Gilbert Speaks on Grey Gardens: A Documentary on Edith & Little Edie Bouvier Beale

28 Dec


I have to put this little gem under Granny’s Insomniac Theatre. I was unable to sleep last night and my go to for insomnia is Turner Classic Movies. I am seldom disappointed when I do. Mental Illness, like Death, is an equal opportunist that attacks both the rich and the poor. Who were Big Edith and Little Edith Bouvier Beale? Find out after the jump.

Grey Gardens

I was surprised to learn about these women and their lives. I’d just assumed that since they came from money and were related to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, that they would have received the best medical care, but they became, in all ways, reclusive and hidden from the world. Grey Gardens is the name of the 28 room mansion that the women lived in. To truly understand how two rich socialites became hermits and living in unimagined squalor, we need to learn more about Big Edie.

Edith Ewing Beale (1895-1977)

Born in Nutley New Jersey, Edith Ewing Beale was one of five children born to Maude and Major John Vernou Bouvier. Edith was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Her father was an attorney and judge dabbled on Wall Street stocks with Michael Charles Bouvier. Edith’s mother inherited her wealth from her father who was a wealthy pulp merchant and paper producer. This proves my theory that wealth incurs wealth.


Big Edith was a great singer and pianist, but her father thought these activities wasteful for someone of her social standing. In 1917 Edith married Phelan Beale a lawyer who worked at her father’s law firm. Big Edith gave birth to three children (Little Edie, 1917, Phelan Jr. 1920, and Bouvier 1922). It seems from what I’ve read, that Big Edie began acting peculiar soon after she got married.

Was the decline in her mental status due to her husband’s dislike of her singing? Big Edie loved to sing and play piano. She had a great voice, so why was Mr. Beale such an ass about this? When her choice of clothing became too bizarre, Mr. Beale attended the high society cocktail parties without his wife. I already don’t like this man. Big Edith eccentricities were also seen in the way she cared for her daughter. She took eleven year old Little Edie out of school because of an undocumented respiratory disease. Cut off from her classmates and friends, Little Edie was the constant companion of her mother and often went to movies and theaters together. Photo of Little Evie below.


Why Phelan Beale never got his wife evaluated and treated is unknown, but what we do know is that he left his wife and children for a younger woman. He left Grey Gardens to Big Edie and some child support….but how does a woman who has been taken care of all her life; first by her father, then by her husband, take care of herself? She doesn’t. Her father gave her some money, but after Big Edith showed up at her son Bouvier’s wedding dressed as an opera singer, Major John Vernou Bouvier set up a trust fund and turned over control of the money to Edie’s two sons. Apparently, the sons were as cold-hearted as every man in Big Edith’s life and the 28 room Grey Gardens mansion began to fall apart…brick by brick.

Little Edith (1917-2002)

Born in New York City in November of 1917, Edith Bouvier Beale was thought to be even more beautiful than her cousin Jacqueline. Edith was a socialite and model. Little Edie was like her mother in so many ways. She wanted to be singer and an author. She did have a poem published in a local New York magazine at the age of nine, but her heart was the stage.


Little Edie modeled for Macy’s department store and even dated Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty. She lived at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City until 1952 when she returned home to Grey Gardens at her mother’s urgings. She never left the house until Big Edie’s death in 1977.

The Documentary

Grey Gardens is a 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles who produced and directed this film with Susan Froemke. The Maysles initially came into contact with the Beales when Jacqueline’s Lee Radziwill suggested a documentary on her childhood in East Hampton. The Grey Gardens Mansion at the time of the filming was unfit for human habitation.


It had become a home for unwanted cats and neighborhood raccoons. It is said that people would need to wear flea collars on their arms and legs to avoid the flea bites. Why Big Edie’s sons did not step in to help their mother, I am at a loss to understand, but Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did pay 25,000 dollars to have the place cleaned up…it was wasted money because the two women who lived at Grey Gardens were unable to care for themselves, let alone a mansion.


If you watch the documentary, you’ll enjoy the banter back and forth between mother and daughter. Both ladies sing and regale us with stories of their past…but the dysfunction is there for all to witness. Did Little Edie inherit her mother’s madness or did she become a willing prisoner. There are several statements that Little Edie said that make me feel Little Edie would have been perfectly fine if she’d never come home to Grey Gardens.


After her mother’s death, Little Edie moved to Greenwich Village where she was a cabaret singer before relocating to a Bal Harbour apartment in Florida. She was eighty-four when she died. I hope Little Edie was happy in her new life.

Even though no one saved mother and daughter from their descent into isolation, Grey Gardens was bought and restored to its former glory by Sally Quinn and her Washington Post Editor husband Ben Bradlee.

Big And Little Edie

The story about Grey Gardens and the Beale women who lived there has been make into a musical with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. It starred Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson. There was also an HBO film that starred Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. There was also a play “Little Edie & The Marble Faun” in 2008 as part of the Metropolitan Playhouse Annual Author Festival….

Sometimes, insomnia brings you lessons. Be happy in the life you get to choose for yourself and…Look out for your neighbors. Their cries for help are not readily seen.


6 Responses to “Gilbert Speaks on Grey Gardens: A Documentary on Edith & Little Edie Bouvier Beale”

  1. vincesparks December 28, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

    Great review. I’ve never seen the documentary, but I did see the musical and the HBO movie. It is a very eccentric and sad story – from wealth to squalor.

    • gilbertspeaks December 28, 2016 at 8:33 pm #

      Vince, you should watch the documentary because it shows so much more and you can see for yourself what is happening to these women when they talk to the camera crew. It’s heartbreaking

  2. Dawn Byrne December 30, 2016 at 2:15 am #

    Intriguing story of the lives of this mother and her daughter. Thanks for sharing.

  3. charsmoviereviews January 31, 2017 at 1:10 am #

    Marvelous post. I love how you talked about the history which ultimately led to mother and daughter living in squalor. The Maysles definitely lets reality unfold before your very eyes in their documentaries, and this is no exception. I will say that I had “Tea for Two” stuck in my head for days after watching this amazing documentary!

    • gilbertspeaks January 31, 2017 at 1:30 am #

      I’m so happy that you enjoyed this post. That song was stuck in my head for a long time.

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