domingo, 2 de mayo de 2010

The Story of Grey Gardens

14 rooms, 52 cats and a collapsing roof, the mansion known as Grey Gardens is as much a character as either of the Beales.

 Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. 

The two women lived together at Grey Gardens for decades with limited funds, resulting in squalor and almost total isolation. They came to live in squalor and abject poverty after a life of high society, debutante balls, expensive jewelry and glamour. 

Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Hill bought the home in 1913 as a summer cottage.  At the time, the home stood on four acres of oceanfront land.  Anna Gilman Hill, a dedicated horticulturist and garden writer, imported magnificent concrete walls from Spain to enclose the garden and temper the fierce winds and sea spray of eastern Long Island. 

With the walls and gorgeous wooden arbors in place, she then designed the garden with assistance from her landscape architect, Ruth Dean.  

They planted a variety of pale colored flowers including climbing rose, lavender, phlox, and delphinium.  

"It was truly a gray garden. The soft gray of the dunes, cement walls and sea mists gave us our color scheme as well as our name....nepeta,stachys, and pinks....clipped bunches of santolina, lavender and rosemary made gray mounds here and there. Only flowers in pale colors were allowed inside the walls, yet the effect was far from insipid....I close my eyes and sense again the scent of those wild roses, the caress of the hot sun on our backs as we sauntered to and fro from our bath and lazy mornings on the beach."—Anna Gilman Hill, former owner of Grey Gardens in her book Forty Years of Gardening.

The house was designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897, and purchased in 1923 by Phelan Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale. After Phelan left his wife, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale lived there for decades more, over 50 years in total for each woman.

Mrs. Beale was not interested in the restrictive lifestyle that was expected of her. She hired an accompanist and started singing in New York nightclubs. This simply wasn’t done at the time, especially by a wife and mother from a prominent family. 

Instead of trying to rein her in, Mr. Beale threw up his hands and moved out to his hunting lodge. Mrs. Beale’s father was less aloof. 

After threatening several times to disown her for her bohemian behavior, Major Bouvier finally cut her out of his will after she showed up, "outrageously" dressed, halfway into her own son’s wedding. 

“My mother was so different – she didn’t want to marry – she wanted a career in singing and the stage, which was not encouraged by the Bouviers.”  Little Edie

Upon Bouvier’s death, she received the sum of $65,000 in a trust fund to be administered by her sons. Needless to say, the money was long gone by the time Sheehy or the Maysles got to Grey Gardens. 

Mrs Beale slowly sold off her Tiffany pieces one by one to support herself and her children for many years. Big Edie had rejected  the social norms of her time and in turn was rejected by society, and even by her own two sons once they were grown. In the fall of 1971 and throughout 1972, their living conditions—their house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with garbage and decay—were exposed as the result of an article in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine[3] after a series of inspections (which the Beales called raids) by the Suffolk County Health Department.

The women lived in fear that the Town of Easthampton and Suffolk County would kick them out of their house. It had been attempted before. On October 22, 1971, a posse of health inspectors, detectives, and ASPCA representatives forced their way into the house and discovered a stomach-churning spectacle of five-foot high mounds of garbage, floors covered in cat shit, and evidence that the Beales had been using a bedroom as a latrine. 

Albert and David Maysles became interested in their story and received permission to film a documentary about the women, which was released in 1976 to wide critical acclaim. The family, including Jacqueline Kennedy (Mrs. Beale’s niece), refused any assistance. So inured were they to the Beale women’s stubbornness, they hoped that the house would be condemned if only to force the women to move somewhere else. 

Ben Bradlee described the house “In all my life, including years reporting about slumsfrom Washington to Casablanca, I have never seen a house in such dreadful condition: attics full of raccoons and their droppings, toilets stopped up, a kitchen stove that had fallen into the cellar, a living room with literally only half a floor, grounds so matted with devil’s walking sticks and other thorns they
were impenetrable, a large walled garden which was so overgrown it could not even be seen.  

Over everything hung the knee-buckling smell of cats and cat excrement.
Whole rooms had been abandoned when they filled-up with garbage, as the Beales moved to the next room…

’Big Edie’ had passed away, and ‘Little Edie’ was forced to sell, but willing to sell to someone who would not tear the eyesore down.” 

There's something about the film that feels exploitative,  like an invitation to mockery, but the more one uncovers of the vast history of the Beales at Grey Gardens, the more the film becomes a monument to the fiercely independent nature of these two staunch characters. 

The Beales remained, literally and figuratively, unmoved. They were, in Edie’s words, “artists against the bureaucrats.” They had survived months of harassment from the local authorities and could (and would) withstand years more. After all, they were Bouviers.

Mrs. Beale sings her favorite tunes, boils corn for everyone on a Sterno stove on her bed, and generally berates Edie for transgressions large (being a difficult child) and small (singing the incorrect lyrics to a song). 

Edie shows off her eccentric outfits (including the fabulous “revolutionary costume”), moans about how she can’t bear another winter at Grey Gardens, and performs her famous Virginia Military Institute dance.

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

1 comentario:

  1. so fascinating, this makes me want to watch the documentary again! i love that quote at the end too. :)