

“People are basically no damned good,” the Acting Mayor later expressed himself to me. I thought this odd coming from a chief surgeon at Southhampton Hospital, but Dr. Abel added, “I prefer animals.” The very mention of the Beale house caused him to grip his knees and go white: “The house is unfit for human habitation—animals don’t live like this. The two sweet old things won’t move unless they are forcibly moved because, un-fortunately, they’re not mentally competent.” He declined to go into the reasons for his diagnosis because “I get so wrapped up in it.” But as a public official he felt it his duty to leave me with a warning. “Are you aware that many of the most horrible murders in our country are committed by schizophrenics who appeared perfectly stable, maybe even saner than I?”

In an unusual move, the Village sought help from the County. On the 22nd of October a raiding party of twelve made its move. County sanitarians, detectives, and ASPCA representatives from New York forced their way past the ladies of Grey Gardens armed with a search warrant issued by a Town Justice on the ground that the Beales were harboring diseased cats. Cameras recorded the sorry scene: cat manure covering the floors; a five-foot-high mound of empty cans in the dining room; the Sterno stove on Mother’s bed; cobwebs, cats and all sorts of juicy building-code violations. Mother thought it was a stickup. The sanitarians had the dry heaves. It remained for the ASPCA man, alone, to report he’d seen human fecal matter in the upstairs bedroom.

“They never said why it was they’d come,” Little Edie told The East Hampton Star.

Sidney Beckwith, of the County Health Department, got on the phone with Bouvier Beale and quoted the hot report of his inspection.

“Mr. Beckwith, you’ve described it very well, but it’s nothing new—Mother is the original hippie,” said Bouvier Beale. Astonished that such a prominent family would sit back and let their relations be condemned, Mr. Beckwith warned that the next inspection would create a national scandal.

“If that’s what it takes to get Mother out of the house, sobeit,” said Beale.

It was never clear after the whole mess hit the newspapers, a month later, who had put whom up to what. But three forces conspired to finish off the ladies of Grey Gardens: Village Fathers, a few nameless neighbors, and their closest kin. My first clue to their plight was a New York Post headline of November 20:

JACKIE’S AUNT TOLD: CLEAN UP MANSION

I called immediately but the Beales’ phone was “out of order.” There was nothing to do but drive out to Grey Gardens. Stripped of summer foliage, it stood naked to prying eyes.

Shades of Chappaquiddick. Five girls from Huntington sat in a car across the street, trading binoculars: “We’ve been here all day.” An old local jumped out of his station wagon, armed with an Instamatic, and posed his niece before the pariahs’ house. “Sure, I knew old Black Jack Bouvier, used to caddy for him up the Maidstone,” the old man said. “Knew the Beales too, delivered a lot of packages up here.”


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