… the calm atmosphere of Burgh House, New End Square
“I only cared about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming and dancing, and I had to give them up”.
Pipe’s little film tip for a rainy winter’s evening is the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.
Grey Gardens is a film that was never meant to be made. Behind it stands The Maysles Brothers. Who after their success documenting the Rolling Stone's tragic concert at the Altamont Speedway in Gimme Shelter, set out to make a film about Jaqueline Kennedy’s Onassis childhood. When researching Grey Gardens, and the family history of the two eccentric ladies living there; Big and Little Edie Beale, they made many intriguing discoveries about this mother and daughter partnership. The Maysles Brothers soon became fascinated by the Beal’s lifestyle - which by then had been reduced to a crazy existence through poverty and dept – as they reside in the unbelievably decaying Grey Gardens residency. The direction of their film rapidly changed during its production however, as the Beales were a much more exciting project than the house they inhabited; which they had originally intended would be the films subject matter.
The two Edie’s: ‘Big Edie’ : Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’: Edith Bouvier Beale, had for many years lived isolated in their East Hampton mansion. By the 1970's the house and its estate was a totally overgrown wasteland. The house was filled with stray cats, raccoons and there was rubbish everywhere. It was in fact so disgusting that a big clean-up was needed before the documentary could even start to be shot.
The Beales’ had lived a life surrounded by the rich and the famous, but turned their backs on this and retreated to their Grey Gardens estate. Maybe years of isolation and a lack of human contact is what made them so keen to talk to the film makers? In the movie they also seem very eager to put on performances, and are constantly trying to out-do each other, whilst bitterly bickering with each other.
I get the feeling that both the Edie's were exhibitionists and wanted to stand in the limelight created by the Maysle’s camera. Big Edie considered herself a professional singer and Little Edie a great dancer and their “talents” are well documented throughout the film.
The film’s strongest point is perhaps the fact that the two ladies are characters that could never have been invented. They very much represent the ‘flipside’ of the American Dream. However they never victimize themselves, instead seem pretty content most of the time, even though you get the feeling that Little Edie sometimes wishes she had chosen a different path in life.
Their financial plight is made clear to us. However, strangely we learn later on this needn't have been. If they had just looked around their attic, they could have put their hands on an original Rembrandt that was stored amongst the debris and wildlife. This is an indication of their former wealth and position within their society, which the women constantly describe in detail. The painting would have paid for a total renovation of the mansion, as well as a good standard of living for both ladies, for many years to come. Sadly, this of course, didn't happen; the painting was found, in pieces after decades of being eaten by raccoons, during the big clean-up in 1975, long after the two women had left the house.
If this documentary gets you hooked there is a follow up; The Beals of Grey Gardens, a film that came together thanks to all the left-over material from the first film. I can also recommend My life at Grey Gardens by Lois Wright, a dear friend of the Beales. Wright lived with the two Edies for thirteen months and kept a journal during that period. The Journal offers a much more intimate view and a far greater understanding for the lives of the Beales.