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Grey Gardens

Written by Sarah Hay, Photography by Mark O'Sullivan, Mix by Iueke

The Maysles brothers dynamic filmography will forever be crowned by Gimme Shelter, their warts'n'all documentary which places audiences centre-stage at the Altamont music festival with The Rolling Stones. However it's one of their more misunderstood and quirkier documentaries, "Grey Gardens", that's spawned numerous fashion collections, a second documentary ("The Beales Of Grey Gardens" cut from additional footage that never made the original), a recent Broadway musical and a feature length movie starring Drew Barrymore as 'Little' Edie and Jessica Lange as "Big" Edie.

This documentary divides audiences. This documentary inspires audiences. It's hilarious and heartbreaking, art and horror but it also stands as one of few documentaries ever made that delves into the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. Alternatively, 'Grey Gardens' fuels discussion upon the unique eccentricities that moneyed privilege brings, the world so adores a ga-ga aristocrat! But finally, if we the audience approach its subjects and their chosen lifestyles with complete acceptance, Grey Gardens is simply a tragi-comic blast. It's a quote-a-minute no holds barred look at the private lives of two women for whom time has become an extremely loose concept, society their jailor and their only weapons femininity, class and what-to-wear-today? Oscar Wilde wrote, "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art". If only he could have met the stars of this Maysles documentary as, without reservation, they exercised their right to both.

The archery of camp, so loved by Wilde, adores the ridiculous and let's be clear, the two women and their daily lives as shown in Grey Gardens are gloriously ridiculous. Two eccentrics, a mother and daughter both named Edie, trapped for thirty years in a decaying mansion over-run with cats and raccoons, eating ice-cream with knives, living and reliving memories and times that have long passed by, their grocery bills reportedly paid by selling off pieces of Tiffany jewelry hidden under mattresses ridden with fleas. Did we mention the singing and dancing? There's plenty. Or, that these women would bill items to Jackie Onassis who patiently and quietly paid up? Who were 'big' Edie and 'little' Edie Bouvier Beale and how have they worked their way into so many people's hearts?

By the 1920's the Bouvier family was long established as amongst the closest to what America could call aristocracy. This clan of Wall Street stockbrokers, property developers, socialites and debutantes (descended from a French cabinet maker) not only owned apartments on Park Avenue but had built and developed parts of it. Patriarch Major John Bouvier II was a large imposing character with a Southern temper. His son 'Black Jack' Bouvier matched this with dashing looks, trend-setting dandy style and caddish charm. Black Jack had a penchant for Scottish whisky and gambling, his pride was always his daughter Jacqueline who went on to marry John F. Kennedy. His sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale gave birth to three children, one a daughter also named Edith who was always the older, much admired and elegant first cousin to Jacqueline who was twelve years her junior.

The first chapter of 'America's Queen, The Life Of Jackie Kennedy Onassis' is entitled "Golden Gatsby years" which describes perfectly the care-free lives of this close-knit family before the great Wall Street crash in 1929. Each May everybody, including servants and chauffeurs, would decamp en masse to the Hamptons on Long Island where they owned summer mansions complete with membership to the Maidstone Club which since the 1800's was the members-only playground for America's elite. Social standing was everything at the Maidstone Club upheld by strict codes of etiquette but it was also the place where men's and women's fashions of the day were set on the golf courses, the tennis courts, the dining rooms and by the pool. Glamour was the by-word at the Maidstone Club and all who went there.

Mother Edith Bouvier Beale had fierce ambitions to become a singer and hired an accompanist with whom she'd entertain at gatherings wearing extremely bohemian ensembles. Her behaviour was constantly damned by her father, brother and in turn her husband. "I was gonna be a singer, you know. A professional singer," says Big Edie forty years later, "When I met Mr. Beale, the jig was up". Undeterred, Edie continued her reverie, involving her daughter 'little' Edie who didn't attend school for two years on account of an un-named illness and regularly went to the cinema with mother who also took her on a shopping trip to Paris. By now the pair were rarely seen apart. As she grew, 'little' Edie turned into a real beauty, regularly modeling at pageants or sitting for photographers much the wrath of Major Bouvier. Throughout the 30s and 40s she had strong hopes of becoming a dancer or an actress, hopes that were also denounced by the Bouvier men.

It was early as 1931 however, before Little Edie had even graduated, that the die was cast for the fate of these two women. Major Bouvier, Big Edie's husband walked out leaving her Grey Gardens (a fourteen roomed summer mansion in East Hampton with spectacular gardens) and to depend on the generosity of family members. Later, Major Bouvier, enraged when Big Edie arrived at their sons wedding, twenty-five minutes late and dressed in an outfit reportedly more befitting an opera singer (stealing the show again!) cut her out of his will. Big Edie, really only schooled in grace, charm and polite conversation as was befitting of a female of her standing during the times simply wasn't equipped to survive alone in the world. In 1952 she summoned her daughter back from New York (where Little Edie was pursuing her break as a dancer and actress) to live with her in Grey Gardens. From this day on, in that huge mansion by the sea, time began to stand still. Clocks would tick but the hands would only move around the dial in order to show that they were doing something.

Cut forward to 1972. After numerous complaints from East Hampton residents, Grey Gardens was raided by local council inspectors. Officials gagged at what they saw. No working heating or plumbing was found. A tree was growing through the roof. A stack of empty cat-food tins stood five feet tall and ran the length of the dining-room. There was animal faeces throughout and evidence of human faeces in one of the upstairs bedrooms. All upholstery was flea infested while numerous cats and raccoons roamed freely through the rooms and walls of the house. The Suffolk County Department of Health declared Grey Gardens unfit for human habitation and threatened to raze it to the ground.

The sensational story hit national headlines. America was flabbergasted while Jacqueline Kennedy, now married to Aristotle Onassis, had to endure the public shame of what had been a private family matter. Evading the eviction of Big Edie and Little Edie, Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill stepped in and footed the bill for the clean-up and restoration of Grey Gardens to meet basic regulations. An estimated 1,000 bags of refuse were carried out of the mansion before it could be scrubbed, disinfected and the water and heating restored. For the record, both Edie's refused to leave. Even at her death five years later Big Edie only agreed to leave for the hospital because she feared her passing away in Grey Gardens would cause scandal enough to lose Little Edie the house. Afterwards Little Edie only sold the house when she was approached by buyers who promised not to knock the place down but restore it to its former glory.

In 1975 the Maysles brothers David and Albert had already made their reputation in film-making. They were hipsters on the New York art scene with curious minds for the world around them. Still, their new documentary "Grey Gardens" was received as a real oddity, a complete turnabout in subject matter from their work on The Beatles, Stones or environmental installation artist Christo who were all young men riding the crest of their times. By contrast, in Grey Gardens, two aged women lived in oddball decadent poverty in a house where the 60s let alone the 70s had never happened. Their daily ritual of singing, dancing, bickering and dress-up punctuated only by feeding the cats and raccoons disturbed and entertained audiences in select cinemas across the States. Maysles fans, like all audiences, were happy to watch the bright skin and expectancy of youth but the sagging skin, especially of old women stung viewer's eyes. Here was a mother and daughter double-act who, in refusing to leave their home, had been engulfed by it. Paranoid of being burgled, raided or evicted they had simply shut and locked all the doors. Indignant at being judged by society they simply ceased to go out. But the music never stopped.

In the both the Grey Gardens documentary and The Beales Of Grey Gardens (cut from leftover footage in 2001) 59 year old Little Edie peers at many vinyl records through her magnifying glass before placing them on an old record player. Orchestrated songs from the 30s and 40s ring through the empty mansion that is decaying far beyond their control. Care-free, Little Edie dances or puts on a fashion parade always with a wry smile to the camera that asks, are you in on the joke? On one level the joke is truly on us because Little Edie fiercely understood, as designers like John Galliano appreciate now that it takes TIME to be a glamourous woman, it's arguably a full-time occupation impossible to be met half-way so Edie simply did as she was raised. "I have to think all of these things up," she sighs adjusting the waistband of her outfit. Edie was bred to joosh up the Bouvier family portfolio so is it really her fault that she over-excelled but that the money fell through and the world didn't follow through on the deal?

The never-ending cabaret of colourful and unique outfits worn by both the women is delightful as is the vision of Little Edie introducing her new fad, Perrier (it's 1974). Her never-ending stream of quotable one-liners have their own cult following. Every sentence that Little Edie says is so heavily layered with the past, counter-suggestion, sarcasm and wit that to the casual viewer she does appear highly delusional and hilarious. It's a Catch 22: she's not mad darlings, she's just been trapped in a mansion for 30years. In conversation, Big Edie brags about how much she had in life while Little Edie grieves missing out on "everything". Big Edie is a mother ruling her house because she pays all the bills while Little Edie lives as a perpetual debutante despite her 59 years; it's gut-wrenching stuff wrapped in a comedy of farce, fancy and manners, Little Edie's tragedy extracted beautifully in one of the Grey Gardens Broadway musical numbers:

The summers over
But I'm still a girl
Covorting in my carnival crown
From blossom to blossom
I buzz like a bee
Then glance in the mirror
And who do I see
A middle-aged woman inhabiting me
Because it's winter
In a summer town

All of this psychic and cyclical melodrama is encased in a once beautiful house still painted in pastel pinks, blues, yellows and greens, all echoed by the colours of the nearby sandy beach and Hampton skies. Likewise both Edie's varnish their predicament with bright, elegant quips and choose to see the parts of their life that sparkle as opposed to capitulating to the rot. "That is a beautiful ocean today, isn't it?" drawls Big Edie as she peers through binoculars past her inconceivably overgrown, jungle-like gardens and on to the distant sea, "What color would you say that was? A sort of sapphire?"

This article appeared in the launch issue of Under The Influence magazine, Paris.

further reading:
My Life At Grey Gardens And Beyond, Lois Wright
America's Queen, The Life Of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Sarah Bradford
www.greygardensthemusical.com
Grey Gardens, A New Musical Soundtrack
www.greygardensonline.com