From the January 10, 1972 issue of New York Magazine.
This is a tale of wealth and rebellion in one American Gothic family. It begins and ends at the juncture of Lily Pond Lane—the new Gold Coast—and West End Road, which is a dead end. There, in total seclusion, live two women, twelve cats, and occasional raccoons who drop through the roof of a house like no other in East Hampton. Ropes of bittersweet hang from its frail shoulders. A pair of twisted catalpa trees guard its occupants, but nothing is safe for long from invasion by the bureaucrats and Babbitts. Least of all a mother and daughter of unconventional tastes who long ago turned their backs on public opinion.
The seeds of their tale go back to 1915 when the family first discovered, beyond “dressy” Southampton, a “simple” summer resort composed of saltbox houses and village greens. The sea was still tucked then behind great cushions of sand dunes. Behind them potato fields stretched in white-tufted rows clear to the horizon like a natural Nettle Creek bedspread. Right from the start, East Hampton provided a refuge for the family’s scandals and divorces and all manner of idiosyncrasies common to those of high breeding.
The family brought the wealth of Wall Street to this simple resort. It casually purchased a cabana at the Maid-stone Club for $8,000 in 1926. The men set down roots in four houses and sired beautiful women. In due time the little girls’ names entered the Social Register. Later they would appear in the creamy pages of The So-cial Spectator… “Seen at the recent East Hampton Village Fair, ‘Little Edie’ Beale,” under the picture of a full-lipped blonde shamelessly vamping through the brim of her beach hat, or, “Picking up another blue rib-bon at the East Hampton horse show, Miss Jacqueline Bouvier with her father, John Vernou Bouvier III cap-tions which reflected the infinite self-confidence of the indomitably rich.
The Social Spectator described an era which will never be again. The family’s homes are gone now, all but one. And the family itself, after 300 years, has slipped back into the abominable middle class. All except a few. One became the most celebrated woman in the world, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Two others never gave a damn about all that. They rebelled against the Maidstone, shunned garden parties to pursue the artistic life. Now, passed over by history, they are left to the wreck of their house.
Contemporary East Hampton is caught up in a war of land values. It is no longer a refuge for artists and eccen-trics. The dropouts at the foot of the lane do not conform to the new values exhibited by “beach houses” with elevators. Their lives are remote from the Friday afternoon helicopters which ferry high-powered businessmen out from the city and drop them into pastel sports cars on D. Blinken’s lawn. Around the corner from them, on West End, a parade of tycoons’ castles, one owned by Revlon’s Charles Revson (who copied the house next door), ends in a nest of five mansionettes owned by Pan Am’s Juan Trippe and family. But the grounds belong-ing to the dropouts bear no resemblance to putting-green lawns, nor to the wedding-cake trees created by topiary gardening on estates which retreat from them behind trimmed privet hedges. These two have lived beyond their time at the juncture of Lily Pond Lane and West End, where the privet runs wild over a house called Grey Gardens.
Last summer our lives crossed by chance. My daughter and I often walked past Grey Gardens on the way back from Georgica Beach. We could see little of the house because on that side it was obscured by a tall hedge with an overpowering fragrance of honeysuckle. But my daughter had seen fat cats in the high grass. She also reported a light in the second-floor window at night. On this scanty evidence she had dubbed it the Witch House.
One Sunday morning’s discovery changed all that. My daughter came running, tearful, holding three baby rab-bits in a Tide box. She had found them motherless by the side of the road. “Can’t we take them home?” she asked. I explained they would never survive the train ride. She had another idea: if the Witch House had all those cats, whoever lived there must like animals. Before I could protest, we had ducked under the hedge, skittered past a 1937 Cadillac brooding in the tangled grasses, and we were deep into the preserve of twelve devil-eyed cats. There was no turning back.
We whirled at the sound of an alien voice. She was coming through the catalpa trees as a taxi pulled away, and she was covered everywhere except for her face, which was beautiful. “Are you looking for Mother, too?” she asked, more unnerved than we.
My little girl held out the Tide box to show her the trembling bunnies.
“Did you think we care for animals here?” The woman smiled and bent down close to the face of the child, who silently considered her. This was not at all a proper witch. She looked sweet sixteen going on 30-odd and had carefully applied lipstick, eyeliner and powder to her faintly freckled face. The child nodded solemnly: “This is an animal house.”
“You see! Children sense it.” The woman clapped her hands in delight. “The old people don’t like us. They think I’m crazy. The Bouviers don’t like me at all, Mother says. But the children understand.”
My little girl said it must be fun to live in a house where you never have to clean up.
“Oh, Mother thinks it’s artistic this way, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Don’t you love the overgrown Louisiana Bayou look?”
My daughter nodded vigorously. At this point the woman looked shyly up to include me in the conversation. “Where do you come from?”
“Across the way.”
“My goodness, it’s about time we got together! How many years have you been here?” She rushed on before I could answer, as though reviving a numb habit of social conversation and desperate not to lose the knack. “You phone me. Beale. That’s the name, Edith Beale.”
As she swept past us in a long trench coat and sandals, her head wrapped in a silk scarf knotted at the back of the neck, I could have sworn she was—who? I’d seen her picture hundreds of times.
Edie Beale, safe on her porch, pointed out the formally lettered sign she had made for the front door: Do Not Trespass, Police on the Place.
“Are there really?” my daughter breathed.
“Not really, but Mother is frightened of anyone who comes by.” She then described a neighbor who tries to club the cats to death at night, and the boys from across the street whose surfer friends try to break in. I suggested the boys might just be prankish.
“Oh no, they’re dangerous. I can tell what’s inside a person right away. Mother and I can see behind the masks; we’re artists, it’s the artist’s eye. I wish I didn’t have it. Jackie has it too. She’s a fine artist.”
“I’m Jacqueline Bouvier’s first cousin. Mother is her aunt. Did you know that?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Oh yes, we’re all descended from fourteenth-century French kings. Now a relative has written a book saying it’s all a lie, that we don’t really have royal blood. He’s a professor, John H. Davis, and he’s break-ing with history. Everyone is. That’s how I know the millennium is coming. The Bouviers: Portrait of an American Family. Not a bad book really.”
(Subsequently, I read the Davis book and was struck by the parallel courses of their two lives—Little Edie, better known as Body Beautiful Beale, but so breakable; her young cousin Jackie, whose heart developed a steel safety catch—until an accident of fate drove one to the top and condemned the other to obscurity. It came out in the inauguration scene:
“The Reception for Members of President and Mrs. Kennedy’s Families” was the first Kennedy party held in the White House. Peter Lawford and Ted Kennedy showed up. Little Edie Beale approached J. P. Kennedy, who was looking his usual unassuming self, and reminded him jokingly that she had once almost been engaged to his first-born son, Joe, Jr. And if he had lived, she probably would have married him and he would have be-come President instead of Jack and she would have become First Lady instead of Jackie! J. P. Kennedy smiled and took another drink.)
“I’ve just come from church, which put the millennium in my mind,” the lady of Grey Gardens was saying. The woman before me, a version of Jackie coming from church on a Greek island, was Little Edie in the summer of her 54th year!
“You…resemble your cousin,” I faltered.
“Mmmm, Jackie had a very hard time. Did you like the Kennedys?” She didn’t skip a beat. “They brought such art to the country! Besides the clothes and makeup, politics is the most exciting thing about America. Didn’t you think the Kennedys would be around forever—at least three terms?” Her eyes danced.
My daughter wanted to know if she knew President Kennedy well.
“Jack never liked society girls, he only dated showgirls,” she began, synchronizing only with her memories. “I tried to show him I’d broken with society, I was a dancer. But Jack never gave me a tumble. Then I met Joe Jr. at a Princeton dance, and oh my!” She swooned. “Joe was the most wonderful person in the world. There will never be another man like him.”
“But you were a ballerina?” My daughter wanted to stick to the facts.
“What, sweetheart?” Edie Beale was off in her private world again; this brought her back. “Oh yes, I started in ballet. Ran away from home three times. First to Palm Beach; everyone thought I’d eloped with Bruce Cabot, the movie actor—I didn’t even know him! I never did anything but flirt—you know, the Southern belle. My father brought me back. He’d always thought my mother was crazy because she was an artist. Then I went into interpretive dancing and ran away to New York. Mother caught me moving out of the Barbizon, she thought it was the correct spot. But I moved into New York’s oldest theatrical hotel. On the sly a friend sent me to Max Gordon. The minute he saw me he said: ‘You’re a musical comedienne.’ I said, ‘That’s funny, I did Shakespearean tragedy at Spence.’ Max Gordon said the two were very close. I was all set to audition for the Theatre Guild that summer. Shaking with fear, you can imagine with my father still alive—he’d left Mother for the very same thing! I modeled for Bachrach while I was waiting for the summer to audition. Someone squealed to my father. Do you know, he marched up Madison Avenue and saw my picture and put his fist right through Mr. Bachrach’s window?”
At that, Little Edie threw back her head and giggled so contagiously we caught it ourselves. “But”—we were gasping for the end of the story—“did you ever go for the audition?”
“Oh no. Mother got the cats. That’s when she brought me down from New York to take care of them.”
It was a stunning non sequitur, but the empty finality of her voice made the meaning clear. We had come to the dead end of a human life.
Cats crouched all around in the grass, rattling in their throats, mean and stricken.
“Are they wild?” I asked.
She called for Tedsy Kennedy, a Persian. “Mother bred them all. We’ve had 300 cats altogether. Now we have twelve, but they’re not wild. They’re fur people.” Tedsy Kennedy leaped out of her arms. She tried for Hipperino, Little Jimmy, Zeppo, Champion—“He’s a mother’s boy”—and finally she succeeded in scooping up Bigelow. “It’s true about old maids, they don’t need men if they have cats.” She put her lips to the ear of the fur person named Bigelow: “We’re going away together, all right, Bigs? Just you and me?”
Bigs writhed out of the embrace too, giving her nothing but a blood bubble on one finger.
Then an operatic voice sang its lament through the upstairs window.
EeeDIE? I’m about to die.
“Oh dear, Mother’s furious because she’s not getting attention. I’ll be right up, Mother.”
“The bunnies.” My daughter offered the Tide box.
“They are sweet, but you see, Mother runs everything around here. I work for her and she might throw me out….” Little Edie accepted the bunnies anyway. She walked us up to the catalpa trees. Suddenly she gasped, shrank back:
“Oh dear, it’s fall.”
We followed her eyes to the ground where a dead mouse lay in our path. “That’s the sign of an early fall. There’s evil ahead,” she said.
It was not an early fall. But Edith Beale was right about evil in the wings. Late August Saturdays still found the new rich along the Gold Coast entertaining the “fun people” in lime pants from Southampton. At high noon they sat beside gelid pools exercising little but their mouths; talking business, nibbling quiche, complaining about neighbors who drive down the land values.
These are the city people who send out their architects to order the shoulders of the sea broken, crushed, swept back into the potato fields. On the leveled stage they set down their implausible houses and bathwater pools. New dune grass eventually appears in patches, row on row, like hair transplants. But dunes never grow back. The new people use the sea only as a backdrop (“You don’t swim in it, do you?”), insulting it, hating it really. The wind wrecks their hairdos. Sand nicks their glass window walls. They use the sand only as a mine field to hide the wires leading to their Baroque burglar alarm systems.
So long as real-estate moguls and barons of Wall Street and their shrill, competitive wives keep coming out from the city to erect display cases on the dunes, the Village Fathers will appease them. The new people create jobs and pay obscene beachfront taxes. Nothing is likely to be said aloud about what they violate of East Hampton. But when a few of them complain about those two living in an “eyesore” near their precious land values, the Village Fathers can be very quickly turned into a posse. Even as Labor Day approached, such a posse was being assembled against the Beales.
The sea comes into its wild season with September riptides. Gathering far out, it hurls its weight against the land, smearing the beach with tidal pools, while opposing waves tear at virgin sand and drag it back. Most people in East End stay away from the beach then.
Who was that lone figure in black?
Both Sundays after Labor Day she ran off the dunes like an escapee and plunged into the surf. Alarmed at first, I watched her draw the water hungrily around her. But she was a strong swimmer, a child-woman of such unspent exuberance. Her body was still beautiful, I thought, as Edith Beale came up the beach in a black net bathing suit.
“I haven’t seen you in so long!” she called. “Mother never allows me to show myself on the beach after summer, but this fall I had to come out.”
I said she still looked like a model.
“Shall I tell you what I’ve done for twenty years? Fed cats. Mother wouldn’t let me go around with American men, they were too rich and fast. She was afraid I’d get married. Nothing has happened in twenty years, so I haven’t changed in any way.”
She remembered every detail from our last encounter. How was my trip to Russia? she asked. How are dancers treated there?
“The simple life is not understood in America,” she broke in with a deep whisper. “They’re all so rich and spoiled. I would have loved this life, except—I never got to say goodbye to any of my friends.” She blushed to the edges of her flowered cap, admitting she had always preferred older men. “They’re all dead now and I’m alone….”
We walked toward the sea, which seemed to revive her spirits. “So I had to make friends with the younger generation,” the voice lilting now, “the boys who come by and like the overgrown look. We sketch together.” She turned quickly and scanned the beach. “Maybe they thought I was getting too friendly with the young boys.”
Her eyes focused on a dark blur, maybe a mile away. She recounted a strange phone call from one of her brother’s sons last February: You’re in the soup, he kept saying, the County’s going to take your house. “I’m psychic and I feel it coming.”
That was her brother coming now, in the jeep down the beach; she grew stiff and asked me to stay and meet him. I wondered which brother it would be, having read of the contrast between them. While Little Edie confounded her Bouvier relatives by imitating her mother’s rebellion against bourgeois conformity, her younger brother, Bouvier Beale, was following in the footsteps of his lawyer father and grandfather. He married a society girl and established his own law firm in New York—Walker, Beale, Wainwright and Wolf. Today he lives in Glen Cove, belongs to Piping Rock, as did his grandfather, and only last summer built his own summer home in Bridgehampton. The other brother, Phelan Jr., escaped to Oklahoma and never came back.
But why hadn’t they come to the rescue of their 76-year-old recluse mother and pathetic sister buried alive in Grey Gardens? Edith Beale must have read my thoughts.
“Now my brothers, they’re great successes. But the way they’ve been acting has put Mother more on my neck than ever. They refuse to give one penny to the house. The trust from my grandfather is about gone. Mother suffered reverses in the stock market last year, so my brothers sold her blue chip stock.”
I asked a sensitive question about her present financial situation.
“Oh we’re not destitute, Mother has collateral. It’s been my life’s work to protect her collections, we don’t trust anybody.” The rest was hurriedly whispered: “My brother, Bouvier Beale, has been after Mother for a year now to sign over power of attorney. I think he wants to take over the house and put poor Mother into an institution. He treats her just as her father did, you know, because she’s an artist. It all goes back to Mother deciding she wanted to sing…she was so advanced. Grandfather threatened to disown her but she made plenty of appearances in clubs around New York. She is still totally modern and correct in everything, with one exception. My career.”
But how could Mother deny her the very freedom of expression for which she had defied an entire family? I pressed.
“Two women can’t live together for twenty years without some jealousy,” Little Edie Beale said reluctantly. “Not that my voice is better than Mother’s, but she can’t dance.”
The jeep was upon us. Its driver, a stiffly formal man, was introduced as Bouvier Beale. Seemingly embarrassed, he walked off with his sister for a private conference. As I climbed the dunes, their bodies were turning rigid in dispute, necks stiff. A shout came back in a man’s voice: “You must go to a room in the Village!”
Little Edie broke away and ran for the sea.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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!
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.”
“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!”
• Sheehy on Little Edie’s Remaining Secrets
• Emily Nussbaum reviews Grey Gardens