I was introduced to Grey Gardens a few years ago out of mild curiosity. Most recently, due to the promotion of the movie, inspired by the original 1975 documentary with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, did I start to do more research on Big and Little Edie, their codependent relationship, their obvious mental illness and eccentricities..but what I have noticed the most is their delicate beauty despite the aging process, the fall to poverty (even though they were decedents of a great wealthy American family) and little Edie's consistent creativity to come up with outfits "costumes" she would say, and somehow pull off a crazy fashion that became a cult classic and defines a fashion style that we loosely follow today.
For those of you who don't know, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith(her namesake- Edie), were decedents from the great American aristocratic Bouvier family, cousins to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. There isn't too much of the back story of these two women in the original documentary, it primarily was a record of their life in their later years, the hard years, riddled with disorder and mental illness. The most obvious reaction that most people have when they learn about the Beales, is the shock of how women who come from such wealth and privilege could fall so far. They garnered the attention of the media in the early 1970's when the Suffolk county health department raided the 15 room mansion and threatened to evict the Beales for living in unsanitary conditions. There were reports of cat feces, urine and piles of garbage rotting in some of the rooms in the house. Because of the media attention, and the relation to Jackie O, pressure was undoubtedly put on Mrs. Onassis to help stave off the eviction and help her relatives, and to prevent further embarrassment to the family. Jackie and her husband donated the funds to have the mansion cleaned and restored, and her sons payed the back taxes amid the negative publicity. The Beales stayed in the house Big Edie's death in 1977.
I was intrigued with the beauty of these women. Little Edie was a debutante, and model in her younger years, she was stunningly beautiful and went off to New York to make her mark on the world. She returned to Grey Gardens unexpectedly several years later after a failed relationship to a married man and she never left her mother's side until Big Edie's death. It has been reported that little Edie would no longer leave the house after the raids by the department of health because of her fear of being denied legal access to the house by authorities. Big Edie was left a small trust by her father after defying him with her elaborate lifestyle, her refusal to conform and desire to hang around with artists and younger men. The trust was not enough to cover the expenses on the house and that is why it fell into disrepair. Big Edie refused to sell or leave the property, despite the urging of her sons and other family members. Their requests fell on deaf ears.
In her later years, Little Edie suffered from hair loss and was never seen without a head scarf. The most interesting thing is that she didn't always use a scarf. She would use a shirt, table cloth, sweater, whatever she could find and artfully wrap it around her head, attach a brooch or some sort of elaborate pin and would look somehow put together...I can't explain why this is, but she would look glamorous somehow in spite of all her craziness...The most famous picture of Edie Beale is one where she is standing outside the ramshackle mansion, with it's overgrown shrubs, wearing a tattered fur coat, beautiful headscarf and large brooch. She believed she was glamorous, and she was right. She was proud of who she was, and in spite of her resentment of what she believed was taking care of her mother..she was a tragic figure.
The tattered antiques in the house are so hauntingly beautiful, traces of a bygone era that are cherished today and most defiantly used in the makings of Bohemian style. Big Edie refused to conform to rules of society that she was born into and that was ultimately her undoing, As I watched the documentary, the spirit of these women was enduring and I couldn't help but think the inside provided the inspiration for an Anthroplogie catalog...perfect in it's imperfection.