You can’t have missed the pictures of Drew Barrymore wowing on the red carpet over the past few weeks, but you may have wondered about the project that she was promoting – her made for TV movie, Grey Gardens.
Often cited as an inspiration in the world of fashion, the original Grey Gardens was a 1975 documentary about eccentric mother and daughter, Edith and Edith Beale and the extraordinary way in which they lived. Known as ‘Big Edie’ and Little Edie’, the pair were the aunt and cousin of America’s most glamorous First Lady, Jackie Onassis. In their heyday they were the stars of New York’s Park Avenue society, glamorous, beautiful and enchanting. Big Edie was a singer while her daughter was a model and aspiring actress, and the joined-at-the-hip pair were much talked about within the upper class set for their theatrical mannerisms and bohemian, unconventional ways.
Grey Gardens was the name of the grand East Hamptons house that husband and father Phelan Beale bought for the family in the late twenties. When he eventually divorced her Big Edie received no money from him but kept Grey Gardens as part of the settlement, although she struggled to pay for the up-keep of the building. Having tried to make it as a star in New York and after turning down a selection of proposals, Little Edie moved into Grey Gardens with her mother in 1952. And there they stayed for decades, rarely venturing to the outside world, slowly descending further and further into squalor – like real-life Miss Havershams.
The duo first came to the attention of the public when the New York Times ran a piece about their dreadful living conditions - the house was overrun with cats and racoons and rubbish was piled in every corner. The authorities threatened to evict them and condemn the house, and Jackie Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwell had to come to the rescue, paying to make the house structurally stable and for over 1000 rubbish bags to be removed.
The furore caught the imagination of documentary makers David and Albert Maysles, who persuaded the ladies to be filmed for six weeks as they captured every aspect of the extraordinary lives of the mother and daughter on camera. Rumour has it that they had to wear flea collars around their ankles for the duration as the house was so infested. The resulting film has become a cult classic. Big Edie holds court in her single bed, singing Time for Tea and arguing with her daughter. Little Edie, in her signature head scarves (she had lost her hair and opinion is divided on the cause – she may have had alopecia but some stories report that she burned it off), parades through the house and over-run grounds in an endless serious of costumes. It has to be seen to be believed. Defiantly independent, they were oblivious to the horror of their surroundings and lived out a fantasy life relying wholly on each other. They only had $300 per month to live on and sold their Tiffany jewellery piece by piece to make ends meet.
Big Edie died of pneumonia two years after the film was released and Little Edie sold Grey Gardens to Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee who lovingly restored it to its former glory. Little Edie died of a heart attack in 2002. Both women have remained style icons – the ultimate accolade, Marc Jacobs designed a ‘Little Edie’ bag a few seasons ago – and the new movie about their lives is set to introduce them to a whole new audience.
By Emma Sells