Grey Gardens | The Beautiful Decay

When I saw these images in the New York Times my mind immediately drew parallels to Dickens’s Great Expectations– from the once-grand mansion in decay to the fascinating & eccentric characters Miss Havisham and Estella– it’s all so eerie in a beautiful, maddening sort of way–

A 1975 documentary captured the eccentric lives of Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie, and her daughter, Little Edie, in Grey Gardens, the filthy, dilapidated mansion they occupied in East Hampton. 

After Big Edie died in 1979, Little Edie sold the house to Sally Quinn and Benjamin C. Bradlee, who undertook a massive renovation. These photographs, which have never been seen by the public before, were taken by a photographer hired by Ms. Quinn at the time she and her husband purchased the house, in order to capture the extent of the decay.

Thirty-four years after a documentary film introduced the world to Grey Gardens and its eccentric occupants, a new movie on HBO is again casting light on the legend of this East Hampton property. In 1979, when this photo was taken, Sally Quinn, the writer and Washington hostess, and her husband Benjamin Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, purchased the property, which had fallen into complete disarray, and set out to restore it to its earlier splendor.

Thirty-four years after a documentary film introduced the world to Grey Gardens and its eccentric occupants, a new movie on HBO is again casting light on the legend of this East Hampton property. In 1979, when this photo was taken, Sally Quinn, the writer and Washington hostess, and her husband Benjamin Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, purchased the property, which had fallen into complete disarray, and set out to restore it to its earlier splendor.

 

Ms. Quinn says that when she pressed a key on this piano in the living room, the whole thing collapsed and fell through the floor.

Ms. Quinn says that when she pressed a key on this piano in the living room, the whole thing collapsed and fell through the floor.

 

rior to restoring the house and hiring Victoria Fensterer to reinvent the gardens, Ms. Quinn arranged for photographs to be taken. This never-before-seen shot shows a sunroom with doors leading outside, where years of neglect had hidden the low grey cement walls that gave Grey Gardens its name.

Prior to restoring the house and hiring Victoria Fensterer to reinvent the gardens, Ms. Quinn arranged for photographs to be taken. This never-before-seen shot shows a sunroom with doors leading outside, where years of neglect had hidden the low grey cement walls that gave Grey Gardens its name.

 

Among the debris Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee found in their house were the corpses of cats and skulls of raccoons. Here, scattered seashells and piles of books occupy one of the ten bedrooms.

Among the debris Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee found in their house were the corpses of cats and skulls of raccoons. Here, scattered seashells and piles of books occupy one of the ten bedrooms.

 

Ms. Quinn said she fell in love with the house as soon as she entered it. "There's something magical about this house. You couldn't walk into it without putting a handkerchief over your nose, but I thought it was just beautiful," she said. "It just absolutely gripped me. I looked at it and I saw what the house could be like, saw what the garden could be." At left, the main staircase as seen from the second floor.

Ms. Quinn said she fell in love with the house as soon as she entered it. "There's something magical about this house. You couldn't walk into it without putting a handkerchief over your nose, but I thought it was just beautiful," she said. "It just absolutely gripped me. I looked at it and I saw what the house could be like, saw what the garden could be." At left, the main staircase as seen from the second floor.

 

Nora Ephron, a friend of the Bradlees, has a house across the street. "It's quite a fabulous restoration because they didn't tear the house down, they rebuilt it," she said. "All the original bones are there. All the grace of the original house is exactly as it was." At left, a small bedroom with a porch that has views of the ocean. Ms. Quinn had all of the furniture seen here restored, and it is still in use.

Nora Ephron, a friend of the Bradlees, has a house across the street. "It's quite a fabulous restoration because they didn't tear the house down, they rebuilt it," she said. "All the original bones are there. All the grace of the original house is exactly as it was." Above, a small bedroom with a porch that has views of the ocean. Ms. Quinn had all of the furniture seen here restored, and it is still in use.

 

A detail from the master bedroom used by Big Edie. Today, the home is a summer residence for Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee and has become a destination that guests routinely describe as "magical." Lauren Bacall, a friend of the Bradlees, says she has many fond memories. "It is a happy house," Ms. Bacall said. "There is life there."

A detail from the master bedroom used by Big Edie. Today, the home is a summer residence for Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee and has become a destination that guests routinely describe as "magical." Lauren Bacall, a friend of the Bradlees, says she has many fond memories. "It is a happy house," Ms. Bacall said. "There is life there."

 

Upon seeing the house's state of disrepair, Mr. Bradlee failed to share his wife's enthusiasm. "I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the house," he said. "There were 52 dead cats in it, and funeral arrangements had to be made for each one." At left, the master bedroom, which had been used by Big Edie.

Upon seeing the house's state of disrepair, Mr. Bradlee failed to share his wife's enthusiasm. "I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the house," he said. "There were 52 dead cats in it, and funeral arrangements had to be made for each one." Above, the master bedroom, which had been used by Big Edie.

 

Albert Maysles revisited the Beales himself in 2006 with “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” an assemblage of outtakes from the original documentary.  Little Edie (foreground) and Big Edie outside their East Hampton home.

Albert Maysles revisited the Beales himself in 2006 with “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” an assemblage of outtakes from the original documentary. Little Edie (foreground) and Big Edie outside their East Hampton home.

 

Quinn Bradlee, the couple's adult son, says he and his mother sometimes joke that they will end up like Big Edie and Little Edie. "My mom and I, we do argue a lot. But I think the way [the Beales] argued was due more to their craziness than love. The way my mom and I argue, it's because we care about each other so much and love each other so much." At left, the bedroom used by Little Edie after her mother died. A single light bulb hangs in a bird cage above the bed.

The bedroom used by Little Edie after her mother died. A single light bulb hangs in a bird cage above the bed.

 

Ms. Quinn recalled that after Little Edie put the house on the market for $220,000, she turned down several potential buyers, fearing they would tear it down and build something new. "I walked in and said 'this is the most beautiful house I've ever seen,' And she said, 'it's yours,'" Ms. Quinn said. "Then she did this little pirouette in the hall of the house, put her hands up in the air and said 'All it needs is a coat of paint!'" At left, the kitchen.

Ms. Quinn recalled that after Little Edie put the house on the market for $220,000, she turned down several potential buyers, fearing they would tear it down and build something new. "I walked in and said 'this is the most beautiful house I've ever seen,' And she said, 'it's yours,'" Ms. Quinn said. "Then she did this little pirouette in the hall of the house, put her hands up in the air and said 'All it needs is a coat of paint!'" Above, the kitchen.

Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale.

Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale.

 

An Interview with filmmaker Albert Maysles from WWD–

In a career that’s spanned nearly five decades, Albert Maysles (and his brother David, who died in 1987) has taken on everyone from Bible salesmen to The Beatles to Christo and Jean-Claude. But it’s the Maysles’ documentary “Grey Gardens” that’s endured above all else. It’s been the basis of a Broadway musical and inspired as many fashion designers as Halston and Schiaparelli combined. On Saturday, a bio-film on Jackie Onassis’ quirky cousins (and the infamous documentary they appeared in) comes to HBO. WWD spoke to the 82-year-old Maysles. 

WWD: So here we are with yet another chapter in the “Grey Gardens” saga. Are you surprised it’s gone on this long?
Albert Maysles: Yeah, I think anyone would be. The musical, the HBO film, there have been a couple of books already. My two daughters just finished a book on it. 

WWD: What did you think of the HBO film?
A.M.: I thought it was good. I’m not an expert on fiction. I make documentaries and a good deal of the film takes place before that. But the stuff that was contemporary with the filming was accurate.

WWD: There’s a hilarious moment in the HBO movie where you and your brother are putting on flea repellent. 
A.M.: We sprayed ourselves against the fleas, and we put on anklets to protect us from them. All of which worked well because we never got flea bites. But they were so bad that when I was filming Edie on the porch, she was wearing a very short skirt and I noticed that her legs were totally covered in bites.

WWD: Do you think things might have been different for the Beales if antidepressants and antianxiety drugs had really been on the market back then?
A.M.: I don’t think they needed that. I get alarmed every time I see in the press that they’re mad or crazy. There have been accusations of exploitation [on our part]. If you look up the obituary for Mrs. Beale, it says the two women were the ‘targets’ of our film. I think that was unfair to them and to us. We didn’t want to do any damage to them. We really liked them and dealt with them in a very respectful fashion. Some of the press don’t understand that it’s a good thing for people to open their hearts and minds to a camera person. And it’s also important to recognize that when somebody opens their heart to a camera, it’s a sign of good health. 

WWD: Have you seen reality shows? You think those people are all healthy?
A.M.: Well, that’s not real. So much of that is staged. What is it, “The Osbournes”? I sat and watched some of that and it was disgusting. The overuse of profanity is just revolting. It’s time that we put into the media people and events that illuminate our own experience through theirs. When you see “Grey Gardens” there’s something to be learned from that. In spite of managing to live on very little income, they’re survivors and there’s love there between the two of them, and a lot of talent. I’ve spoken to people who know good voices and they say Edith could very well have been a professional singer. And the fashion world has been so excited by Edie’s fashionable dresses. 

WWD: But 40-something cats in a house and a couple dozen raccoons? Painting your nails green is eccentric. This is…
A.M: It’s eccentric.

WWD: No more than that?
A.M.: They didn’t cut their grass either. That’s kind of crazy, in view of the fact that their neighbors were doing that.

WWD: Look, one of the things the new movie suggests is that you can’t exploit someone who wants to be exploited. And they wanted to make the movie. But that doesn’t make them not crazy.
A.M.: Mmmm. Hmmm. Well, my first profession was in psychology.

WWD: Yes. You were a psychology professor at Boston University.
A.M.: Right. And I worked at a mental hospital. So I know a little. I wouldn’t call them crazy. Walter Goodman wrote an article in The New York Times, a critique of the film. He was trying to protect them from the camera, so to speak, by saying, “Why are they showing all this flabby flesh?” Obviously he had a problem with age. Not their problem. His. And Edie wrote a wonderful letter to answer the piece but it wasn’t published. So I called the editor and asked them why not. And they said, “She’s schizophrenic.” That’s crazy. That’s crazy. She was very much in touch with the real world. So was her mother. Maybe more so than most people. She was on to the shenanigans of the Republican Party way before the rest of us.

11 thoughts on “Grey Gardens | The Beautiful Decay

  1. Really? No comments? I find the story of these two to be incredibly fascinating. I can’t take my eyes off them, especially Lil’ Edie.

    JP

  2. Thanks for posting these images, a great article and interesting interview. Albert Maysles comments regarding reality shows is spot on.

    I also find this story fascinating and was eager to see the HBO version followed by the Maysles documentary.

    For me these two women somehow represent a rosetta stone to what ails society, if we can figure them out we can figure a little bit of ourselves out too. The fact that they are marginalized by “mainstream” society and called “schizophrenic” is telling. They are poor, but they seem happy, eccentric is fun, fun is happy and happy leads to a long life. I think they would have been very interesting to meet, that is if you could get past the smell and the fleas.

  3. I have lived through the decline of a great family. It’s an odd event. Things begin piling up …. bills go unpaid …. little things begin to break around the house and there’s no one to call to fix them. There’s a loss of control and an inability to deal with the reality of your life so you control what you can and make more and more compromises until suddenly you make a choice to deal with your newly defined reality or ignore it and hold on to what you value.

    In the case of the Beales, what seemed to matter to them was eachother and their house. We as outsiders see sqaulor and decay but they were holding on to something beautiful. To say they are mad or schizophrenic is dismissive.

    I really appreciate that you included Albert Maysles’ firm statement that they were not crazy. They had a different set of survival skills than most people and coped in a way that does not make sense to the average person.

    I have long loved this documentary and been fascinated by these women. The movie was a fantastic glimpse into what brought them to their Satis House existence.

    I am so glad to read that the house has been restored and is once again full of life and happiness.

  4. The pics are a great help to the doc I still have yet to return to netflix after several viewings. I couldn’t finish it the first time but it drew me back – – why, I don’t know.

  5. i would love to see the house now its been renavated, has anyone a direction to lead me, that i may see it in its new awakening ?

  6. I so knew a similar family. The mother had been a debutante early in the century. I read her diarys. She refered to a big white house with columns. Sometimes I think she was making referenc as well to Opium…not sure….she refered to her “friend”.However she and her daughter lived in a ramshackle house. Everywhere though , hanging on the walls were beautiful,beautiful gowns. The mother had also modeled. Then something trajic happened and no one knew what it was. The Husband/ father was gone and these two lived alone. The mother, very gentle wouldn’t kill any thing, such as a huge spider during one visit. The daughter was always experimenting…one time with morse code. Someone told her she might get in trouble. At one point some old man wandered into the scene and the daughter kept track of him by tying a rope around him. I recall she was on the cover of Redbook once. It sounds so crazy but it was absolutely spellbinding. When they passed relatives decended and the house and stripped it bare and sold everything at an auction…how sad.

  7. BOOO Maylse’s for removing the video. I thought you better than this.
    The Edie’s would be appalled.

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