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The Secret of Grey Gardens

Black Jack would remind her that a clever woman would have gotten some alimony out of her husband. Big Edie would remind her family that she was not a golddigger. Whereupon she would head for the piano with ten adoring children traipsing at her heels.

The last of the fashionable family affairs was the 1942 wedding of Big Edie’s son, Bouvier Beale. A ceremony at St. James’s was scheduled for four, and almost the entire Bouvier family was in place. Big Edith was the missing guest. The wedding was half over when she arrived, dressed like an opera star. The bride and groom took the incident in stride, but Major Bouvier had had his fill of Edith’s outlandish behavior. Two days later he cut her out of his will. From then until his death in 1948, the moralizing Major used his changing will as a club, but Edie had already become the recluse of Grey Gardens when the news came that her share of the dead Major’s dwindled fortune was a $65,000 trust fund, her sons in control.

On that sum, Big and Little Edie have lived for the past 23 years. Little Edie always talked about getting away… “I’ve got to get out of East Hampton, fast,” she told her neighbor, Barbara Mahoney. That was sixteen years ago, when she crossed the street to take her a friendship card with a red sachet: Thank you, Barbara, for being my friend, it read. “You know,” she whimpered, “I’m 38 and I’m an old maid. I don’t have any friends. Ought to get away. I don’t know where to go!”

About that time the ladies of Grey Gardens met Tex Logan in Montauk. He was playing steel guitar and looking for jobs. “He was mad about my mother,” Little Edie recalls, “so you know, he came in as a carpenter-maintenance man-cook. Tex did just about everything for nine years, on and off.” But Tex was a wanderer. When he grew bored, he’d hitchhike out of town and when he came back he was inevitably drunk. Then there was the night Tex was arrested for possession of a pistol at Mrs. Morgan Belmont’s bridge party. The East Hampton Star gave the Beale house as his address. How the ladies of Grey Gardens did fuss! Tex didn’t come back again until the winter he contracted pneumonia. He was found a week later, dead, in the kitchen of Grey Gardens. This time The East Hampton Star noted, discreetly, the man was the Beales’ “caretaker.”

“We never let anybody in here after that,” Little Edie recalled, “because the house is loaded with valuables. Except once, in the early spring of ’68, when the Wainwrights invited Mother and me to a big dance. Mother said we should make one last appearance before the Old Guard of East Hampton. I was so excited—but Mother said, ‘You are absolutely not going to that dance unless you get somebody to help clean up this mess.’”

Little Edie hired two boys, sons of old natives, who were home from the Navy. She noticed they were acting funny on the second floor, but in her excitement she ignored it. The party was being given by young Edie’s childhood friend, Carolyn Wainwright, for her daughter’s debut. The reclusive Beales made a breathtaking entrance.

Mother wore a wrapper open to the waist and clasped with a dazzling brooch. In her hair, which looked as though it hadn’t seen a comb in years, she had wound faded silk violets. Little Edie arrived desperate to dance, trailing a black net stole over her black bathing suit and fishnet tights.

Edie danced by herself with one red rose. Somebody’s sympathetic husband got up to dance with her, but she was inexhaustible. The rock music grew wild and Little Edie even wilder—“I flew into a jungle rock and nobody could control me, not even Mother!” Late in the evening, Big Edie dragged her wayward daughter home, scolding all the way: her disgraceful behavior would release evil spirits, just wait. They entered Grey Gardens to find $15,000 worth of heirlooms stolen.

Last August the Beales paid $1,790 in taxes to the Village of East Hampton for one more year in the life of Grey Gardens. “Why are my brothers so anxious to get Mother out?” Little Edie kept asking. “She was going to sell the house anyway, before the taxes are due next August. She’s just a little superstitious. Mother thinks if she makes a will, she’ll die.”

Meanwhile a Village official was calculating out loud: “It would take about $10,000 to demolish the house. With the land cleared you could easily get $80,000, a sum that would be of considerable interest to members of the family…” Other estimates run as high as $300,000.


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