A year or some months ago, I attempted to watch Grey Gardens, the documentary by Albert and David Maysles about fallen socialites Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter of the same name. I had no idea what the film was about at the time and after a few boring minutes of watching this strange scarfed woman yelling at her half-naked mother in a house of squalor I turned it off. Last night I watched the HBO movie special about the women and was in awe.
If you’re unfamiliar with the documentary or the lives of the mother and daughter, read on.
Big Edie and Little Edie as they were referred to lost their fortune when Edith’s husband, Phelan, left her and refused to give her enough money to upkeep the house.
In 1895, 4 acres of ocean front property were purchased by F. Stanhope Phillips and Margaret Bagg Phillips in the wealthy neighborhood of East Hampton on Long Island. In 1897, Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe designed the house as well as other houses in area. In 1913, Robert C. Hill and Anna Gilman Hill bought the house and hired landscape designer Ruth Bramley. The Hill’s built ornate walls around the gardens, creating what would become the center of Grey Gardens.
The Beale family, Phelan, Edith, Little Edie, and 2 sons, came to Grey Gardens in 1923, when Phelan, a lawyer, bought the home for Edith. It was apparently put in her name.
In 1946, Phelan divorced Edith (via post from Mexico. How rude). For some time he sent her $300 a month to maintain the property but eventually the money stopped coming and the house began to fall to disrepair. Wikipedia says $300 in those days was the equivalent of $4,000! What were they doing with their money! The sons left home. Little Edie, who had her eyes on stardom in New York returned home and remained there until her mother’s death in 1977. Big Edie did have a trust which was managed by the sons but that money wasn’t enough to upkeep the home. I suppose it kept them in cat food, liver pate, and ice cream.
As the money ran out, and the house declined, eventually the women were unable to pay to keep the lights on. There in Grey Gardens, in a house with no electricity, no running water, full of cats, fleas, and racoons, these 2 women lived. For decades. Can you imagine? In an interview a relative recalls,
“When you got to the house, by the time you got halfway up the stairs, your ankles were in agony by being chewed by fleas. I would go there and light up two cigarettes and just wave them around.” –Christopher Beale
In 1972, the health department paid the Beale women a visit and threatened to kick them out on the street if they didn’t clean up the house.
What’s so interesting about the family, is their relationship to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and their fall from social grace. Big Edie was her aunt, Little Edie her cousin. Jackie finally came to the rescue and hauled away bags of trash, cleaned the house, freshened up the paint, gave them new beds, and paved the way for the documentary. I’m curious when Adult Protective Services came about because clearly these women were not functioning at a level of most sane people? I imagine if Hoarders came to the set what would the psychiatrist says was the root of the mess? Phelan leaving Edie might be the traumatic event in her life that forced her to hoard/stay in the house? Or was it the Great Depression? Was it that the one thing Edith owned was the house and she wasn’t going to let it go? She survived the Great Depression. You know how those survivalists held on to the strangest things (Cheerio boxes, anyone?)
What about Little Edie being forced to give up her hopes and dreams? Perhaps the loss of her hair (she had alopecia). Maybe she put all her beauty/identity in that hair and a part of her died when it finally all fell out. Who knows. She could have left her mother in that house or forced her to leave with her but neither left. In the film/documentary she talks about wanting to leave, hating the winters, that a rat hole on 10th in Manhattan would be better than Grey Gardens but she continued to stay. They just lived in filth. It’s amazing and sad and crazy and fascinating! I wonder why the sons/brothers didn’t try harder to save their loved ones. Perhaps they really did try. You cannot save those who don’t want your help. We all have eccentric relatives.
HBO did a special in 2009 with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange recreating scenes from the documentary and telling the story of how the women came to be in the house. It’s very beautifully made and I highly suggest you watch it. After seeing it, I am motivated to watch the documentary. Drew does an amazing job playing the role as Little Edie. It shows you how dependent the women were on each other. I’ve read comments here and there that Big Edie ruined Little Edie’s life. Maybe. I don’t know. I read another comment that said the door was never locked. Little Edie could have left. Family relations are hard. Mother daughter relationships are complicated. Little Edie never married. She had no job. Her mother wouldn’t leave the house. Ya know?
My all time biggest question though, if Edith loved Grey Gardens so much, why didn’t she just clean the house! 😛
The props/costumes from the movie are spectacular. Here are stills from the foyer, living room, and dining room. While rooms of white/beige may be all the rage today, there’s no question that people from the past loved color. Have you ever walked into an antique store and sat on an all white chair? Doubtful. It’s always embroidered, patterned, or a color. How about the novelty prints of vintage dresses? So much fun. And when you think about how the 40s-50s (mid-century) were a pairing down of the ornate detailing of 18-19th century furniture did they lose sight of color? Heck no.
For more in-depth information on Grey Gardens, Joni Webb goes room and by room on her blog. The movie stills are sourced from her as well.
A perfect combination of purple and yellow (or maybe the sofa is chartreuse. Whatever, purple and yellow always go together).
I love the chinoiserie wallpaper with the red chinese chippendale chairs.
Here are modern day Grey Gardens houses. Living rooms full of color and texture with a good bit of antiques. Perhaps you can picture the ocean outback and a secret garden for tea parties. I warn you, once you have this aesthetic in mind, you can go far down the internet rabbit hole clicking clicking clicking…there’s a visual feast for days! 🙂
Bunny Williams is all about comfort and class. She came to town about 3 weeks ago and I missed her talk. Could kick myself.
Melissa Rufty is one of my all time favorite interior designers. She lives in New Orleans and mixes styles like no other. I may have posted this living room in the early days of the blog. I love her use of color. Here she does a Greek Revival. Big Edie and Little Edie would be right at home in this bedroom with matching twin size beds.
Miles Redd…can you stand it?
Here’s a living room he did in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, GA. It can seat 40 people. How many people can your living room seat? Big Edie could party for sure in here.
I was a bit concerned about having wall sconces and table lamps so close together in mother’s room (in the entry below). If Miles Redd does it, so will I. Don’t you also love the square and round end tables living harmoniously together?
Jackie Onassis might say “I like that blue paint! I painted Aunt Edie’s foyer the very same!” What would the room be without that giant ficus in the corner? Plant life is everything.
This Manhattan townhouse has my heart. Also by Redd. HBO Edies would love the purple and yellow! I love that gold mirror and giant nude woman. The white marble (?) coffee table and the 3 types of chairs (and a greek stool).
I recently read if you don’t know what do between the fireplace and the doorway put in a bench. Looks like Redd agrees and has put in a purple tufted wall bench.
But this dining room is my favorite part. Recognize those chairs! Another Grey Gardens style (at least from HBO).
Here’s blue and brown again, by Richard Keith Langham. I love how open these 2 rooms are. So bright and cheery, too. However, I dislike his repetition on the 3 chairs. He could have had much more fun.That rug is great.
I love big windows like this. Like if you walked outside you’d in Savannah or New Orleans. Was a door tax a real thing?
That modern starburst feels right at home on the wall even with all the antiques.
When I saw this living room I freaked over those green silk slipper chairs. Beautiful. This is my favorite room of all in the post. It’s so bright. I’m a wee surprised by the small scale rug. I wonder why the designer broke the design rule there (large room, large rug needed). I bet it’s because that wood floor is amazing on its own. This home is designed by Rose Anne Pampelonne.
Symmetry but lamps of unequal height. Have you noticed all the animal print touches in these rooms?
Who do you think sits in those tiny chairs? What’s the point of that tiny round coffee table. Ha! Love it.
Lastly, Jonathan Adler. A bit more modern but the portrait reminded me of Big Edie’s over the fireplace. Adler loves his mid-century just like me and is no stranger to color!
So, what can we glean? Use color and pattern everywhere (do have a color palette in mind or you’re going to have a big ol’ mess), have a myriad of chairs in every style under the sun (18th century Louis to 1950s mid-century would work. They can cohabitate since they’re short/small in proportion), use luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet, include large painted portraits, detailed colorful wallpapers, sculptures, and plants! Daybeds, tufting, iron, chippendale chairs, round tables, square tables, ornate detailing, metallics, woods. It all will work when you find that balance. These are my favorite kinds of rooms.