Sally Quinn on Buying Grey Gardens: ‘You Had to Have Flea Collars On’

In anticipation of HBO’s new film adaptation of the lives of Big and Little Edie Beale — immortalized in the 1975 Maysles documentary Grey Gardens — the woman who owns the infamous Hamptons mansion chatted with W magazine about living inside a legend. Author Sally Quinn, who is married to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, had read about the Beales and their dilapidated house in a 1972 Gail Sheehy article in New York. In 1979, when she was looking for a new house on the East End, a real-estate agent mentioned it to her, because Little Edie, then 61, hoped to sell it. When they arrived, the broker, who was desperate to sell the house, wouldn’t go inside with her. Even after renovations in 1972 (paid for by Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill), the place was a wreck.

Explains Quinn:

You had to have flea collars on for one thing. There were 30 cats in there and the stench was beyond belief. And Little Edie opened the door — her mother had died two years earlier — and apparently everyone had made offers because she was asking $220,000 for the house.

Little Edie was asking for $220,000, which was even then a startlingly low price for a fourteen-room Hamptons mansion. But Edie had turned away bidders because everyone else wanted to tear the place down.

So I walked in and I said, “This is the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.” You can’t believe what shambles it was in. And she said, “It’s yours.” Up to then, she’d refused to sell it to anybody else. But she said, “I know that this house belongs to you. You’re the person who should have this house.” And then she did this little pirouette in the hall and said, “You see? All it needs is a coat of paint!” So I bought it on the spot.

The Bradlees renovated it to a close approximation of its old layout and splendor. For more on what it was like at the time, definitely read the W piece. According to Quinn, true to legend, when it rains the place still smells like cat pee from 30 years of being overrun with the Beales’ cats (and no litter boxes!). “About ten years ago, we got up there the first of August and it had been raining for 10 days. We walked in the house and Ben, who can’t smell anything cause he’s got sinus problems, said, ‘Oh my god.’” Quinn explained. “He’s allergic to cats and his eyes started to water. He could smell the cat pee.”

Sally Quinn on life in Grey Gardens [W]

Sally Quinn on Buying Grey Gardens: ‘You Had to Have Flea Collars On’