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The Secret of Grey Gardens

But wasn’t he horrified at this invasion of their privacy? “We swim in different schools. I don’t have much in common with the Beales,” he said. “I’m a local working person.”

At dawn the following day I reached young Edie Beale by phone. She was terrified, but adamant: “Mother would never be put out of this house. She’s going to roof it, plaster it, paint it, and sell it. We’re artists against the bureaucrats. Mother’s French operetta. I dance, I write poetry, I sketch. But that doesn’t mean we’re crazy or taking heroin or anything! Please—” her voice pleaded for all she was worth—“please tell them what we are.”

In the early twenties “Big Edie”—sister of Black Jack Bouvier (Jackie’s father), wife of lawyer Phelan Beale, and mother of Little Edie—became the first lady of Grey Gardens. It was a proper 28-room mansion when they bought it. The box hedges surrounding it were trimmed. But even then a mantle of ivy draped its gables and the lush walled-in garden to one side suited Big Edie’s unconventional personality.

By 1925 her husband was prospering. Her children, Little Edie, Phelan Jr. and Bouvier, were small. But Edie had a retinue of servants that freed her to cultivate interests and opinions which the Bouviers considered downright subversive. She played the grand piano in her living room by the hour and sang, in her rich mezzo so-prano, “Indian Love Call” and “Begin the Beguine” to a husband who was generally upstairs hollering for his tuxedo to be pressed. He’d go off to stuffy cocktail parties and Maidstone dances which bored her to tears. Since she was likely to wear a sweater over her evening gown and discuss Christian Science, the family became less and less insistent that Big Edie come along.

Big Edie’s two brothers were then in fierce competition to become rich men. Before they reached 35, Black Jack Bouvier had reaped a fortune of $750,000 on Wall Street, while Bud Bouvier made his money in the Texas oil fields Jack was always one up on his brother, which drove Bud to destroy his marriage and caused the first Bouvier divorce in 100 years. In 1929, the same year that the beautiful Jacqueline was born to Black Jack, his brother drank himself to death.

Material success had become the real Bouvier god, as it was for so many others of that wildly prosperous era. Only Big Edie, among the Bouviers, dropped away from bourgeois conventions. Her brother’s demise foreshadowed the family’s deterioration. Within two weeks of Bud’s death, and with the entire clan at the peak of its fortunes, the stock market crashed.

Black Friday found the old family broker, M. C. Bouvier, at his office at 20 Broad, congratulating himself on his cash reserves and the quality of his bonds.

Black Jack was much less serene. He was forced to ask for help from his father-in-law. James T. Lee agreed on the condition Black Jack curb his flamboyant lifestyle—Jackie’s father was fatally susceptible to beautiful women and big money, which he spent faster than he earned. It was a great humiliation to move his wife and Jacqueline to a rent-free apartment, provided by his father-in-law, at 740 Park Avenue. By 1935 his net worth had plummeted to $106,444.

The family’s lot began to improve only when M. C. Bouvier died in 1935, leaving his brokerage firm to Black Jack, and his fortune to Major Bouvier, who became the family patriarch. But as for Big Edie, her husband had left her in Grey Gardens and disappeared into the Northwest woods, where he built his own hunting lodge, Grey Goose Gun Club. He sent only child support. Big Edie became dependent on her father, Major Bouvier, for a subsistence of $3,500 a year, and began to withdraw into seclusion.

The Bouviers lived their golden East Hampton summers through the thirties and forties, seemingly exempt from the country’s economic despair. Ignoring Depression and war, they divided their time between the Maidstone Club and Lasata, Major Bouvier’s great house on Further Lane. But the Major’s flamboyant reign was accomplished at a gruesome price, to be paid much later by his heirs. By living off principal, he assured the family comfort and style only for as long as he lived.

But for the moment, his grandchildren were dazzling the cabana owners of the Maidstone. The Bouvier who attracted all the stares as she sauntered down the midway was Little Edie. The Body Beautiful at 24. Her cousin Jackie was a solemn twelve and generally in jodhpurs. About the contrast Black Jack was fiercely defensive. During luncheons at Lasata he would announce to the family: “Jackie’s got every boy at the club after her, and the kid’s only twelve!” Everyone knew Little Edie was It, but her mother never rose to the bait. Big Edie was always busy directing the attention to herself. The excuse might be Albert Herter’s portrait of her in a blue dress, done twenty years before. “Did you know the blue dress in that painting is the same one I’m wearing now?” She would pause for effect. “That’s how poor I am.”


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