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The Secret of Grey Gardens

“The final degradation for Grey Gardens,” moaned Edith Beale.

When the raids began, the Beales decided the Village was out to break them. “I don’t think we can live in America any more,” sighed Little Edie. “The only freedom we have left is the press. Thank God I could tell my side of the story to The East Hampton Star. Isn’t it a terrific paper; it’s our Daily News!”

Meanwhile the international press was having a field day with the sordid tale—“they keep saying we’re old and ill and have to be institutionalized,” Little Edie wept to her lawyer, Mr. LaGattuta from The Springs. “I don’t look old, do I?” But Mother felt she was smarter than any lawyer and refused to pay LaGattuta a fee.

After a third inspection on December 7, Mr. Beckwith informed the Beales by letter: “Should you continue liv-ing in this dwelling under the existing conditions, this department will have no recourse but to take action to remove you.” That action would be an eviction hearing immediately after Christmas. Mr. Beckwith took the liberty of sending a copy to Mrs. Onassis with a personal note, mentioning that her aunt and cousin had spoken fondly of Jackie and if she could do anything to help, the Beales certainly needed it. Although Mrs. Onassis was in New York partying all month, she made no effort to contact her brutalized relatives. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman, insisted that Mrs. Onassis was always very fond of them, too. In her opinion, however, it was not a matter of money but of how they chose to live.

The last time I saw Little Edie was the week before Christmas, when she invited us out to take pictures. Pre-pared as though for her stage debut, garbed in black net and flashy reds and heavily perfumed, she swept out the door in grand theatrical tradition.

EeeDIE! WEAR YOUR MINK! a voice called to her.

“Mother always tells me how to dress,” she exclaimed, returning with a bottle of frosted fuchsia nail polish and a mangy fur jacket. When we had finished, she invited us in. “What can they possibly have against this house? They haven’t seen the inside.”

She led us into the narrow damp hall and up the lightless staircase, pointing out the carved banister and paneled doors…“These are very much in demand these days.” Animals hid still as stone in the gloomy deeps until we passed; suddenly dust would scatter and…something leapt past our heads—a bat, no, a cat—flying to some ceiling perch. The windows at the top of the stairs were blinded with cobwebs and pawing vines, the bittersweet vines of Grey Gardens grown thick as boa constrictors. Mother had set out some crackers and Taylor’s port for our refreshment. Little Edie poured. “Only students of architecture can fully appreciate this place,” she said. Her performance was exquisite. We scarcely noticed a cat eating his own droppings in one corner. We were completely entranced by this bizarre version of a White House tour led by Jackie Kennedy.

Mother kept wheezing inside and banging on the floor. “She’s furious because I’m getting all the attention,” confided Little Edie. Would Mother like her picture taken? we ventured. “You don’t want your picture, do you, Mother?” she called out. And then to us, in a theatrical aside, “Mother looks like she’s about to die.”

I AM. I’M GOING TO DIE TODAY!

“You see?”

EeeDIE? My MAKEUP is under the BED.

“Never mind, Mother.”

We reminded Edie of a beautiful girl whose picture ran 30 years ago in The Social Spectator, Little Edie Beale at the East Hampton Fair.

“I hate it when people say I was beautiful in the old days,” she grimaced. “I want to detach myself from the past! Do you understand? I like to think I’m good now. I’m terrific now!”

But what does she do here for twelve hours of every day? We asked the second lady of Grey Gardens.

“I wake up and write poetry, like other people have coffee. I love the late movies on TV.”

And in between?

Something snapped in Little Edie at that moment. Her mask dropped and she whispered with urgency of a child:

“I’ve been a subterranean prisoner here for twenty years. If you only knew how I’ve loathed East Hampton, but I love Mother….they must have found out how I hated this house. They must have heard my scream.”

What scream?

“Last summer, out that broken window, when I screamed at Mother for the first time—‘It’s boring, boring, boring here! I’ll go anywhere to be free!’.”

This was the Secret of Grey Gardens—the unfinished woman who stood before us, consumed by cats, fed upon for decades by her broken mother, was far from buried in Grey Gardens. She was only now ready to live! Her family has disintegrated, the survivors have turned away, preferring scandal to parting with a sou from their fortunes to ameliorate this shame. There is nothing left now, nothing, but the hope in Little Edie’s wound-shattering scream.

As we backed toward the car her lower lip trembled. She came running to the edge of the catalpa trees and cried out: “Call me anything, but don’t call me old!”


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